Jose Mourinho cited his role in the development of Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay and Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane as a way of defending his record of working with young players.
The Tottenham Hotspur boss is often viewed as a manager who values experience and big spending over youth and development. He was asked about his record in the latter areas and offered a defiant response centred on McTominay's rise this season, per Charlotte Duncker of the Manchester Evening News: "Yes, it's very important; Scott McTominay is only the best player at Manchester United. Raphael Varane is one of the best players in the world; yes, it's fair criticism."
Sarcasm aside, Mourinho deserves credit for giving the midfielder his big break during his spell in charge at Old Trafford. Mourinho was sacked by the Red Devils in December 2018, but he had already made academy graduate McTominay an established member of the first team.
The Scot has since become an integral part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side, underpinning a team strong enough to beat Mourinho's Spurs and Pep Guardiola's Manchester City recently:
Statman Dave @StatmanDave
Utd’s last 11 games all comps: ✅ W (McTominay plays) ✅ W (McTominay plays) ✅ W (McTominay plays) ❌ L (McTominay plays) ✅ W (McTominay plays) ✅ W (McTominay plays) 🤝 D (McTominay out) ❌ L (McTominay out) 🤝 D (McTominay out) ✅ W (McTominay plays) ✅ W (McTominay plays) https://t.co/HH5XO8bPS2
Mourinho also placed a lot of faith in Varane, who signed as an 18-year-old with Los Blancos in 2011. The France defender soon received a first-team call-up from Mourinho, who was in his second season as Real boss.
Yet despite citing two high-profile and recent examples, it's difficult for some to shake the feeling that giving youngsters a chance is far from a priority for Mourinho, even given the promising talents in Tottenham's ranks:
The notion of getting academy graduates and other prospects into the fold will be a more prevalent one at Spurs. It's a club with a stronger tradition of fostering young talents than some of Mourinho's other stops during a career that's also taken him to Chelsea, Porto and Inter Milan.
Mourinho often favoured a veteran core during those years, bringing the likes of Ricardo Carvalho and Michael Essien to Real. Inter were defined by the experience of Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti, Samuel Eto'o, Diego Milito and Lucio when Mourinho took the club to the UEFA Champions League trophy in 2010.
Spurs have a similarly battle-tested contingent in the form of centre-backs Toby Alderweireld, 30, and Jan Vertonghen, 32. Meanwhile, left-back Danny Rose is 29, playmaker Christian Eriksen is 27, and 30-year-old workhorse Moussa Sissoko still features in midfield.
However, there are ample precocious players pushing for game time with Tottenham's senior group. Midfield schemer Harry Winks is still only 23, while 19-year-old winger Ryan Sessegnon has yet to prove his worth since arriving from Fulham in the summer.
Sessegnon, who has dealt with a lengthy hamstring injury, said Mourinho has told him how to improve, per Football.London's Alasadair Gold: "Really he just sat me down, told me to be myself, told me to be a bit more vocal because I am quite a quiet player and person in general."
Developing Sessegnon, along with teenage duo Oliver Skipp and Troy Parrott, should be a priority for Mourinho. The process will take time, but a dead-rubber game away to Bayern Munich in Group B of the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League on Wednesday has offered some a chance to impress:
Accelerating exceptional youngsters into the senior squad is a responsibility Mourinho sounds ready to accept, per Dan Kilpatrick of the London Evening Standard: "It's part of the DNA of the club, part of the culture and also part of the passion and relationship between the fans and the team."
Following through on those words would give Mourinho the chance to legitimise his credentials as a true developer of teams rather than just the overseer of expensively assembled ones. He'll need to do so because leaning on young players is sure to be a key part of Spurs' future given the debt facing the club since moving into a new stadium last season.