From the Sir Matt Busby era, to the successful era under Sir Alex Ferguson, attacking, stylish wingers have traditionally been a hallmark of the great Manchester United teams. The dancing feet of George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs have graced the chalk of the Old Trafford sidelines in the great Utd teams and all were crucial to the success of those great men. However, such wingers have merely been a footnote in the many successful sides that Jose Mourinho has established, each one characterized by strong defensive units and physical combative players throughout their central axis. The flanks have largely been seen as more redundant areas where creativity is stifled, and pragmatism and effort are prioritized. Throughout the years, Mourinho has inherited and signed several wingers who upon arrival have seen gradual decreases in production as a result of conforming to a workmanlike and pragmatic system.
Chelsea – Damien Duff: The Victim
The first evidence of this was during Mourinho’s initial spell at Chelsea, where he inherited Damien Duff, one of the stand out players of the 2002 World Cup and one of the first major signings of the Abramovich era. Despite a promising first season, Duff became increasingly marginalized as his flair-based game became tapered to accommodate Mourinho’s defensive instincts. Arjen Robben also enjoyed a triumphant first season under Mourinho, but ultimately, he left Stamford Bridge in search of a more attacking based system to unlock his true potential at Bayern Munich. Subsequently, Robben went on to become a 6-time German Champion and European Cup winner.
Inter Milan – Goran Pandev: The Perfect one
Upon arrival at Inter Milan, Mourinho signed two attacking and skillful wingers in Mancini from AS Roma and Ricardo Quaresma from FC Porto, in a bid to claim their first major European success since 1965. Stepovers, flicks and rabona crosses were facets of both players’ games; facets which would put them at odds with their managers defensive and disciplined system. It was this experiment with flair wingers that led Mourinho to discover the archetypical winger that would best fit his system; the workman like and disciplined wide player in the mould of Goran Pandev. It was both the defensive inclinations and disciplined nature of both Pandev and Samuel Eto’o that propelled Mourinho’s Inter to major Continental glory for the first time in 50 years.
Real Madrid – Cristiano Ronaldo: The Exception
Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid resulted in a slight deviation in his developing policy on wingers as he encountered his compatriot; Cristiano Ronaldo. Mourinho was forced to alter his pragmatic approach in a bid to accommodate a generational talent like Cristiano. Such attacking privileges were not afforded to other wingers at the club namely Angel Di Maria and Pedro Leon. Di Maria, it must be said, failed to truly light up the Santiago Bernabeu until Mourinho’s successor Ancelotti reduced his defensive burden and unlocked the type of performances that saw him become Man of the Match in the 2014 Champions League Final. However, Pedro Leon, a promising young Spaniard, never recovered his form from his disastrous spell under Mourinho.
Chelsea – Mo Salah: The Example
Mourinho’s second tenure at Stamford Bridge saw a continuation of the approach that he employed at Real Madrid as he sought to accommodate a generational talent such as Eden Hazard but tapered the attacking instincts of the other players at the club. Mohamed Salah, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, was denied an opportunity within the side perhaps due to his lack of effort from a defensive aspect. Juan Cuadrado, a 30-million-pound signing from Fiorentina was a further casualty of Mourinho’s system. Just like the wingers that came before him; a transfer to a more accommodating system was required to kickstart his career where he has become a two-time Italian Champion at Juventus.
Manchester United – Anthony Martial: The Next Casualty?
Manchester United look set to suffer as Jose Mourinho’s expanding graveyard of wingers continues to grow. Anthony Martial is the latest mercurial winger to experience a downturn in production. Martial, a firm fan favourite after his impressive first season when he was the clubs top goal scorer. Moreover, he has seen his minutes severely limited under Mourinho and the attacking displays which once thrilled the league have become limited in turn. Similarly, Alexis Sanchez has also encountered a severe downturn in form, perhaps as a result of his position in a system that demands defensive nous and workmanlike performances. Sanchez shone at Arsenal as his flair and attacking instincts saw him become one of the most dangerous wingers in world football.
It remains to be seen how the Manchester United fans react to Mourinho’s gradual depreciation of their wingers; an erosion of the position that is central to the United legacy. Will Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez follow the path of those that have come before them as the Mourinho speed bump grinds their development to a slow halt? Let’s hope not. However, Jose Mourinho’s history suggests that this may be the case. Having said that, Manchester United’s history suggests otherwise.