“I do not like talking about injured players,” José Mourinho announced a few months before he left Real Madrid – shortly before going on to talk, rather darkly, about assorted injured players and provide in the process another in a series of similar digressions through the sullen, dying autumn of his time at the Bernabéu.
In reality, of course, the opposite is true. Mourinho loves talking about injured players. Or at least he certainly spends a lot of time doing it. Some may see an odd coincidence in Mourinho's comments about Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling refusing to play through injury coming almost exactly a year after Mourinho was sued by the doctor at his previous club, who treated an (apparently) injured player against the manager's wishes; or almost exactly two years since Mourinho used a press conference to mock Sergio Ramos's lack of a medical degree in another migrainously tedious row over the exact limits of injury and fitness; or almost exactly three years after Mourinho could be heard describing Oscar as "a fragile boy" who lacks "physical ability" just after his best performance to date in England.
But then this is José, king of pain. Stick a pin in it. He is likely to be talking about injuries. Or if not actual injuries then the politics of injury, of capacity and human will, with all the attendant implications for his own obsession with the personalty dynamics – loyalty, ruthlessness, transcendent commitment – of winning at all costs.
No doubt there will be a temptation for some to detect another sign here of a continuing personal unravelling, evidence of a dressing room already being lost before it has been found. Never mind third-season syndrome. Let’s just cut to the chase. Welcome to first-season syndrome. But this is at least reassuringly Mourinho-ish territory, a recurrent personal obsession even through the early glory years.
Plus in effect, and in his own lightly brutish way, Mourinho is talking about what others have also seen at times in the confusingly piecemeal entity that is the current Manchester United: a disparateness, a relax of air after the linear obsession of the Ferguson years. Mourinho sees the root of United's failure to win as a kind of decadence, a diffuse, room temperature group insufficiently gripped with a fury to win.
The slightly startling willingness to attack publicly his own players might seem a little reckless, a gamble on the extent of his own dwindling cult of personality. But it is at least a tactic, an attempt to address a problem that is unmistakably Mourinho in nature and which was always likely to centre at some point on issues of fitness and will.
Mourinho and injuries: it has been a long, public, at times darkly productive relationship. "He doesn't like players who get injured," Arjen Robben has said. And it is no secret Mourinho's best times in elite club football have been squeezed out of teams where a refusal to bow to injury or fatigue has been key to the oddly obsessive, oddly personal relationship with his players. Even during Porto's run to the Champions League final, won in 2004, Mourinho was able to field more or less the same team through the later rounds despite a series of lingering injuries to Derlei, Benni McCarthy, Deco, Jorge Costa and Pedro Mendes. "I told them that some of them may be lucky enough to play in another Champions League final but most of them won't," Mourinho said before the final, correctly as it turned out.
At Chelsea the willingness of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to keep on playing through the pain became a kind of intoxicating machismo, a key note in the powerful self-mythologising of that team. Wesley Sneijder played through a perforated thigh muscle in the final stage of Internazionale's treble-winning season in 2010, scaling the greatest peak of his career in the process. More recently Wayne Rooney missed the game against Chelsea after apparently trying to "play through" a thigh injury picked up against Fenerbahce. Foolish perhaps but Rooney received no censure. This is the degree level of athletic masochism Mourinho demands. No, don't stop. Bleed a little more for me.
There is, of course, a downside to such relentlessness. The falling out with Eden Hazard at Chelsea stemmed in part from an insistence that his creative sprite play through the pain of an ongoing hip injury. And increasingly there is a sense that these absolute demands may jar with the evolving modern player. At Swansea on Sunday Mourinho described his demands for commitment beyond the pain threshold as "a cultural thing" and this has been English football's culture too. At Wolves in the 1950s Stan Cullis forced his defender Ted Farmer to play an entire half while passing blood after a punch to the stomach. "Wait till it comes out his backside before you take him off," Cullis told the club doctor. Farmer was later diagnosed with a punctured bladder and spent five days in hospital. No one from Wolves visited him.
Players in those days were essentially sporting chattels: disempowered, desperate to keep working, part of a culture that lingered on doggedly in English football. Roy Keane has described how Brian Clough would refuse to talk to injured players or would banish them from the training ground. "I was conditioned to think that not playing if you weren't 100% fit was a sign of weakness and that you should be strong and play when you were injured," Keane wrote in his recent book. "What we see as heroic, I think now is probably weakness."
Mourinho appears to be in the process of putting this to the test. What happens with Shaw, in particular, will be fascinating to watch. Mourinho has already criticised his left-back this season over a mistake at Watford when Shaw was playing through a hamstring injury in an attempt to please his manager. He has, of course, recovered from a horrific injury, the kind that leaves an athlete feeling echoes and aches and sudden surges of pain for the rest of his sporting life.
Tenderness, private conversations, a little nurturing might be more appropriate but also entirely unlikely. Injuries and José: it has been a peculiar, and peculiarly pointed obsession, one that now feels like part of a wider current. Mourinho is not the first manager to suggest there are issues with motivation and hunger among modern players. This time last year Jürgen Klopp was suggesting Daniel Sturridge needs to learn the difference between "serious pain and what is only pain". More widely the existential question of the degree to which modern superstar footballers can be motivated to explore their own physical extremes is now a basic challenge of management. Mourinho has taken a hard line, as he always does. Absolute commitment, an adrenal bond, the willingness to go further: this has always been his real superpower in the good times. Success at United may rest on how far these powers still reach.