Throughout his career, José Mourinho has been thought of as a manager who gets results. He’s the guy who wins you trophies, who turns your star players into superstars, and who probably ruffles a couple feathers along the way. He hasn’t always been thought of as the manager who enables a golden generation of youth players to shine with the senior squad, and for good reason. If you’re expected to bring results from day one like Mourinho, you can’t go around betting your job on players who can’t buy a drink in the United States.
Wonderkids are exciting, sure, but Mourinho’s skill has often been seen as making champions, not making new stars. You need proven talent, players who have already reached a certain level of quality who you can then further mold into winners.
Despite that, there have been some serious rumblings around Trigoria that The Special One has taken a shine to several players on the cusp between Primavera play and the senior squad (or a loan move). We’ve already written about the ongoing contract negotiations between Tiago Pinto and Ebrima Darboe; it seems clear that he will play some role in Roma’s midfield rotation going forward. Yet even beyond the most successful academy graduate of Paulo Fonseca’s time in Rome, players like Nicola Zalewski and Filippo Tripi have also caught Mourinho’s attention. Add in Riccardo Calafiori, who feels like he’s been around the senior squad for five years even though he’s only 19, and Roma might have a real youth movement on its hands during Mourinho’s first season in charge.
For a bit of contrast, let’s look at the academy graduates who made it to the senior side of Mourinho’s last two clubs: Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Managing those two clubs is a different beast than managing Roma for a bucketful of reasons: the Premier League and Serie A are quite different leagues, the cashflow of a Big 6 club dwarfs that of Roma, and Manchester United at least has a greater expectation of winning titles than the Giallorossi. Some players were seemingly predestined to reach the senior side while Mourinho was in charge, Marcus Rashford being the most obvious. Yet beyond everyone’s favorite member of the English National Team, Mourinho hasn’t found space for too many youngsters recently. Could that change in Rome?
Mourinho in Manchester: Rashford and McTominay
There’s one obvious star pupil of Mourinho’s that came to the fore at Manchester United between 2016 and 2018, and it’s Marcus Rashford. The Prince of England had his first appearance for Manchester United before Mourinho came to the Red Devils, but he grew into a key player for club and country under The Special One’s tutelage. Rashford even received the number 10 kit while Mourinho was in Manchester, which might not be as big of a deal as it would be if, say, Nicolo Zaniolo got the 10 in Rome, but it’s still quite a big deal. Rashford looks like he’ll be a key player for Manchester United for the very long term, and although there was a sense of predestination with his rise to stardom, you have to believe that Mourinho had some role in making sure Rashford became what he is today.
Outside of Rashford, there weren’t too many players who made the leap to the senior squad and had a huge impact for Manchester United while Mourinho was at the helm. Scott McTominay is probably the only other player of note to make it into the senior side, and although he’s a decent enough player and frequently a part of the Scottish National Team, he’s certainly no Marcus Rashford. This is somewhat understandable when you think about who Mourinho was able to sign from other clubs: you’re not going to bench Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Romelu Lukaku, and other stars for prospects, no matter how good those teenagers might become.
Tottenham Mou: Alfie Devine, Dane Scarlett, But No True Breakthroughs
In contrast to his time with Manchester United, where he successfully brought one of their current stars into the senior side, Mourinho’s time with Tottenham didn’t result in the introduction of young talent from their excellent academy. Players like Alfie Devine, Dane Scarlett, and Japhet Tangana were all pipped to become long-term pieces for Tottenham by Mourinho, but they certainly haven’t become a part of the senior squad just yet.
Admittedly, Mourinho wasn’t managing Tottenham for very long, so it’s hard to criticize him for not bringing up enough academy players into the senior side. Still, we’re trying to look back at what players Mourinho has brought in from youth teams, and at Tottenham, that was basically no one. Should that be a cause for concern for Roma, who don’t have a clear-cut academy superstar like Marcus Rashford waiting to join the senior side? Or is this down to the fact that “Lads, it’s Tottenham”? Whatever your opinion of his time with Spurs may be, The Special One’s time in North London was certainly underwhelming in many ways, not just regarding his usage (or lack thereof) of exciting youth prospects.
Mourinho in Rome: Darboe, Zalewski, and Maybe Tripi?
That brings us back to Rome, where there appear to be three main candidates to make the jump to senior football. Ebrima Darboe now seems like a lock to get time with the senior squad, while it’s an open question whether attacking midfielder Nicola Zalewski and defensive midfielder Filippo Tripi will get a chance with Roma in Serie A and the Conference League or if they’ll first have to prove themselves on loan. Despite the depth Roma currently has at midfield, it appears that Mourinho may intend on keeping at least Zalewski around the senior side, and considering Roma’s unfortunate injury history, it may be smart to not send off a promising player who can sub in for the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Looking beyond the players who are just breaking in to the senior side from the Primavera squad, it’s easy to see that as per usual, Roma is overflowing with young players with potential. Darboe, Zalewski, and Tripi are exciting, but players who have broken into the senior squad without breaking into the regular rotation, like Riccardo Calafiori and Bryan Reynolds, also seem like they may get the chance to shine under Mourinho sooner rather than later. Add in players who are surprisingly young yet experienced, like Gonzalo Villar, Roger Ibañez, and Nicolò Zaniolo, and Mourinho is most likely working with one of the youngest squads he’s led in quite some time.
Ultimately whether or not these young players get a shot with the senior squad depends on Mourinho’s, Pinto’s, and the Friedkin’s short- and long-term goals for the club. If all the “we’re building a long-term project” talk is just talk and success needs to come as quickly as possible, don’t expect to see many of these players get a shot outside of an occasional Conference League appearance. If the Giallorossi truly intend to transform the club’s fortunes over the long term, though, Mourinho is going to have to swing for the fences with some of these prospects. Paul Pogba isn’t walking through that door, but Nicola Zalewski could be.
We’ll have our U-23 Countdown coming to you sometime in the next month or so, but until then, let us know: Who do you think has a chance to break through and become a key cog in Roma’s senior side? Is the Zalewski hype legit? Will Ebrima Darboe be able to continue his good form from last season, or will he be a Cengiz Ünder-type flash in the pan?
Who is most likely to become a key part of José Mourinho’s plans?
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