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Were the Kids Alright Under Jose Mourinho?

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Jose Mourinho’s policy with talented youth while at Real Madrid among the many reasons not to favor his return

Real Madrid Training Session Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane or Jose Mourinho— before we go any further, it should be pointed out that these two “favorites” for the Real Madrid coaching position are polar opposites. From a tactical perspective, a man management perspective, and even from a media relations perspective. If this season has the fans squirming for anything, it is a long-term vision or project they can get behind. The vision or project should come first and the subsequent task of identifying and hiring a manager should follow, not vice-versa. In fact, a project has already been started; Madrid have put in place a new transfer policy over recent seasons focusing on the best and brightest young players from across the globe. Among the many names, all of whom are or were under 21 when purchased, include: Vinicius JR and Rodrygo of Brazil, Martin Odeegard of Norway, Fede Valverde of Uruguay, Brahim Diaz, Dani Ceballos, Marco Asensio, and Jesus Vallejo of Spain, as well as the promotion of Madrid youth products Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilon. This crop of youngsters are pounding down the door to Madrid’s first team. In particular, Vinicius JR and Sergio Reguilon, who have been two of the lone bright spots in a dark season. So if Florentino Perez is setting his sights on Jose Mourinho, as widely speculated by the media, then how does this align with the new transfer policy at the club? To properly evaluate Mourinho’s treatment of youth, there is no better sample size then to pick from than Mourinho’s previous spell with Real Madrid from 2010 – 2013.

During his three years at the club, Mourinho gave 21 players under the age of 21 their debut for the club. From a purely statistical standpoint, that is impressive. In comparison, Zidane in his two and a half years only gave debuts to 8 players under the age of 21. When one begins to pull back the layers, there is more to Mourinho’s treatment of youth then just the numbers without any context. Let’s take a look at each season under Mourinho:

In his first season in charge, 2010 – 2011, six Madrid players under the age of 21 made their debut in the Spanish first division. In La Liga, the whole Madrid squad, meaning any player that played even just a single minute, played a total of 37,548 minutes. Of the six U21 players that featured, they played a total of 447 Liga minutes or 1.2% of the team’s total minutes. Sergio Canales, the 20 year old rising star or “wonder-kid”, who was eventually ravaged by injuries derailing his early career, mustered a mere 283 minutes. Three starts and seven substitute appearances for the young Spaniard. Canales, along with then 21-year-old Nacho Fernandez, made up 1.1% of those 1.2% of the total minutes played. Nacho featured in two matches that season, playing the full 90 minutes in each. The remaining four debutants: Alvaro Morata (18), Joselu (20), Alex Fernandez (18), and Juankar (20) played a combined 19 minutes. With hindsight, the question can be asked – were these players really good enough to play for Real Madrid? In most cases the response will be a simple no, but Nacho was superb in both of his 90 minute exhibitions, while Canales shined in the preseason, but was left out of most match day squads eroding his confidence. In comparison, Zidane’s first full season in charge (2016-2017 La Liga winning campaign), Marco Asensio was the lone player under 21 to play that season as Mateo Kovacic was 22 years of age. One player, Marco Asensio, played 1,077 minutes – more than double the combined 6 debutants under Mourinho in 2010-2011.

Real Madrid’s best season under Mourinho was their La Liga title winning campaign in 2011-2012. Three players under the age of 21 managed to get some playing time in La Liga: Raphael Varane (18), Alvaro Morata (19), and Jese Rodriguez (19). Once again the squad as whole played 37,615 minutes with the three aforementioned young players playing a total of 698 minutes or 1.9% of the total minutes played. Of those 698 minutes, Raphael Varane played 98% of them with seven starts and two substitute appearances. Morata and Jese each had one small substitute appearance for a total of 17 minutes combined. Varane, despite scoring on his debut, only played 10 matches in La Liga while fellow center back, Carvalho, was on the decline and Raul Albiol was consistently a liability in defense. Fans were begging to see more of Varane in his first season at Madrid.

Meanwhile, Castilla was enjoying a golden generation: Nacho Fernandez, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Jese Rodriguez, Denis Cheryshev, Pablo Sarabia, and Alvaro Morata all were plying their trade in B-team during this time. Nacho, Carvajal, Morata, and in particular Jese were the four most highly touted players (Pablo Sarabia was also among the top names). Castilla had earned promotion to the Segunda division that season off of this immensely talented group. Though, these players barely got a sniff of first team action. Nacho, who had impressed in every first team game he played in last season, did not play a single minute of La Liga action. The clinical tandem, Morata and Jese, could not stop scoring goals yet found first team action hard to come by.

The following season (2012 – 2013), after heavy criticism from most media outlets regarding the opportunities granted to young players, Mourinho began a feud with Alberto Toril, then Castilla coach. Jose claimed that Castilla did not play the same system as the first team and called out Jese for playing a position that was not a part of his tactical plans. The lack of opportunities for Jese created a lot of angst for Madridistas. The chance of losing the next great Madrid product was increasing by each match-day. Jese’s agent, Ginés Carvajal, released a statement to the media explaining that the player would need to study his options if he was not going to be given any significant first team opportunities. Despite not being given a true opportunity, Jese broke every scoring record for Castilla. Even Florentino Perez came out and described Jese as “the jewel in the crown” of Madrid’s academy.

Mourinho’s last season, a season that still haunts many Madrid fans today, saw him again prefer established players. Seven players under the age of 21 earned minutes in La Liga that season, and they played a total of 1,639 minutes or 4.8% the highest during the Mourinho era. Alvaro Morata (20) had been promoted to the first team, but only managed 12 appearances, five as a starter. 70% of the U21 minutes went to Raphael Varane (19). Credit where it’s due, Mourinho gave the Frenchman all his faith and trusted the young player in the biggest matches of the season. A feud with Pepe, a re-occurring theme with multiple members of the squad that season, helped Varane maintain his spot in the starting eleven.

Though, this was the same season where Michael Essien continually started and struggled at right back while Dani Carvajal was desperate for a first team chance that year. He moved on to Bayern Leverkusen and was named in the Bundesliga team of the season. Mourinho failed to give Carvajal any chance over his three years in charge and then lost what could have been a valuable piece to his squad in 2012-2013. Again by comparison, Zidane, in 2017 – 2018, had 3,175 minutes dispersed among U21 players (does not include Asensio who was 22)—nearly doubling the amount that Mourinho rewarded in a season where he gave the most minutes during his Madrid tenure to players under the age of 21.

If a player is good enough, then they are old enough. In most cases, to hover below the 10% range of minutes to U21 players is fair, but with the surplus of young talent at Madrid’s hands, if Mourinho were to take over and continue to follow his former pattern at Madrid of 1% – 5% of the minutes played in La Liga, then Madrid will likely lose their investments on some of the most talented young players the planet has to offer. Many simply weren’t given a fair chance. Jese, Carvajal, and likely Morata could attest to that. Mourinho will want total autonomy over transfers, he will likely want to bring in bigger, established names. Will that curtail the development of Vinicius, Rodrygo, Valverde, and Odeegard? It’s a question Madrid should be asking themselves prior to hiring a controversial figure like Mourinho. The Portuguese, who along with his youth records already has many other marks against his Real Madrid book, would be a very high risk appointment. Time will tell if the rumors come to fruition, but many who support the club would like to see it go in a different direction with a clear project.