It had seemed like a perfect move for the football romantics. Manchester United: one of the biggest and most loved clubs in the world. Bastian Schweinsteiger: a World Cup and Champions League winner of immense quality. When the German arrived at Old Trafford in 2015, many hoped it would mark a renaissance in the midfielder’s career.
However, the very existence of his transfer from Bayern Munich was sign enough of the cracks appearing in Schweinsteiger’s spell at the top of the game, and within a year he was to be training with United’s youth team. On Tuesday, it was announced that he had signed a one-year deal with MLS side Chicago Fire, after United agreed to release him from the final 15 months of his contract.
For those idealists who heralded his move to United, this is but the harsh reality. Jose Mourinho might have been cast as the villain in this drama, but he was not the first manager to call time on Schweinsteiger. The former Germany captain had left Bayern with the warning of Pep Guardiola ringing in his ears.
“He is a top, top player. Unfortunately, during the last three years he was never in good condition,” Guardiola said when asked why Schweini was leaving the club of his heart at just 31. What’s more, within months of signing him to a three-year Old Trafford deal, Louis van Gaal was also questioning Schweinsteiger’s input.
“During December I said that I expect more and he was very disappointed I said that, but I think I can say that because my expectation is higher,” said Van Gaal during his final spring in charge. “Manchester United has bought him even though he is now 31, so I had to convince the board to buy him, because he’s a very good player and he always gives a team more balance.”
The 32-year-old then missed the majority of the post-Christmas spell of his first United season with injuries, and while he returned for Germany at Euro 2016, it was always likely to be a temporary reprieve.
Mourinho deciding that Schweinsteiger had no role to play at Old Trafford due to the slowing down of his body can have come as a surprise to nobody. That the German was left to train with the youngsters, then with a personal trainer, caused some consternation, but the end result was the same and had been basically predicted by both Guardiola and Van Gaal: Schweinsteiger was no longer the player he had been at his peak.
He has, of course, made the odd appearance since being welcomed back into first-team training in November. His goal to cap a 4-0 FA Cup win over Wigan Athletic in his one start of 2016-17 brought the house down. On a human level, it was a wonderful story but, more than that, it was a reminder of what Schweinsteiger has become. The one-time midfield maestro was now Manchester’s favourite mascot.
The social media charm offensive which Schweinsteiger enacted throughout his difficult spell under Mourinho included a promise that Manchester United would be his final European club, but if he was looking to see out his three-year deal it was a fight he was always going to lose. Not against his manager, but against his body and against ‘Father Time’. At least in signing for Chicago he is honouring his word in heading for pastures new.
Many will see this as the latest sign that Mourinho is clearing the decks of Van Gaal signings. Following the departures of Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin in January, three of the Dutchman’s six captures of 2015 have now departed in barely two months. Yet this exit is more a reflection on the player himself than on his manager.
As he looks back on his experience in the Premier League, Schweinsteiger should hold no bitterness towards Mourinho, or Van Gaal for that matter, for backing up what Guardiola had already pointed out. For the truth is that, with his body paying the price for years of toil, he and United were never likely to have their fairy-tale ending.
He has held his head high throughout, but it is Bastian the man rather than Bastian the player that will leave an imprint on United fans’ hearts.