When Jose Mourinho opens his mouth, the whole world seems to be listening.
You would expect that sort of reaction when the Manchester United manager speaks to the media, but with Mourinho you sense it’s all a little bit different.
After all, the media has spent the last decade parsing every sentence in the hope of finding some hidden jibe, some ulterior meaning, or the remnants of a mind game. Mourinho can’t open his mouth without someone reading something into it.
They’re not just listening for some insight or some truth. They’re listening for a quote. And he often obliges.
But two things he has said recently have passed under the radar somewhat. Not so much in their reporting – anything Mourinho says is reported widely – but in the reaction to the sources.
First came Mourinho’s insistence that Sir Alex Ferguson shouldn’t be kept away from United’s players, but should be allowed to travel with the team and enter the dressing room after games. Since his retirement, the former manager has been a common sight in the directors’ box, but has never had any sort of say in team matters. There’s no suggestion that will change, but there’s probably a reason why he steered clear of commenting.
At the beginning of David Moyes’ reign, there was a lingering question of whether Ferguson’s shadow would loom large. The sight of the 75-year-old in the stands was usually only shown by the TV cameras when United were losing – a common occurrence in the first few months of Ferguson’s retirement.
After that, it became more about power and who was wielding it. United are a massive football club, and they remain so, but there was something jarring about the sight of such a great manager watching from the stands while his former team struggled so terribly. The players may have seen the same thing if Ferguson had entered the dressing room after games: the sight of their former, successful manager standing alongside David Moyes or Louis van Gaal at their worst would surely have evoked powerful feelings in players like Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney or Chris Smalling.
Mourinho feels differently, though, telling Portuguese television channel SIC (via Sky Sports) “At the end of games, when he [Ferguson], Sir Bobby Charlton and the CEO come down and he’s the only one that doesn’t come in the changing rooms, I told him this type of situation makes no sense, he needs to feel free to do what a person of his stature that represents the club can do.”
It might seem like there’s more sentimentality than substance in that, but it’s actually quite a big deal: neither Moyes nor Van Gaal could have done that because they would have looked weak standing alongside a manager who was so clearly superior, at least when it comes to Manchester United. Mourinho feels powerful enough among his players that this doesn’t phase him. And that’s a watershed moment for United.
The third manager after Ferguson was always going to be in a powerful position. His players are mostly different ones to those the Scot had during his final years, and Ferguson’s time in charge now seems far enough into the past that we can stop comparing successors to a manager who won everything worth winning in a two-and-a-half decade reign.
So Mourinho’s position on letting Ferguson closer to the team is explicable through the lens of Manchester United’s complex power games and Mourinho’s sense of control. The same could be said for the second quote Mourinho has given to a foreign media outlet this week, this time to France Football.
In his interview with the magazine, Mourinho spoke about his new-found calm. “At the start of my career… I was plugged in permanently, 24 hours a day.” he said. “Today, I feel good about myself as a man. I’ve matured, I’m calmer. A victory no longer means the moon to me, and defeat no longer hell. And I think that I’m now in a position to transmit that calmness to those who work with me, my players.”
The two quotes go together. Mourinho says he is happy in his own skin, and in his profession. He feels in control. Comfortable enough to allow himself to be measured up to an incredibly powerful and emotive club figure, one who dwarfed both of his predecessors and made their jobs almost untenable. And he’s not just allowing this comparison to be made by the media, either, because by bringing Ferguson into the dressing room, he’ll be compared by his players, too.
It’s a brave move, and one that can only be made by a man who genuinely feels comfortable in his position.
That’s good news for United. Not just because of the obvious reason that their manager seems happy with how things are going, or because they’re still on for a triple-crown of cup competitions – still alive in the FA Cup and Europa League after winning the EFL Cup. It’s also good news because United are no longer a club in the shadow of Ferguson. What was a spectre looming over the club is now just a part of its glorious tapestry.
But perhaps there’s also bad news for United. Part of what made Mourinho such a good manager in the past was an intensity and a need for control. The ability to create a ‘the whole world’s against us’ mentality among his players, coupled with a knack for taking the media glare away from the team and acting like a lightning rod for negative headlines all by himself endeared him to grateful players who then won titles for him.
So will a zen Mourinho be able to have the same impact? Or will he lose some sort of necessary edge? Or are we all, once again, falling for a perfectly crafted mind game?