Jose Mourinho damned Louis van Gaal with faint praise in the aftermath of the torrid goalless draw against Manchester City which keeps his team’s hopes of a top four finish intact, ahead of Swansea City’s arrival at Old Trafford this weekend.
“I think Louis van Gaal left here a good group of boys with very good relations between them, and that I got in my hands,” he said. “I think they missed happiness, they missed trust, they missed belief, they missed this extra bit that brings resilience [that] brings you fight.” That’s a lot of missing commodities. Mourinho, needless to say, feels he has introduced them all.
The commitment to keeping City out, in a game for which Manchester United showed no second half attacking ambition whatsoever, bore out what Mourinho says about spirit. More of the same will be needed, given United’s depleted midfield and defence for a five-game run which they enter two points off Liverpool with a game in hand but facing Arsenal, Tottenham and Southampton while also still circumnavigating the Europa League.
Marouane Fellaini, for whom the FA are considering a four-game domestic ban for failing to leave the field when given a straight red card, has contributed to a midfield personnel crisis, as well as the defensive problems Mourinho has rehearsed so often.
Paul Pogba will also be missing again on Saturday, along with Juan Mata and Mourinho did not reject the notion that Wayne Rooney in midfield might be a consideration. “Yes, he's an option. We don't have [any other players there]. We have [Ander] Herrera and [Michael] Carrick and nothing else.”
The manager rejected the idea that allowing Morgan Schneiderlin to leave for Everton had been a mistake, though on hindsight it does seem one. “To have lots of players without play is something that the players don't want. We didn't tell Morgan: ‘We want to sell you’, Morgan asked and said 'please sell me, I want to go and play every game', so sometimes there is always this dilemma of keep a bigger squad, but then the players don't want to stay.”
With Mourinho holding out little prospect of 19-year-old Axel Tuanzebe plugging the central defensive gap against Swansea, he joked that it may be a case of the manager himself playing. "In this moment Eric [Bailly] is the only option we have. I have to speak with [him and Daley Blind] see how they are, see how they feel. I'm also training hard in the gym so I can also be an option. Mourinho and Tuanzebe against Swansea.”
United’s Blitz spirit is their strength. There has been pitifully little panache about the the way they have equalled their own record of 24 matches unbeaten in a single Premier League season but you’d have to bet against their performance levels dipping. That can’t be said of Arsenal and Liverpool – the two utterly unpredictable sides Mourinho says are also in the mix for the fourth Champions League spot.
What lies beyond this attritional fight to the death is the $60,000 question. Resilience will take a team only so far. United, much like City, have lacked players who can devastate opponents and will need them if next season is not to be much like this one.
“Next July 9, when we meet again for next season, is a strong group, so the new players, when they will arrive, will find a group more ready to go for big things,” Mourinho said. Easier said than done.