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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Mourinho's attempts at meritocracy hard to action with Man United's transfer policy focused on expensive big-name players

Portuguese manager made it clear under-performing players will be dropped for the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday

Jose Mourinho has struggled to gain consistency from Paul Pogba, Manchester United's record signing, this season. Reuters
Jose Mourinho has struggled to gain consistency from Paul Pogba, Manchester United's record signing, this season. Reuters

Jose Mourinho was presenting himself as the eloquent meritocrat. “What is the priority for a manager to choose a team?” he asked himself. “I only know one. It is the way you play. Or do you want me to go for the price they cost or their salary or their beautiful face?”

It was a way of warning his Manchester United players that they may be dropped for Wednesday night's game against Bournemouth.

If a reminder felt necessary, regardless of the numbers of changes in the starting XI, a change of policy has been required. United have too often felt a star vehicle, too in thrall to big names and fees, since Alex Ferguson retired, even if their dalliances with the rich and famous have not always been happy affairs.

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Louis van Gaal jettisoned both Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria. It took Mourinho’s arrival for an underperforming Wayne Rooney to lose his place.

The Portuguese has spent this year so far either omitting or substituting Paul Pogba, the £89 million (Dh468.7m) man whose place in the team for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final is in jeopardy and whose position at the club next season is in doubt.

There was a time when Mourinho would not have needed to underline his status as a meritocrat. For much of his managerial career, his players have performed so consistently well that he has not needed to discuss dropping large numbers of them.

There was a point, too, when discussions about spending did not have the potential to rebound. Mourinho has a mantra: that Manchester City have spent more. His own outlay, about £300m, was, he said in December, “not enough”.

He claimed there were “no limits” to what City could spend. Last month, he talked about City having a bigger base when he criticised United’s recent lack of “football heritage”. Last week, he said City could invest so heavily to stop anyone closing the gap.

All of which implies there is an automatic relationship between spending and success. Pogba’s decidedly mixed fortunes suggest otherwise. As does Mourinho’s transfer record at Old Trafford. Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku have all justified their recruitment. Zlatan Ibrahimovic excelled in his first season, though it was a mistake to re-sign him. But Alexis Sanchez has had an underwhelming start, Mourinho was quick to write off his experiment with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Victor Lindelof looks an overpriced understudy.

Managers will be judged on their signings, especially the expensive ones. Mourinho has the two costliest in Premier League history and, as he mentioned salaries, the division’s largest wage bill.

Not everything should be a comparison between Mourinho and Pep Guardiola – that leads to too much needless whataboutery – but there are certain significant differences in their expenditure.

Manchester City have targeted fewer big names, leading to less Pogba-style circuses and reducing the potential for embarrassment if such signings are deemed failures. And while Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte have played too few games for meaningful judgments to be made, only Claudio Bravo and Nolito of the Guardiola-era buys can truly be called failures, and each was comparatively cheap.

There is no talk of a clear-out at the Etihad. The same cannot be said at Old Trafford, as Mourinho’s dissatisfaction shows. The team sheet will be scrutinised to see who could face Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur, but also who has fallen farthest from favour.

Because talk of a meritocracy does not just reflect the way the academy graduate Jesse Lingard is United’s most improved player and deserves to play ahead of costly arrivals. It reflects the sense that too many United buys are not justifying the price tag. But that, whether or not he accepts it, also reflects on Mourinho.