Manchester United’s 2017-18 season is over but the fallout from Saturday’s FA Cup final is not. Jose Mourinho’s decision to publicly question Romelu Lukaku’s desire to play at Wembley has developed into just the latest in a string of stand-offs between fans of the manager and those who question his motivational methods.
Lukaku had not played for three weeks following the ankle injury he sustained in a collision with Arsenal debutant Konstantinos Mavropanos on April 29, and Mourinho had admitted on the eve of the final that he still didn’t know if the striker would be fit to play in the showpiece clash with Chelsea.
“We will have to wait until the last moment,” the manager said on Friday. “I don’t want to lie to you and say Lukaku doesn’t play, then he plays, or vice versa. We will have to wait on Lukaku.”
But Mourinho was seemingly ill-prepared for the eventuality of the 25-year-old not declaring himself fit, with United’s stunted approach in attack in Lukaku’s absence being one of the key factors in Chelsea’s 1-0 win.
While the Belgian did come on in the 73rd minute, he appeared immobile and was completely ineffective as United tried in vain to grab a late leveller, if anything underlining the view that he wasn’t fit enough to start the game.
Yet afterwards Mourinho identified the decisions of Lukaku and countryman Marouane Fellaini to rule themselves out of a start as being vital to United’s defeat.
“When a player tells you he is not ready to start, then the question is how many minutes do you think you can play,” he said. “How can I convince a player who tells me he is not ready to play?
“[Chelsea] are not stupid, they know without Lukaku we don’t have a presence, without Fellaini we don’t have a presence.”
It is far from the first time that Mourinho has bemoaned a player’s insistence on not playing unless fit to do so, with Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling having come under fire early in his United reign at a time when the Reds were stretched defensively for a trip to Swansea.
And on this occasion the fact that both players are due to meet up with Belgium soon for World Cup duty has apparently made Mourinho suspicious of their motives. But why is he so keen to show such distrust in his players’ decision-making?
Lukaku had every right to rule himself out. While Mourinho will have received medical reports on the front man’s rehabilitation and could make an educated guess on his condition, only the player himself will have known whether he truly felt able to stretch himself physically. What made Mourinho so convinced that Lukaku could have given him more that he went as far as to publicly question him?
What also must be remembered is that this is the same Lukaku who threw his hands up in frustration when he realised he was about to be substituted for Marcus Rashford following the tackle by Mavropanos against Arsenal, such was his desire to get back on the field straight away.
It is also the same Lukaku who has averaged 35 league games per season over the past six years, demonstrating a thirst for going toe-to-toe with defenders and for big, physical battles week after week. Lukaku thrives on the workload of a regular starter, on the ability to keep turning up game after game and finding the net, and it will not have come easily to him to tell his boss that he was in no position to start an occasion as big as the FA Cup final.
He made his desire to work hard for the cause clear from the start, telling ESPN after his United medical last summer: “United are the biggest club in the world, and I always said I wanted to play for a team that’s challenging for every trophy that there is, and Manchester United wants to be that dominant force. Now it’s time to work hard, work harder than I ever did before, and I’m willing to do it.”
Even as he was warming up on the touchline before his late introduction, Lukaku appeared to be moving quite gingerly. All indications were that he was not physically fit enough to be in the right mental frame of mind to commit to any more minutes than were entirely necessary. But apparently that was not enough for Mourinho. He wanted his key striker to act as though there was absolutely nothing wrong, whatever the consequences.
Maybe Mourinho was right, and Lukaku had the World Cup in his mind. Maybe if this was 2019, with only potential UEFA Nations League involvement to look forward to, the striker might have decided to risk his ankle.
But in publicly demonstrating such distrust, the Portuguese has done nothing but wear away a little more of his credibility as a man-manager. It hardly helps that his dig at Lukaku and Fellaini came hot on the heels of his claim that Michael Carrick is a “proper man” the like of which football and society are in short supply.
The bottom line is that football careers are short, and players have every right to squeeze every last minute of participation out of them they can. In some cases that means people placing their bodies on the line when it seems ill-judged, while for others it is more about managing their injuries well in a bid to prolong their careers at a later point. And neither standpoint is wrong, so long as the final decision has the blessing of the player themselves.
Managers who feel the need to exert their own arbitrary parameters on players are bullies, and football as a sport ought to be learning from past errors in that regard.
Mourinho’s ‘woe is me’ attitude knows no bounds. It is one thing to complain about a two-faced press pack, a vital refereeing decision or an annoying adversary, but this constant need to find a scapegoat for every single poor result that stretches as far as outing his own players for caring about their physical well-being is winning him few friends.