Manchester United‘s excellent start to pre-season under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with four wins from four against opposition featuring Perth Glory, Leeds United, Inter Milan and Tottenham has been a much-needed injection of positivity ahead of the upcoming Premier League campaign.
United’s last pre-season tour, in the US under José Mourinho, foreshadowed what was to come later that season. The words and attitude from the Portuguese manager were defeatist and so were the results, with a 0-0 draw against San Jose Earthquakes and 4-1 defeat to Liverpool leading Mourinho to slam the players at his disposal whilst defending Alexis Sánchez, saying: “We don’t have wingers, we don’t have strikers. He [Sánchez] is the only one who is here and the poor man is trying his best with the frustration of somebody who wants more. This is not our team, this is not our squad.”
It has been regularly suggested that Mourinho’s demeanour during his tenure at Old Trafford was detrimental to the club, with fallings out with Ed Woodward over transfer dealings, United’s TV channel MUTV, and midfielder Paul Pogba being the confrontation that ultimately ended with the 56-year-old being handed his P45.
Whilst speaking with a former United youth player, who was at the club during Mourinho’s third and final season and wishes to remain anonymous, the former Porto, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter man’s attitude towards youth and the club in general highlight why Mourinho and United wasn’t a match made to last.
“Despite having been included in close to 15 training sessions under Mourinho, he never said a word to me. The sessions I was involved in were all Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick, Mourinho rarely spoke. Those that he did talk too were called ‘kid’, rather than by their name like the first-team players, which a lot of the youth players found a bit degrading,” he revealed.
“Mourinho wanted to move all the youth players from the first-team building back to the under-9-16 area, but the people above him stopped it. We [youth] weren’t allowed in the swimming pool or ice bath area if any of the squad from the first-team were there. It didn’t feel like a team and the first-team players would eat lunch either on their own or in two’s and three’s rather than as a collective.”
“During international breaks, when the players who weren’t selected for their country were still training in Manchester, Mourinho would go on holiday and the players would have to train with us [youth team]. He would always be on holiday. There was a good 8-10 players, such as Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Anthony Martial. They were all really professional about it, especially Herrera, who was the most professional player at the club.”
On 18th December, Mourinho’s time was up at United, just two-years after replacing Louis van Gaal. United’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool, sealed by a Xherdan Shaqiri double that left the club closer to relegation than the top of the table. Reports had suggested that Pogba was the driving force in the manager’s dismissal, but an insight into the dressing room suggests otherwise.“A lot of the senior players didn’t like Mourinho. Some of them were bouncing around and laughing after he was sacked. The whole mood around the place changed pretty instantly but nobody expected him to be sacked, and everyone was surprised.”
“The players you’d expect to be happier, like Anthony Martial, were happier. Pogba didn’t seem to be, though. I don’t think him and Mourinho ever properly fell out. Pogba was just becoming more frustrated with the way the team were playing and the results. The narrative that Pogba is bad for the club is untrue, everyone at the club loves him. He will have a conversation with everyone, no matter who you are. Everyone has spoken to him, from the youth team to the cleaners. In training, he would always say ‘if you don’t know what to do, pass it to me even if I’m marked’.”
“Nobody at the club would have a bad word to say about him. From the chefs to the coaches, the teachers at college and all the other staff. He’s the perfect person at the club. Everyone was always impressed with the effort he made on the United Foundation days. He would always go the extra mile rather than just turning up, and made an effort to make their day.”
After being appointed United manager, Solskjær opted to keep Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick within his coaching staff, both who had been brought in by Mourinho. McKenna, only 33, led United’s U-18 side to the Premier League title and replaced Rui Faria as United’s assistant manager in 2018 but his influence has become more recognisable under Solskjær’s regime.
“You’d be surprised how much Kieran influences it,” the youngster said. “He does very specific patterns of play, but the first-team currently lack players to do it. His system relies on two dynamic full-backs, a ball-playing centre-back, a pivot that can protect the back-four whilst playing forward passes to start attacks, wingers who press and run in-behind and an all-around forward who presses. Lukaku doesn’t fit that, and that’s why he’s leaving.”
“Kieran has massive attention to detail and an obsession with his job and football in general. Last year, around February, when we [U18’s] were playing Manchester City, Kieran was doing a performance analysis session on how to press City and he used Shakhtar Donetsk as an example. During his analysis, he pointed out the ‘little midfielder’, meaning Fred, and said any top team should be targetting him.”
United later signed Fred, beating Pep Guardiola’s side to the Brazilian’s signature, and the 26-year-old has shown glimpses of his ability despite finding it hard to settle in Manchester, as most South American’s do. McKenna’s introduction into the first team later that year suggests the signing of Fred was partly down to his recommendation and given the Northern Irishman’s increased influence under Solskjær, the reasoning behind bringing Fred to the club should become clear this season.
Another theme to Solskjær’s United has been the introduction of youth, with Angel Gomes, James Garner and Mason Greenwood all scoring in pre-season, with an academy graduate being involved in all nine of the goals the Red Devils scored in pre-season.
Greenwood, arguably the most talented of the group, has excited fans both in the youth team and on the first-team stage but remains grounded. “Mason is so down to earth and his talent is so raw, I haven’t seen anything like it. He made his debut against Cardiff and then went into college and spoke to everyone like it didn’t even happen. He’s the exact same on his left-foot and his right and has been since I’ve known him.”
“Everyone in the club knows he’s the best talent to come through in decades and that’s why they’re doing everything they can to protect him. They don’t want a situation like Jadon Sancho at Manchester City or Callum Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea last season. Countless clubs have chased him since he was young but everything is set-up for him to succeed at United. His talent is there for everyone to see.”
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