Mourinho’s battle with Pogba shows the Special One is not so special anymore
Jose Mourinho once told me that if you are unhappy with a player, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, you have to know their personality and know what buttons to push.
“If it’s John Terry, then I might get in his face, shout at him and tell him he’s an [expletive],” he said to me and Gianluca Vialli when we were writing “The Italian Job.” “But if it’s William Gallas, I can’t do that. I will lose him if I do that. I might need to put my arm around him, be supportive, reach him in a different way.”
You wonder what then Mourinho would make of himself today if he could time travel and meet his future self, 13 years into the future.
(Or if somehow, to go all Charles Dickens for a minute, the ghost of his long-time assistant Rui Faria were to materialize one night in Mourinho’s suite at The Lowry Hotel and take him to meet the Ghosts of Jose Past, Jose Present and Jose Yet to Come.)
My guess is that his younger self would wonder what the heck the older version is doing.
Of course, it is not as if 2005 Mourinho was a saint. He could be as Machiavellian as anyone.
In that sense, he might even have approved of the execution of the latest Paul Pogba bust-up and the way it was orchestrated. Because let’s be clear, however you feel about Pogba, this was stage-managed.
Start with the fact that there is no such thing as the “vice-captaincy” or “second captaincy” at Manchester United. The club captain is Antonio Valencia, and in his absence, Pogba has worn the armband on several occasions. But so too have other players; in fact, Mourinho said in the summer that a whole range of guys — from Chris Smalling to Juan Mata to Ashley Young — would be captain when Valencia was not around.
Mourinho rightly knows the armband is just a piece of cloth: If you are not a leader, it will not turn you into one. Equally, though, by announcing Pogba does not have the traits of a captain, the United manager is not only humiliating him but going further by taking away a second captaincy that doesn’t actually exist. The only purpose served was to make the point that Pogba is unfit to lead.
The 2005 Mourinho would have been on board with that and might have said exactly the same thing. Except, you would imagine, he would have done it in private and to Pogba’s face because, unless the player had some unusual inclination toward public humiliation, that is not the way to motivate performance.
And what happened on Tuesday was a public humiliation. While it might have taken place within the Carrington training ground, it was in front of Pogba’s peers and teammates; when something like that happens in front of so many people, it is pretty much guaranteed to leak out.
Mourinho has been around long enough to know that, and what is more is the quote that “players were happy with the decision” offers a clear clue that the leak did not come from Pogba’s end. It was designed to get out and have maximum resonance.
And just in case anyone missed the point, the following day only reinforced things when video emerged of a tense exchange between Mourinho and Pogba. Rights holders are allowed to film training once a month and they only get 15 minutes. Club press officers babysit the camera operators, so the coaching staff are fully aware when they turn up and when they leave.
You can even throw in the story, which by sheer coincidence appeared on Thursday, that Pogba marched into executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s office just before the club’s opening game of the season and told him he had agreed personal terms with Barcelona and wanted to leave.
(What’s more, it does not ring true. Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola is paid when deals are done and demanding a move hours before the Premier League transfer window closes is not the way to do that. From the United perspective, there would be no time to find a replacement, and they are under no financial pressure to sell. Barcelona, meanwhile, had spent $70 million to add Arthur and Arturo Vidal to add numbers to an already deep pool of central midfielders.)
Once again, the 2005 Mourinho might have approved of all this. However, he would have been befuddled by the end game. After all, old-school Mourinho knew not to pick fights he was unlikely to win, just as Machiavelli instructs.
Indeed, it is difficult to even define victory in this case.
To some, who believe Pogba is the root of all the club’s problems, it is getting him out of the team so that United will flourish and win silverware this season.
To others, who think this is actually a complex psychological ploy, wherein Mourinho drags someone through the mud and then builds him up again, thereby winning his loyalty forever, it’s another Luke Shaw situation; Pogba’s teammate went from this to this.
To others still — most ominously of all — it is the manager’s attempt to get himself sacked. It might not be ideal, but a payoff of nearly $45m, plus two trophies to show for two full seasons despite a raft of spinnable excuses, from Pogba’s presence to Woodward’s transfer meddling and the dumpster fire of a squad he inherited from Louis van Gaal — heck, that’s not so bad.
All three “victory” scenarios are somewhat far-fetched and you wonder if they are worth the negatives, the main one being the depreciation of Pogba’s transfer value, which is exactly what happens when you call your club’s priciest saleable asset unfit to be captain. That depreciation would only be compounded if Pogba turns into a bit player.
Moreover, it would also boomerang back on Mourinho, because as we have seen with Woodward’s attitude toward Anthony Martial, he does not like offloading talent at a reduced price simply because the manager does not particularly rate the player. It is hard to see who would pay in for Pogba if Mourinho tries to force a sale.
Perhaps this was a message to the entire squad — many of whom like Pogba — that they too can be thrown under the bus whenever the manager feels like it. We have seen glimpses of it with Shaw and Martial and, after Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat to Derby, the name-checking of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones and their supposed inability to convert penalties. Indeed, since Tuesday’s training ground incident, sources have told ESPN that several senior players are “angry and frustrated” with their manager.
It might also signal to future employers that Mourinho will give them the Woodward treatment, by speaking out in public if they don’t deliver on his transfer shopping listand flexing his muscle to force a decision between two of their biggest financial commitments.
Old Trafford was a place to restore his reputation after the acrimony that followed his exits from Real Madrid and Chelsea. That is why Woodward hired him and why many, including yours truly, thought he was the right appointment. It was the perfect match of two fallen giants with plenty still to give, something the 2005 Mourinho would have understood.
This Mourinho seems to swerve and claw and zigzag, like a desperately tired fox chased by hounds. Unsure of where he’s going and having forgotten where he’s been.