Has Jose Mourinho caught Arsense Wenger's lost boy syndrome?
JM Barrie, the Victorian-era Scottish writer who gave us Peter Pan, was a cricket fan. Even so, his Neverland dynamic is not unlike a football club. Captain Hook is the tough, grizzled manager too likely to argue about added time. Naturally, Tick-tock the Crocodile is the match official, which tells you Hook fared as well as any manager does against the men in black. Peter is the superstar who doesn’t want to accept his defensive responsibilities. Wendy is the obligatory WAG. Tinkerbell represents the female player. Her powers remind us that the women’s game was as popular as the men’s in Barrie’s day. Her diminutive size represents the chauvinistic, insecure FA’s opinion of that fact, which led the organisation to ban ladies’ teams from its club grounds from 1921-71.
Then there are the Lost Boys. Football leagues tend to be cyclical. Clubs rise, others fall. Each goes through glorious and forgettable eras. When top teams wander into dysfunctionality, a unique phenomenon tends to occur. Young, promising players get lost in the shuffle.
Here are six cases, three from each club. You decide if there’s any parallel between the two managers and clubs.
Most Arsenal fans will tell you Jack Wilshere should have been Peter Pan even if he never feuded with his Captain Hook, Arsene Wenger. The pair had a positive relationship as mentor and prodigy.
Unfortunately, fate intervened. Although Jack was with the Gunners from boyhood, 17 years in all, he never quite learned to fly. Injuries curtailed that flight. Late in his career, he’s taken to venturing to new clubs. It didn’t work for him at Bournemouth. Injury again. Now Wilshere is hoping to find a new Neverland but the same sort of Hook with Mauricio Pellegrino at West Ham.
Jose Mourinho has been a bona fide Hook for Martial. The Frenchman arrived in Old Trafford’s anchorage when Louis van Gaal was the pirate captain. Martial flew in that first season. He scored 18 goals and assisted on 11 others in 2015/16.
The battle began when Mourinho assumed command. Martial struggled for consistency and playing time in his second United season. His numbers dipped to eight each, goals and assists.
In 2017/18, the 21-year-old appeared on the path to redemption. On 20 January, he scored the only goal in a victory over Burnley. It was the third consecutive match in which he had struck, bringing his total for the campaign to 11 goals and eight assists. Save for one more helper, that would be his season total.
On the 26th, Mourinho rested him for an FA Cup match. Five days later, he was moved from his favoured left wing role to make room for new signing Alexis Sanchez. From there, Mourinho used him irregularly, allowing his form to wither without consistent use.
This summer, minutes have been given despite, a year older and wiser, Martial's request to leave. Jose’s preferred starters are on holiday after the World Cup, delaying any possible move to a European club. The feud sparked again, however, when Martial flew off to be with his Wendy for the birth of their child. Captain Hook was not amused.
A flashy teenager, Walcott came to Arsenal from Southampton loaded with promise. Like Wilshere, injury rather than differences with Arsene Wenger hindered his career. Unlike Martial, the Englishman flourished on the right flank when healthy.
Whereas it’s too late for most failures, everything came too early for Theo. His move to Arsenal, his England debut under Sven-Goran Eriksson, he wasn’t prepared for either. Gradually, his playing time eroded with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil arriving to dominate the Gunners’ attack.
In January, he accepted a transfer to Everton where he had success under Sam Allardyce. Whether his direct style will serve him well under Marco Silva remains to be seen.
Mourinho’s attacking talent have one trait in common. Excepting Romelu Lukaku, who likes to drift out to the right from his home in the box, all prefer the left flank. Save for that positional variance and the fact he came up through United’s youth system, Rashford’s career arc is tracing Walcott’s. Both are speed merchants. Each debuted as a teenager for club and country. Both scored big goals that only fuelled anticipation regarding their ability. And sadly, each is spending far more time on the bench than they imagined after the boss has signed more experienced options.
There isn’t any talk of a rift between Mourinho and Marcus Rashford, no dissatisfaction with the youngster’s contributions. There will be, however, if he continues to languish on the bench for another season or two. Then questions will be asked that have no good answers.
Another arrival in Wengerland from Southampton, injury also played a part in Ox’s struggles. That was an unpleasant theme at the Emirates throughout Arsene’s long tenure. Sanchez and Ozil’s arrival affected his development in a similar manner to Theo Walcott’s, as well.
When healthy, Wenger didn’t know what to do with the mobile mini-tank. Ultimately, he settled on converting him to right-back and, for the first time, the Frenchman had a feud with a young player on his hands.
The second-generation talent wasn’t having it. He forced a transfer to Liverpool. Beggars can’t be choosers, but when Ox first arrived it appeared he had only let himself in for more of the same troubles under Jurgen Klopp. The Reds attack was overstocked with talent, including Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, among others. Then Coutinho departed for Barcelona. Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped into the no.10 role like he was born to it.
But injury had followed him to Anfield. It reared its ugly head again in a match against Roma. The England international missed the Champions League final and the World Cup. He isn’t set to return until November. Liverpool should be in full stride by then, leaving Ox with another fight to win a starting job.
I’ve saved the most vicious feud for last but, if you’ve been wondering how I can compare personal differences with a string of injuries, Shaw ties the entire package together. On top of the nasty double-leg break he suffered before Mourinho’s arrival, Shaw is another Southampton youth product, like Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Mourinho showed no sympathy or patience for the left back’s fitness issues following his recovery. Returning to training isn’t the same as returning to normal when both your fibula and tibia are fractured. Strength, balance, timing, even weight are all difficult to recover. I’m speaking from experience, having been struck by a hit-and-run driver.
Shaw has access to far more comprehensive treatment than I did, but the issues remain. In the context of fine-tuning towards match fitness, he needed patience, support and regular runouts from his manager. Instead, he was abused and bullied.
Surprisingly, his story may have the happiest ending. With Diogo Dalot and Antonio Valencia injured during United’s US tour, Shaw's regular playing time stateside could extend into the early season, giving him a prolonged opportunity to change his manager’s opinion. When Ashley Young returns to the club, he will slot in at right-back, rather than left.
The injury bug taketh away and it giveth. Who knew?
Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho are, for the most part, cut from different cloth. The Frenchman lives and breaths attacking football. The Portuguese’s sole mission is to destroy that beauty by any means necessary. Something in Wenger’s approach produced a string of injuries to his top players that stretches back beyond the three mentioned to Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Something in Mourinho’s personality produces a string of conflicts that probably stretch all the way back to his kindergarten playground in Setubal, Portugal.
There is one stripe the two bosses share, though. Both are incredibly stubborn. Their methods and philosophies will never change. As a result, those young stars, the lost boys in each one’s career wake, will never triumph over their Hook like Pan eventually did. Luke Shaw may learn to live with his, but that is the best he can expect if he stays at Old Trafford. Whether he, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford remain United players for a significant period remains to be seen.