The months of June and July are always murky times for football fans. Yes, the days are long, the sun is out, and plenty of fond memories are forged. But amid the visits to scenic foreign countries, festivals and parties, something still doesn’t feel quite right. Almost as if something is missing.
And then August comes along, bringing with it a restoration of the thing that keeps us all ticking. Football resumes, and with it so does normality for millions around the globe.
Returning to Old Trafford after a long summer, therefore, is always the most significant visit of the season. Whilst regular life bumbles on as it did before, in its usual mundane way, descending on the Theatre of Dreams again represents a changed landscape, a fresh set of hopes and aspirations. A new dawn.
Ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, that important first trip to Old Trafford for me was the Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge – a 3-1 win, providing plenty of reasons to smile: there was, of course, that rip-roaring performance from Memphis Depay; Luke Shaw and new signing Matteo Darmian looked like the near-perfect full-back partnership; Morgan Schneiderlin seemed like the answer to fans’ prayers for a robust, indomitable central midfielder; even Wayne Rooney played well.
And then there was Bastian Schweinsteiger – the marquee signing, the general, the Rolls Royce, the Deutscher Fußballmeister. In just 30 minutes, he’d made more passes than the entire Brugge side put together. It was like when your PE teacher used to put himself in midfield for the last few minutes of a practice game. Not only did Schweinsteiger take control of proceedings, it literally became Schweinsteiger’s game.
Needless to say, I was consumed beyond control. 21 men danced to the beat of Schweinsteiger’s drum. It was footballing royalty; I felt blessed to be there, and more optimistic than ever before.
But as the arrival of Paul Pogba (not to mention Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on top of that) continues to send shockwaves of awe across the football community, Schweinsteiger – the World Cup winner, the Champions League winner, the man with 18 major honours to his name – has been effectively etched from the minds of Manchester United fans.
Mourinho has made an efficient and ruthless start to his time at Old Trafford, as if making up for lost time after being wrongly turned down by the United board in 2013 following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.
The 53-year-old has addressed four key areas in resounding style: Eric Bailly has brought steel to the back; Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with 32 assists for Borussia Dortmund last season, promises to bring some much needed creativity to a side that desperately lacked zeal last year; Ibrahimovic has brought, well, what Ibrahimovic brings; and Pogba, the world’s most expensive footballer, has put United back on the global map.
And in turn, Mourinho has won his first three games with relative ease. A near perfect start, you might say, so much so that practically nobody has stopped to question his emotionless ostracising of Schweinsteiger.
The midfielder has been demoted to the reserves and declared not part of the Portuguese’s plans, brushed under the carpet like some broken china. After just one injury impeded season, Schweinsteiger – serenaded by all corners of United’s fanbase last summer – now cuts an incongruous figure.
But is Mourinho right in consigning the German to anonymity within the ranks at Old Trafford?
It is worth remembering that, even in a season plagued by injury, confidence issues and teething problems, Schweinsteiger did offer a particular dynamic last year.
There was, of course, that effortless control he brings off the bench: the Brugge game and that 25 minute cameo away at Manchester City serve as potent examples. He thwarts opposition momentum through creating impetus for his own side. And as Mourinho’s men embrace the sizzling tension of a title race, such an influence could be invaluable.
And then there was that aura of fatherly benevolence and timeless experience, capped off by that angelic smile. With so much young talent currently stirring, Schweinsteiger could be their shepherd, their guardian, watching over them with a wise smile like ‘The Stranger’ from The Big Lebowski.
None of that matters, though. Not anymore.
For one thing, Schweinsteiger, try as he might, is simply not a Mourinho player. A quick glance at Mourinho’s past sheds light on what he demands of a central midfielder: Costinha at Porto, Claude Makelele at Chelsea, Dejan Stankovic at Inter Milan, Nemanja Matic at Chelsea again.
None of the above appeal to the footballing aesthete, that’s for sure. Instead, Mourinho places his faith in cold blooded, indefatigable midfield powerhouses with steel-like physiques and seemingly unlimited oxygen supplies.
Schweinsteiger may be a Rolls Royce, but Mourinho would prefer a Toyota HiLux any day.
But the German is not just a misfit on a technical level. The incompatibility of Schweinsteiger and this Mourinho side runs far deeper than that.
Make no mistake, Mourinho is determined to restore United to their once-famous status as supreme objects of hatred and fear. Ibrahimovic and Pogba were drafted in only partly for footballing reasons. The Special One wants warriors. Arrogant, ruthless warriors. Players with a boisterous attitude that aligns with his own air of chutzpah. This is why Marouane Fellaini, so often maligned last season, has started every one of Mourinho’s first three games.
With a backbone of Bailly, Pogba, Fellaini and Ibrahimovic, Mourinho is forming a cabaret of violence and controlled chaos – a team that plays with a villainous smile and chokes opposition teams until they lie down, demoralised and exhausted, and accept their status as recipients of an ugly 1-0 win.
Now ask yourselves: does Schweinsteiger fit into this mould? No. Unequivocally no. It isn’t often that a player suffers omission as a result of being too aesthetically pleasing, too crafty on the ball, too nice, but such is the case with the 32-year-old.
To Mourinho, he is a plaintive relic of a miserable chapter in United’s history. Removing Schweinsteiger for Pogba is like when your girlfriend leaves you for a younger, musclier guy who has a black-belt in Taekwondo and likes The Clash. Not that I know what that’s like, of course.
Relationships in all corners of life can become untenable in the blink of an eye. Schweinsteiger and United are no exception. The club has moved on. And the German, once admired and adored, has been left behind.