The back ‘page’ of the digital Independent newspaper on Monday morning carried a story regarding Manchester United’s ongoing attempts to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus for a stratospheric fee, ultimately likely to be over £100m.
It is a signing which appears to be slowly edging towards completion and has certainly created a social media buzz about the likely size of the fee. Whether you feel that the French midfielder is worth the money or not, it is impossible to ignore the fact that it will probably be the most monumental transfer deal of all time.
The article in the Independent was written by two of the more well regarded members of the Manc press pack, Ian Herbert and Mark Ogden, who are usually well sourced but, like any journalists in the digital media age, sometimes find their work diluted somewhat by demand for content. This, however, was a huge story and there has been plenty of information drip in recent days and weeks to present a fairly extensive portrait of the Pogba transfer. This was a piece that didn’t need padding or the introduction of other talking points.
One wonders why, then, in only the second paragraph, the authors appeared to stray from the job at hand and introduce a clear agenda which perhaps betrayed the desperation of some sections of the media for Jose Mourinho to fail as Manchester United manager, but more importantly for previously filed pieces about the Portuguese’s failure to promote youth in his previous jobs to be demonstrated to be correct. What better opportunity than to exploit a huge money transfer deal to reinforce this message. That second paragraph reads:
“United manager Jose Mourinho has made it very clear that he does not have the same faith in young players as his predecessor Louis Van Gaal, with James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Guillermo Verela (sp) all omitted from the club’s pre-season tour squad that embarked for China yesterday and now likely to be offloaded. Mourinho is pushing United to press home the world record Pogba deal.”
The message is clear: Jose makes hugely expensive signings at the expense of promoting young talent.
In truth, even when taking into account the United manager’s pre-prepared list of young players to whom he claims to have given their debuts, it is a patchy record in that regard. In his defence, there are no players on that ‘debuts’ list who have gone on to be great talents elsewhere and if a player isn’t good enough they simply aren’t good enough. On the flip side, it could be argued that we will never know how they may have developed if given more game time at their parent club.
Many predicted that, as a condition of getting the top job at Old Trafford, Mourinho would make a commitment to try to uphold United’s traditions, including the use of the academy, and would therefore be mindful of the need to develop young players. It is early days, but nothing we have seen in the first two weeks of pre-season disqualifies that theory. The Portuguese has already talked up several graduates of the academy and his first friendly match-day squad saw a number of them get game time.
The tour squad to China, referenced by Herbert and Ogden above as evidence that Mourinho was abandoning youth, in fact provides good evidence for the opposite, making the authors of the Independent piece look a little silly and exposing a clear agenda to shape the story to fit their preconceived narrative. Of the 25 travelling, nine have graduated from United’s academy. Three others who have gone to China are under 24 years of age. One wonders why, therefore, the names of two youth players and a 23 year old who did not travel are suddenly definitive proof of a betrayal of young players?
The comparison with LVG is an interesting one. In his summer tour party last year the Dutchman also took 9 academy graduates. In addition, he had over the course of the last year already decided that Wilson, Blackett and Varela were not of the required standard to start for Manchester United. Blackett was loaned to Celtic, where many of the fans regard him as one of the club’s worst ever defenders, Wilson was sent to Brighton, where he scored only five goals in 27 games for the south coast club, and Varela was banished from the squad after one poor defensive performance too many. The Uruguayan has looked promising in an attacking sense but has never given the impression that he is defensively sound.
The fact that three fringe players, all of whom were unwanted by Louis Van Gaal, have been left out of the tour party is presented as evidence of Mourinho betraying youth is absolutely preposterous and reveals a pre-conceived narrative that the authors are stretching to prove correct. If we follow their line of thought, then any young player released by Mourinho, no matter what their level of talent, will be proof of their hypothesis. What is particularly damning is that Van Gaal’s primary defence against the criticism that his blooding of young players was by circumstance rather than design was that he purposefully carried a small squad with the intention of using youth at times of prolific injuries. Mourinho stated in his first press conference at United his preference for a small squad and reports suggest that he is keen to trim a large number of senior players from what is currently a bloated group. It would appear, therefore, that one man wanting a small squad means something completely different to the same desire in the other.
The reality is that we still have no idea whether Mourinho will champion youth in the medium to long term at Manchester United. What we do know, however, is that in these very embryonic stages of the Portuguese’s time at the club he is making the right noises and giving many of his young players an opportunity to impress him. This may not last and when results become paramount he may fall back on experience (as Van Gaal did when his senior players were fit). But currently this is a total unknown and nothing he has done so far even hints at such a future. It is staggering, therefore, to suggest that the decision to try to offload three of the fourteen under-24 players available to Mourinho at this time has made it “very clear that he does not have the same faith in young players as his predecessor Louis Van Gaal”, particularly when the Dutchman took the same number of academy graduates on tour last summer as his successor.
Not only does the claim itself make the authors look foolish, but levering it into the second paragraph of an article about a huge signing suggests that this was about fitting in words to further an agenda, something which surprises me given the good reputations of both of the journalists in question. Mourinho may ultimately betray youth or, alternatively, may prove many people wrong, but nothing he has done to this point gives us any indication either way. The claim made my Ogden and Herbert was ill thought out and spilt over the edge of the thin line between reporting the news and trying to make the news. They should have known better.