Nearly two years ago, Manchester United were dealt a 4-0 thumping from Jose Mourinho’s former employers Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 formation picked apart Mourinho’s schematic that, according to critics, was beginning to look a little stiff in a league exhibiting increasingly sophisticated tactics.
Ahead of Saturday’s rematch between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, theScore looks at the reasons why five players who started that day have since left Old Trafford or slid to the outskirts of Mourinho’s plans.
Bailly’s arrival from Villarreal for around £30 million came as a shock to many. But, out of those signed by Mourinho in the summer of 2016, he was arguably the most consistent player in his debut campaign. He led center-back regulars in the Premier League for tackles won per 90 minutes (2.6) that season.
It’s easy to understand why Mourinho made the Ivorian his first purchase at Old Trafford. Bailly is composed in possession, but is also willing to play an uncompromising, Nemanja Vidic-esque game – an aspect his manager appreciated given the mandate is often to defend and prey on errors from the opposition.
However, Bailly has gradually lost his manager’s trust due to issues over his fitness and indiscipline in challenges: he has been sent off six times despite appearing in only 38 Premier League starts since joining United. His top-flight minutes this term represent 37 percent of the game time Chris Smalling has amassed so far.
Blind simply isn’t a Mourinho player. He stands at under 6 foot, is slow, and found himself outmuscled by some of English football’s bulkier frontmen.
He can be a thoughtful defender, capable of using his intelligence to evade attackers and keep the ball moving for his team – he has fulfilled this duty from center-back since returning to Ajax in the summer transfer window – but Mourinho is more fond of heavy machinery than subtle, artistic inspiration in his starting XIs.
“We tried to play but in some crucial positions in the building up phase, we don’t have the technical quality to build from the back,” Mourinho complained after the dull 0-0 home draw with Valencia earlier in October. If Mourinho does view that as a genuine concern, it’s a wonder why the 28-year-old was allowed to leave when, apparently, there wasn’t a suitable candidate to fill Blind’s boots.
Herrera was Manchester United’s man of the match in the game that preceded the embarrassment at Chelsea – a 0-0 draw at Liverpool – as he smothered Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in an all-action midfield role. His aggressive and tireless work over the whole term was rewarded with recognition as the club’s Player of the Year.
Mourinho has appeared dumbfounded as to when and where Herrera should play since signing Nemanja Matic following that season. The downturn in Herrera’s fortunes in Stretford was perhaps epitomized by the Spaniard’s deployment on the right of a back-three against Tottenham Hotspur in August. Herrera had never played as a central defender in his previous 384 matches in professional football.
Perhaps Herrera was slotted there as a not-so-sly way for Mourinho to express displeasure after the board failed to conduct any center-half business over the transfer window, but the 29-year-old should be more than a political pawn. He could still be a solution to the Paul Pogba conundrum – a midfield three of Herrera, Matic, and Pogba could see the latter liberated – but Mourinho has been reluctant to test this formula and thumbed Herrera further down the pecking order when Fred was bought in the summer.
Just as he had forecasted (and frequently reminded us on several occasions since), Ibrahimovic had quite an impact in England. The veteran Swede scored 17 times in 28 Premier League outings before his 2016-17 season was cut short by a serious knee injury. He was subsequently released by United.
Ibrahimovic eventually rejoined United and made a triumphant return to the pitch in November 2017. “Lions don’t recover like humans,” was how he assessed his rapid rehabilitation, with an apparent disregard for the lack of feline pharmacies and physiotherapy in grasslands and savannahs.
His showings on his United return, however, were sporadic and rather ineffectual, doing little to challenge the spot of expensive new arrival Romelu Lukaku. He signed for the LA Galaxy in March, and, now aged 37, has almost singlehandedly kept their hopes of reaching the MLS postseason alive with 21 goals in 25 appearances.
Last season’s haul of seven goals and five assists marked Rashford’s most productive Premier League spell for Manchester United. The 20-year-old’s numbers are modest and serve as evidence that he has barely improved since his explosive introduction under Louis van Gaal.
The problem is that Mourinho feels he cannot rely on Rashford. He singled out his and Anthony Martial’s performances against Brighton & Hove Albion last May as examples of why the pair aren’t regular starters; he then accused Rashford of struggling under pressure following the 3-2 comeback win over Newcastle United before the international break.
“They were not ready for this level of pressure that the man-hunting is bringing,” Mourinho said of Rashford and Scott McTominay. “I cope with it. I am mature, I can live with it, some of the boys are not coping well with it. The way they started the game was panicking.”
Rashford starred in England’s 3-2 defeat of Spain on Monday, provoking critics to suggest his talent is wasted at club level. The uproar prompted United to publish an in-house opinion piece which asked the public and media to “let him get on with his football.”