How Jose Mourinho helped Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder press his case for new signings
He was actually talking about Tottenham Hotspur; responding to suggestions that something other than pure, unadulterated ability allowed Tanguy Ndombele to score a simply breathtaking goal during Sunday’s win over Sheffield United.
But Jose Mourinho’s brutal suppression of the idea that a change of tactics or even a pep talk from chairman Daniel Levy has been responsible for the Frenchman’s recent renaissance, confirmed by his outrageous finish at Bramall Lane, will have resonated with Chris Wilder and his coaching staff as well as journalists invited onto the post-match Zoom call. The Portuguese’s monologue, exploring the influence of external forces upon a footballer’s performance, also underlined why it is important - absolutely vital in fact - that United bolster the options at Wilder’s disposal before the end of the transfer window.
“Top players play well in any system,” Mourinho replied, after it was put to him that a subtle positional change has helped Ndombele begin to realise his potential. “They play well with any manager or coach. When people say that top players don’t play because of a system or a coach, well, that’s b******t. That comes from people who have no idea what the game is all about.”
Mourinho’s belief that ability always trumps tactics will not curry favour with the army of statisticians, analysts and data scientists now attempting to seize control of the game. But the words of a man who has twice won the Champions League and lifted titles in four different countries reveal an unequivocal but often overlooked truth. In order to succeed at the elite level - or even survive - you need high calibre talent. And United, now 11 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the Premier League table, simply do not have enough. No amount of system, strategy or personnel changes - as injuries and suspensions continue to gut Wilder’s squad - will change that. Only more investment, as they prepare to face their namesakes from Manchester next week, can. Hence why Jesse Lingard, seemingly approaching the end of his time at Old Trafford, Sampdoria’s Omar Colley and Ben Davies of Preston North End have all been suggested as potential new signings before next month’s deadline.
“I’m concentrating totally on football now, that’s the way it’s got to be,” Wilder said over the weekend, suggesting responsibility for arranging the two loans he believes are required to address some of the issues United are grappling with now rests with the board of directors. “So I only want to talk about football, which I’m sure everyone will understand.”
When Ndombele scooped the ball home from the tightest of tight angles, following a delightfully simple interchange with Steven Bergwijn, Wilder could be seen shaking his head in resignation before retreating back towards the dugout. Although it is no surprise United, who only two minutes earlier had been threatening a comeback when David McGoldrick pounced, do not have someone of the 24-year-old’s quality at their disposal. Players of Ndombele’s ability come at a price, with the former Lyon midfielder reportedly negotiating a salary of more than £10m a year following his £55.5m move to north London. But Wilder, as he glanced towards the pitch and then surveyed United’s under-strength bench, knows there is a shortage of genuine top-flight performers on the South Yorkshire club’s books. That is why the 3-1 loss to Spurs was its 16th defeat in 19 outings so far this term.
For obvious reasons, Wilder can not say so publicly as he attempts to replenish confidence levels behind the scenes. But once the momentum and self-belief which saw them enter the first national lockdown in sixth had disappeared, issues surrounding fitness and form exposed United’s weaknesses.
The fact Wilder’s first choice starting eleven now is essentially the same as the one which beat Norwich City 1-0 in March betrays the fact their summer recruitment drive failed to build on the progress they had made during their first PL campaign in over a decade.
There are reasons for that, including the speed of their ascent up the pyramid under Wilder’s stewardship. But while newly promoted Leeds were applying the finishing touches to a deal for Rodrigo, previously of Valencia and capped 25 times by Spain, United were chasing two defenders from Derby County. Max Lowe and Jayden Bogle are two gifted individuals with bright futures ahead of them. But the difference in their pedigree and Rodrigo’s CV is plain to see.
“We’re getting everything we can out of these lads, they’re giving everything and they deserve recognition and praise for that,” Wilder said following the final whistle against Spurs. “No matter what happens, they go right until the end.”
Although United have spent heavily by their own standards since being promoted from the Championship two years ago, wage bills are now a more accurate guide to a team’s financial power than transfer fees. Research undertaken by spotrac.com, who chart contract values across a variety of sports, estimate United’s is the lowest of the PL’s 20 members. Brighton and Hove Albion’s payroll is calculated as being more than double, when bonuses and other clauses are factored into the equation. Graham Potter’s men will enter the next round of fixtures in 16th; only two places and five points above the bottom three.
The establishment of ‘United World’ - a global network of clubs designed to circumnavigate some of the obstacles they face in the market - is a tacit admission by Bramall Lane’s hierarchy that they can not compete with a cheque book alone. But in order to avoid returning the lowest points total in PL history - a record set by Derby County in 2008 - United must also take care of the here and now. Only the arrival of better players with a wealth of top-flight experience can arrest their current slide and prevent a campaign which seems destined to end in relegation casting a shadow over their work next term too.