MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho says he inherited a good group of players from predecessor Louis van Gaal, but that they lacked the happiness and belief that they have since discovered.
United extended their unbeaten run to 24 games in Thursday’s 0-0 derby draw against Manchester City, despite a lengthy injury list and the additional workload of a Europa League campaign that has taken them into the semi-finals.
Mourinho has a reputation for creating a siege mentality at the clubs he manages, and he has used the injury crisis - which saw top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic and key defender Marcos Rojo suffer serious knee injuries last week - to create a spirit of resistance amongst his current squad.
That edge is something he says was missing in the players he inherited when he joined the club last July.
”The group was a nice group, honestly, good people, good boys, committed people, I think Mr Van Gaal left here a good group of boys with very good relations between them and that I got in my hands.
“(But) I think they missed happiness, they missed trust, belief, this extra bit that brings resilience, brings fight and they have it (now),” he told reporters on Friday.
“When we meet again next season, July 9th, they will be a stronger group. When the new players, when they arrive they will find a group more ready to go for big things.”
While he has frequently lamented the injuries his squad has suffered in the second half of the season, Mourinho also believes that misfortune may have helped create the new spirit he talks of.
”Maybe it is a bless(ing) an opportunity to make the team strong, an opportunity to make them mentally stronger, maybe it is a bless(ing).
Mourinho said that French midfielder Paul Pogba, who missed the derby with a muscle injury, will also sit out Sunday’s Premier League game with Swansea but will be back for Thursday’s Europa League semi-final, first leg game in Spain against Celta Vigo.
United also have attacking midfielder Juan Mata and central defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling out with injuries and Mourinho joked that he was working hard in the gym in case he was needed to step in.
The former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager also has limited options in midfield, an area that was weakened with the sale of French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin to Everton in January and the departure of German Bastian Schweinsteiger to the Chicago Fire.
Asked whether it was a mistake to let Schneiderlin leave mid-season, Mourinho said it was hard to keep players who wanted a move.
”We didn’t tell Morgan we want to sell him, Morgan asked us ‘please sell me, I want to go, I want to play every game’.
“Sometimes there is this dilemma, keep the bigger squad but the players don’t want to stay... It’s very hard and (now) we are arriving into an extreme situation”.
Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by John Stonestreet