José Mourinho’s permanent scowl shows United's disharmony
Paul Pogba row shows manager’s ability to bond with players appears to be gone
José Mourinho and Paul Pogba appear at loggerheads at Manchester United with the Frenchman’s exit becoming more and more likely. Photo: Ian Kington/PA Wire
The most startling thing, looking at José Mourinho, close-up, as he tried to pretend everything was still okay, were the dark rings beneath his eyes. His stare was wild, the eyes rheumier than we have seen them before. He looked, frankly, as if he needed a good night’s sleep. Sam Allardyce once noted how David Moyes had aged 10 years at Manchester United and it is starting to feel as if the same could be said of the current manager.
Okay, it’s a football game, not a fashion parade, but if you remember the days when the younger Mourinho turned up looking so debonair, with his tailored suits and immaculately coiffured hair, it was quite something to see him, frazzled, in his blue hoodie and white T-shirt, looking more like a bloke from Gogglebox than the guy who once seemed to hold the keys to the football universe. Mourinho’s appearance always reveals his mood. He wanted to pick an argument with the Sky interviewer when there was no argument to be had. His post-match press conference was a no-show and that was strange, too, when he once made it his business to have the final word.
But then a lot has changed since those days when Patrick Barclay, author of Mourinho – Anatomy of a Winner, wrote that the Special One – and he was special, if we go back to his first spell at Chelsea – “even had a nice scowl”, never mind the kind of smile that could melt ice. Mourinho had an indefinable quality that inspired curiosity. His bond with his players seemed impenetrable and that, in football, was rare. As Ian Wright put it: “If another manager hugged his players they might be rigid, cringing, embarrassed. But you can see the camaraderie between him and the team. There is a deep respect there. You can see they really love him.”
Love? Well, yes, that word didn’t feel too strong. It can just feel like a trick of the mind now Mourinho is at Old Trafford, falling out with Paul Pogba, sniping at various others and clearly thinking nothing of taking down a couple of new targets in the wake of losing to Derby County, 10 years out of the Premier League, in the Carabao Cup.
Just consider what Mourinho had to say, more than once, about the penalty shootout and the way, once it had reached 6-6, he knew “we’re in trouble with [Phil] Jones and [Eric] Bailly” next on the list. Frank Lampard might, deep down, have thought the same about his own team when it was time for Richard Keogh, an accident-prone centre-half, to have a go. The difference is that Derby’s manager would never have dreamed of saying so much. Mourinho, plainly, cannot help himself.
Unfortunately for United, this is what he has become and no one could ever say that it is a nice scowl these days. When he was appointed at Old Trafford in May 2016 the club were warned that his assistant, Rui Faria, usually brought trouble. As it was Faria never lived up to his reputation as the manager’s attack dog. Mourinho, on the other hand, was creating conflict almost from day one. His attitude, according to one senior source at Old Trafford, was that “everything was shit … the training ground was shit, the players were shit, the medical staff were shit, the food was shit, the stadium was shit, everything.”
Mourinho’s level of dissatisfaction has shocked staff and made them wonder whether his fractious relationships with the players and press at Real Madrid, and then his second spell at Chelsea, changed him for the worse. Even the small things sometimes. At Madrid, when he was desperate to replace Alex Ferguson, he once made the extraordinary claim that he subscribed to MUTV from Spain and made a point of staying in on Friday nights to watch Paddy Crerand’s show. Mourinho, it now transpires, gives MUTV the bare minimum and frequently shows the club’s in-house channel his least attractive traits.
The bigger issue, of course, is what to do with Pogba but it would be wrong to categorise this as merely the story of a conflict between two of the more important people at Old Trafford – in one corner, the manager, with his trophy count and ego and diminishing reputation; in the other corner, the club’s most expensive player, a World Cup winner, with his mind set on leaving for Barcelona, and an agent who doesn’t give a damn who he upsets.
A story of that nature will always dominate headlines but the truth is the list of players who have grown weary of Mourinho, who resent his approach, the negativity and unpleasantness and feel disenchanted, goes much further. We have been here before with him: he wears his players down, he makes it a grind and, eventually, the players at the sharp end turn against him. The pattern of Mourinho’s career suggests it usually gets worse, not better.
The latest television pictures from United’s training ground offer another glimpse into the deterioration in relations between manager and player and, if this were Ferguson’s time in charge, it is tempting to think Pogba would be quickly removed. Unfortunately for Mourinho, he does not hold that power at Old Trafford, where the people in charge have to balance supporting the manager with looking after the club after his probable exit. Pogba was named recently as the most marketable athlete in the world. He is 25, with his best years presumably ahead of him. The people at the top of Old Trafford don’t want to lose a player with these uncommon gifts – one who cost €100m – when all the time there is the suspicion that Mourinho, being the man he is, is unlikely to hang around too long. Mourinho cannot count on Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman.
That, however, does not excuse Pogba when his attitude has been so patently wrong, when he cannot apparently be bothered to hang around to watch the final exchanges of the Derby game (leaving his seat at 2-1) and when he has been using his various interviews, drip by drip, to undermine the manager, twist the knife – call it what you will.
On that front, Mourinho was perfectly entitled to take issue with the player questioning the team’s tactics after Saturday’s draw against Wolves. Pogba did not criticise Mourinho directly but the message was clear, nonetheless, in a barely disguised, read-between-the-lines kind of way. It felt deliberate. It smacked of a player who knew he was blurring the lines and, ultimately, he is old enough and experienced enough to have known all this. And, as Ferguson used to say, the moment a player starts getting too full of himself, you’re in trouble.
The upshot is that Pogba’s vice-captaincy has been taken away, the bags under Mourinho’s eyes seem even more super-sized, and the pictures from Carrington seem to confirm what has already become clear: that they have tired of sharing each other’s oxygen, that the journalists who have been leading the way on this story are well-briefed and that, given the status of these two individuals at Old Trafford, it must be souring the entire atmosphere behind the scenes.
The question is what happens next and, for now, nobody can answer with great certainty. All that can really be said is Pogba might be in for a surprise if he assumes United’s match-going supporters are going to take his side. They have seen it all before, with David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and others, and the crowd will always back the manager ahead of a mutinous player. – Guardian service