The question was harmless enough but the response was revealing. In the King Power Stadium, with the pain of Leicester City’s late equalizer still raw, José Mourinho stared incredulously at his inquisitor and snarled back without pausing.
“Do you think I’m worried with that now, in this moment? With captain and Paul and Paul and captain? No. Do you have any more questions about the game?”
“It’s related to the game,” came the reply.
“No, it’s not related to the game,” said Mourinho, rising from his chair. “What do you mean the armband? What is the influence in the game?”
“We’re just trying to do our job and get a line.”
“Which line? The line of the captain? Pfff. That’s not a line,” the Manchester United manager shrugged dismissively as he started walking towards the door. “Any more questions? Merry Christmas, eh.”
Even as Mourinho rants go, his reaction to being asked about Paul Pogba’s first Premier League match as United captain was one of the more bizarre matters over which to lose his temper. But this has been a month in which the 54-year-old has been involved in a tunnel bust-up at Old Trafford, walked out of a press conference accusing the media of a lack of respect for Bournemouth, and referred to Bristol City as lucky after a cup defeat. He is growing increasingly frustrated as Manchester City sweep all before them.
Accusing his players of making “childish decisions” in the dying moments of Saturday’s match was an indication that Mourinho is quickly losing patience with some of the senior members of his squad, with Anthony Martial, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling – forced to play on with an injury because United had no substitutes remaining – the potential culprits he had in mind.
It brought back memories of his bitter attack on his Chelsea side after their defeat at Leicester a little more than two years ago. On that occasion Mourinho accused his players of betraying him as they suffered a ninth league defeat of the season despite having won the title a few months earlier – he was sacked two days later. Although there is a long way to go before he reaches that scale of meltdown, there is compelling evidence that the early stages of his notorious third-season syndrome may have arrived way ahead of schedule.
For a manager who has never failed to win the domestic title in his second season at any of his clubs, it is easy to understand why. Even with United starting the second half of the season in their highest position since they won the Premier League in 2013, Mourinho finds his team cut adrift of Pep Guardiola’s City. A lack of professionalism against Leicester cost them, with Martial and Jesse Lingard spurning opportunities to secure a win.
But the withering assessment that there was a “lack of maturity” is unlikely to have been well received in the dressing room, especially by Young, whom Mourinho accused of failing to get his message across. The England international has emerged as one of his most trusted lieutenants, captaining the side on more than one occasion this season, so it was surprising to hear him singled out.
But, as Mourinho admitted so publicly, the armband does not mean much to him. In the absence of the club captain, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia has been the regular choice for most of this season along with Smalling, with Pogba stepping in on Saturday. Perhaps that is part of the problem?
It is difficult to imagine a United side containing Steve Bruce or Roy Keane succumbing to such a sloppy equalizer against 10 men with the last kick of the match and Mourinho’s inability to relay his instructions to his team via Young when Smalling was injured does not reflect well on the manager’s relationship with his team.
A trusted captain can provide the crucial link between players and manager that appears to be missing at the moment – a role to which Pogba should be perfectly suited. His suspension for the Manchester derby was a bitter blow to Mourinho’s hopes of taking the game to City but with the midfielder back in the side it would make sense to entrust him with the captaincy for the long term.
The home fixture against Burnley on Boxing Day provides United with the chance of immediate redemption, and the subsequent games against Southampton and away at Everton must be won to stand any chance of keeping the title race alive. As Mourinho himself once said: “As the coach and leader you must be the master motivator of your team.” Now is the time for him to prove that his methods can still have an effect.