The season starts here, the Manchester United boss might be telling his players.
Despite all of the games they’ve had, despite the rows that may or may not be playing out, and despite the bitterness Jose Mourinho has spewed in the faces of all who will listen over a winter of discontent, United’s season really does start on Wednesday night in Spain.
Having been dumped out of the title race early by a record-breaking Manchester City, and out of the League Cup by Bristol City, the Red Devils have just two trophies to play for, the Champions League and the FA Cup. Despite everything that’s happened so far this season and during the Mourinho year and a half, they could yet repeat last season’s success in a more satisfying way.
Last year, it was the League Cup and the Europa League. This season, the combo on offer is the FA Cup and the Champions League. It’s the premium upgrade, from economy class to business.
None of that means that United are thoroughly on track, of course. We’re talking here about a Manchester United side who may well be on the cusp of a munity. Paper talk of Paul Pogba’s fractured relationship with Jose Mourinho does nothing to help in that regard, whilst defeat to Newcastle United in their last Premier League outing was unexpected and coincided with a poor performance – though they really should have won the game, scraping through rather than sparkling.
The Pogba problems are interesting, though. In that game at St James’s Park, the club’s record signing was hauled off and was seemingly run over the coals by his manager, with poor performances in the last few weeks raised in all quarters. With Mourinho you often fall into a trap of trying to look deeper into the situation rather than taking it at face value. His history of ‘mind games’ have conditioned us to see strategy where there is none, and his often cryptic methods of self-expression do nothing to help us out. There are times, surely, when not even Mourinho is trying to play us.
That said, is this one of those times?
The Portuguese coach favours a confrontational style of leadership. That’s a buzzword-laden phrase, sure, but it boils down to that: Mourinho gets in the faces of his players, withholding love and affection in order to get a response from his rabid dogs starved of fresh meat.
Pogba is indeed off form, but rather than speculate about a bust-up, should we be thinking more about this in terms of a fairly standard Mourinho power play? This may be falling into the trap, I admit, but isn’t it strange that the club’s record signing and undoubtedly their best player so far this season – just look at United’s form without him in the team before Christmas – should be so publicly admonished in the weeks leading up to the return of the Champions League? Especially when European football would represent the real saviour to United’s season?
Mourinho doesn’t always play mind games. He doesn’t always have an ulterior motive. Football is a never-ending story, something we turn into a soap opera with the managers and players as the cast playing roles which make it relatable. So much so that you binge-watch it all through the week and talk about it all the time.
And yet, Mourinho is not a bond villain plotting to destroy the world and who must be stopped by the saintly Pep Guardiola and his crusaders for footballing justice. The Manchester United manager is not some sort of shrouded operatic scoundrel known as the Evil One who plays tricks and lays traps. He does, however, like to gee up his players at important parts of the season, and so it’s plausible indeed that he would attempt to get in Pogba’s face at this very time of the season.
It may be true. There may have been a bust-up and this may be a problem. But equally, this might just be another stroke of masterful man-management from a man who knows what he’s doing. After all, United’s season starts right now.