Opinion: Jose Mourinho has regained the Manchester United dressing room
Following Manchester United’s 3-1 loss to West Ham in late September, pundit Jamie Carragher claimed that Jose Mourinho had lost the United dressing room. It wasn’t a bold statement by any stretch. Carragher argued that United’s performances were evidence that the players were no longer playing for the Portuguese and that he would soon be sacked.
In Carragher’s defence, the performances against Derby, Wolves and West Ham suggested a team in rapid decline. Jose Mourinho has ‘lost’ dressing rooms before, notably at Real Madrid and Chelsea in 2015.
In the game against Chelsea on Saturday however, United looked like a team reinvigorated and fighting for the cause. The United side that played on Saturday looked like a team ready to kick-start their season, providing the first sure-fire evidence that the Manchester United squad are well and truly behind Jose Mourinho.
The season had started poorly in Manchester. During the preseason tour, Mourinho cut a sullen, angry figure launching attacks on the board and even his own players. Chief Executive Ed Woodward was called out in public for the lack of transfer activity while a breakdown in communication led to Anthony Martial being fined for going AWOL after the birth of his child in August. Martial would later relay news of birthing difficulties through Instagram.
Paul Pogba’s future also appeared destined for elsewhere. The newly minted World Cup winner was the subject of a late transfer bid from Barcelona, with Pogba reportedly agreeing terms with the Catalonians. Further issues arose over Pogba's comments to the media and Instagram posts. Sky Sports had a video of a training ground confrontation between Pogba and Mourinho. Newspaper stories appeared stating that David De Gea and Anthony Martial would not be signing new deals at the club.
It’s amazing how things can change.
David McDonnell’s story on the eve of United’s game with Newcastle about Mourinho being sacked regardless of the scoreline was a watershed moment. Ten minutes into the game and the Manchester side were 2-0 down, with Mourinho apparently heading out the door. But something happened. Something twigged, and United began to play football. Exciting, attacking football. Attack, attack, attack.
It is a mantra that Mourinho would once have scorned, but with their backs against the wall, United began to perform. It was similar to the game at the Etihad in April in which United had found themselves 2-0 down at halftime. That 2-0 deficit somehow unlocks the United mentality from somewhere deep within and every second is Fergie Time. Like in April, United came from behind to win 3-2 and the spirit was restored.
It seemed Mourinho would keep his job.
Is it possible to ‘regain’ a lost dressing room? Have the players sympathized with Mourinho’s bad press and felt a need to support him? Little things have occurred during the season. In March, the Manchester United players were reportedly ‘stunned’ by Mourinho’s bullying of Shaw.
Yet Shaw has come out in glowing support of his manager this season, saying that Mourinho had ‘made him stronger mentally’. Shaw is now, finally, thriving in the United team. Anthony Martial was on the receiving end of similar treatment from Mourinho, not only during the summer but also following the loss to Brighton in May. He too is now thriving in the team.
Eden Hazard said this week that he would love to one day work with Mourinho again. Hazard disliked the defensive duties imposed on him by Mourinho at Chelsea, but famously texted Mourinho following his sacking to apologise for the team’s under-performance.
That Chelsea team, infiltrated by ‘rats’ according to Mourinho, also included Nemanja Matic, who chose to reunite with Mourinho in 2017. Willian, another member of that supposedly toxic dressing room, also wished to re-join Mourinho at United. Diego Costa revealed last season that he was still in touch with Mourinho, a man with whom he said he still had a ‘strong relationship’. The Portuguese clearly invokes tremendous loyalty in his players regardless of outside appearances.
To the outside world, Mourinho might present as sullen and dogmatic, but in private it appears the majority of players tend to like and support the Portuguese coach. Mourinho spoke this week of his former stalwart, Michael Essien, referring to himself as Essien’s ‘white daddy’. Frank Lampard and John Terry continue to speak highly of Mourinho, irrespective of the sour ending of Terry’s playing career with the manager.
Interestingly, Lampard recently stated in the build-up to his Carabao Cup showdown with Mourinho that he still considered Mourinho as ‘The Special One’. Lampard’s Derby team now play expansive, attacking football – very different to the style Mourinho advocated at Chelsea. It demonstrates a dissonance, in which these great players, such as Lampard and Hazard, identify that while they may not enjoy the style of football Mourinho preaches, that they greatly respect the man and revere his status in the game.
It is telling that when Mourinho was provoked by Chelsea coach Marco Ianni in the dying seconds of the game on Saturday that it was one of his players, Sergio Romero, who put an arm around Mourinho to restrain him. When Anthony Martial saw his number going up to be substituted, despite his two-goal salvo, it was a familiar disappointed look that crossed the Frenchman’s face. He had put in a stellar performance and Mourinho had cheered him on along the sideline all game.
Martial did not look happy to be substituted as he walked to Mourinho. There was that moment that fans often await as they try to gauge the body language between coach and player. The coach put his arms around the Frenchman and said something which prompted a large smile. That smile, a rarity from Martial, was a welcome sight. Perhaps things are changing in Manchester.
If the often-castigated Anthony Martial can offer a beaming smile to the coach while being substituted, perhaps the dressing room might still be salvageable for Mourinho. The Manchester United players may have realised what Eden Hazard did in the aftermath of Mourinho’s sacking in 2015; that the team had been underperforming and needed to work harder.
The most surprising thing about United’s performance against Chelsea on Saturday is that the system employed by Mourinho against Chelsea, one of the league’s top sides, was the same that failed miserably against Brighton in August. The Manchester United players rallied on Saturday and put in performance levels befitting men who wear the red of Manchester United.
Carragher might still have been right. The team might not have been behind Mourinho earlier in the season but now, for the first time in his career, Jose Mourinho will hope that he has found a way to revitalise a lost cause.