Manchester United staff had informed us by the Drake Stadium pitch that Jose Mourinho was in a ‘very good mood’. He certainly exuded a breeziness as he shook hands with the English reporters in the UCLA’s JD Morgan Center before his first press conference in two months, having told us at The Grove Hotel in May ‘I’m gonna miss you’.
Mourinho was missing his family more. And an occasion. “I would like to share with you one moment of happiness for me,” he began his Tuesday press conference. “I’m quite a bit sad because I’m not there but my daughter just had her graduation ceremony in the University of Arts in London.
“Very sad not to be there but really happy and proud to share with you, if you don’t mind.” Then the topic of discussion changed as drastically as Mourinho’s rhetoric.
Pre-season? “Very bad.” The Leicester kick-off date? “I’m worried.” Squad absences? “Very bad.”Alexis Sanchez’s visa? “Really bad, really sad.” Is everything awesome? “Everything is really bad.” Eeyore would have been more positive.
It was a press conference that ‘people at the higher ends of intelligence’, as Donald Trump zanily put it, would have appreciated. As pessimistic as Mourinho sounded, there were some coded messages. He was asked about Paul Pogba’s World Cup yet was more effusive about his national coach.
“I think he was good, he was pragmatic,” he said of Didier Deschamps. “I think he worked really well for four years, the two years before the Euro and the two years before the World Cup, which prove that continuity and belief and pragmatism can make things happen.”
Deschamps has been in the France post for six years and Mourinho is unlikely to get that long if United’s championship drought extends that far under his watch. Mourinho’s remark still struck as a diplomatic demand for backing at a time where he has ‘no idea’ if United will make any more signings. Mourinho has become a borderline oracle in the market; two targets who eluded United last year scored in the World Cup final.
Even if United had Ivan Perisic and Antoine Griezmann it would not have prevented Mourinho from working with what is probably the weakest attack since he assumed the manager’s role two years ago. “No Lukaku, no Lingard, no Marcus Rashford,” he reiterated. “So if Alexis is not working with us for 15 or 20 days it will be very bad.”
It would be negligent of United not to add a forward given the glaring problem position on the right flank. Juan Mata, seemingly a stop-gap when he was moved there by Louis van Gaal in 2015, is penciled in to start on the right against Leicester on August 10.
“It would be important at least to work with Mata, Alexis, Martial, which we think are the players we have in attack for the start of the season,” Mourinho explained. It is a mercurial frontline with two players in the last year of their contracts, one of whom wants to leave, according to his voluble agent. That United are considering late 20-somethings Willian and Gareth Bale should encourage Tahiti Chong, a possible solution from within.
That Mourinho is planning to start the season with Martial did not register as a surprise, but the effective confirmation that he would be at the club beyond the Premier League transfer deadline of August 9 was welcomed by supporters. United had privately given Tottenham short shrift when they enquired about Martial last month and now it is public.
Mourinho showed by revoking the number nine from Martial in 2016 he considered him to be a winger and Martial has only started four times as the lone striker under the Portuguese The irony is Martial scored in two of those matches nine months apart at Burnley and Everton, and the buzz among supporters was United seemed slicker with him at the tip of the arrow rather than Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Romelu Lukaku.
Martial did bungle his center-forward auditions over prolonged periods, though, and in both cases, it was in the run-up to a May cup final. Mourinho is staunchly loyal to Lukaku and however well Martial does over the next 22 days he is unlikely to supplant United’s number nine incumbent.
But this is an opening he daren’t miss.
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