Manchester United are relaxed about Jose Mourinho’s potential to bring conflict and controversy to Old Trafford and consider him the closest equivalent they have had to Sir Alex Ferguson as a motivator, despite the club’s three defeats in a week.
Mourinho’s capacity to heap negative publicity on his clubs led Chelsea to encourage him to adopt a less combative profile when he returned to the club in 2013, though when the outfit struggled last season he was in perpetual conflict with opposition managers, the media and, to some extent, fans. Defeat at League One side Northampton Town in the EFL Cup tonight would heap more pressure on the manager ahead of Saturday’s visit of champions Leicester City.
United have no concerns about the Portuguese’s temperament and have been hugely impressed already with Mourinho’s capacity to motivate in the same way that Ferguson did. Though his incendiary nature was one of the principal reasons why Barcelona preferred Pep Guardiola as manager in 2008, an uncompromising stance characterised Ferguson’s approach to management, too. Mourinho is not seen as any different with his ability to circle the wagons.
His apparent desire to understand the culture of United has already seen him seek out Sir Bobby Charlton to talk in depth. Their time together is understood to have extended beyond the highly publicised – and seemingly choreographed - encounter on the car park at the United’s training ground in late May.
Mourinho has been appreciated by many of his players over the years for acting as a protective shield when there is criticism for players and this is what United see in him far more than they did his predecessor Louis van Gaal. It is understood that Zlatan Ibrahimovich is proving to be an individual in the same mould – a hugely influential dressing room figure already.
The test will come if United head into Saturday’s game with anything less than a win against Northampton, though. There are echoes of Van Gaal’s first season when United headed to Milton Keynes, 20 miles south of tonight’s venue, after a faltering start and in need of a win. They lost 4-0 to MK Dons in the League Cup tie which first suggested van Gaal might not have all the answers.
The club’s sanguine response to the early difficulties also stems from a sense of what Mourinho brings. Goalkeeper David de Gea turned away Real Madrid this summer for the chance to play under him. There was a prospect that the Spaniard would have left had the club come back in for him after their last minute efforts in the summer of 2015 failed but he made it clear this summer that he wasn’t interested in this suitor. It was embarrassing to have to tell van Gaal that BBC reports after this summer’s FA Cup final of his imminent sacking were true. But he was gracious and United have seen the benefits.
Where Mourinho has differed from Ferguson is in his willingness to criticise players publicly. Luke Shaw, who has impressed this season, was among those called out by the manager on Sunday and Ferguson is unlikely to think this a profitable way of managing. This is one aspect of his management which has not impressed some United supporters.
“After a game I would always try to avoid criticising the players,” Ferguson said after he had retired. “They had enough pressure, without me piling it on in public. I save my criticism for the private sessions away from prying eyes. I tried to employ heat shields to deflect criticism from a player who had misplaced a pass that gave away a goal, or another who had missed a sitter that could have won us a game.
“It was always easy to give the press something else to write about – a couple of decisions that had gone against you - a penalty that should have won us the game, a long injury list or a pile-up of fixtures. Most players are mortified when they let down their team. My first inclination was always to defend the player and sort it out afterwards. There is no benefit in engaging in public hangings. It just doesn’t buy you anything.”
The substantial size of Mourinho’s squad means that members of the under-21s are unlikely to feature at the Sixfields Stadium, though Tim Fosu-Mensah, who was promising last season, may be an exception having fallen out of the picture this season.
There is scope for Mourinho to rest David de Gea and three of the players who were unconvincing in the 3-1 defeat to Watford on Sunday: Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly. Michael Carrick could get a chance to demonstrate his capacity to offer balance and vision to midfield which has lacked the qualities.
Manchester United possible line-up vs Northampton (4-2-3-1): Romero; Fosu-Mensah, Smalling, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick; Martial, Mata, Young; Rashford.
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