He smiled, charmed, and quipped his way through a relatively stern interrogation from the media yesterday but, after the dust had settled on Jose Mourinho’s press conference ahead of tonight’s Champions League tie with Valencia, it was hard not to sense a hint of change in the Old Trafford air.
The Spanish side, currently 14th in La Liga, visit tonight with a wretched Newcastle United, an even more dysfunctional collective than Mourinho’s club, at Old Trafford four days later, for a week in which two more defeats would, surely, prompt the club’s hierarchy into drastic action.
The form book suggests such an outcome is unlikely yet, still, there was an end-of-empire feel about Mourinho’s performance yesterday.
Not quite Jose’s last stand, perhaps, but we may well be past the beginning of the end phase and somewhere in its middle.
“Hello, hello!” chirped Mourinho as he walked into the busy press conference just 48 hours after the demoralising defeat at West Ham.
Yet, for all the forced bonhomie from both sides in the room, it was not long before the real business came under discussion, issues such as whether Mourinho feels his job on the line.
“No, I don’t think.”
Or whether he had spoken with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward about his job security.
That’s a private matter. I’m not asking you ‘who did you speak to yesterday or this morning’, or your last phone call. That’s a private matter, I am not going to answer to you.
Or whether he has spoken with Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman who, according to one British tabloid, has already entered into negotiations to replace Mourinho.
“He has written it, you need to ask him. He put a bug on my telephone so why don’t you ask him?”
The last response, pointing at the journalist who had written the ‘offending’ article, was made in jest and formed part of Mourinho’s attempts to charm his way through the minefield that such briefings can constitute.
At the Olympic Stadium, after the desultory defeat to West Ham, he had testily answered just three questions before being ushered away by a press officer who has looked increasingly inept and terrified at every passing week of Mourinho’s descent into public relations meltdown.
The collapse of his relationship with Paul Pogba, underlined by television footage of a training session last week in which the pair argued, has been the centre of recent controversies and it was telling yesterday that Mourinho winked, grinned and jabbed his way throughout the Uefa-mandated ‘open’ section of United training which cameras are allowed to film.
But it was also telling that the training session, or at least its open part, seemed curiously subdued with none of the usual banter that is the stock-in-trade of a typical football session.
Indeed, beyond Mourinho’s problems with Pogba, there have also been darker reports, most of them credible and substantiated, that speak of a dressing room split that is only deepening.
Talk of a clique of French-speaking malcontents Pogba, Eric Bailly and Anthony Martial, for example; suggestions Mourinho has read the riot act to Marcus Rashford over his recent attitude; the notion that the hopelessly out-of-form Alexis Sanchez is unhappy, especially after being left out of the West Ham line-up; the idea that players were baffled by his decision to start Scott McTominay among a three-man defensive line on Saturday. The list grows by the day.
But, perhaps, the most telling indication of the problems Mourinho faces in holding that splintered group together came when he offered the opinion that some of his stars care more than others.
That flew in the face of Mourinho’s desperate attempt, just moments earlier, to convince the room that this is a collective effort — maybe, by week’s end, a collective crisis — in which United now find themselves.
“It is a collective thing,” he said. “The reason why we don’t win matches is the same reason we win matches — it is the responsibility of everybody.
“The performance on the pitch, in my opinion, is the consequence of many factors — of many factors.
Luke Shaw, for example, said something on Saturday that I agree with but I don’t agree totally because I am part of it and other persons are part of it.
“But he says ‘we players are on the pitch, it’s about us, we have to perform, we have to give more’. I like that perspective but I don’t agree totally. It’s all of us.
“Everybody in the club has a role to play — the kit man has a role to play, the nutritionist has a role to play. I have a role to play. Everybody has a role to play.
“When we win, we all win. When we lose, we all lose. And when we lose the responsibility I think is the responsibility of everyone.
“What I can do to improve things I do and I will improve the things that depend on me and my work.”
Whether Mourinho is still the “Special One” of old, capable of turning around this unholy mess — a mess far from completely of his own making, it should be said — just through the sheer force of his will, remains to be seen.
“It’s a big week, everybody wants to play Champions League, not everybody can do it,” said Mourinho. “So we are here and have a chance to play a big match, so big match, big week.”
Possibly bigger than he can imagine.
Mourinho: Some care more than others
Jose Mourinho has claimed that some of his under-performing Manchester United players care more than others, hardly a resounding vote of confidence in his squad’s collective mentality as they attempt to salvage their season.
The United manager was attempting to be diplomatic and refused to name names when pressed but his comments simply add to the air of intrigue that surrounds the Old Trafford dressing room at present.
“I think that some care more than others,” said Mourinho before refusing to identify individual players.
“Every player is different, no player is the same. I see different reactions but sometimes what you see is not really what is inside.
“I see sad people, I see people that doesn’t look like they lost a game, I see so-so.
But in the little two sessions of training that we had everything was normal, everybody (had a) desire to work and play.
“It’s like, sometimes what it looks like it’s exactly the opposite ..... if you understand what I am saying?
“You can be laughing and be the saddest person in the world and you can be with a very sad face and you can be a fantastic actor and inside of you, you are very happy. Sometimes what you see is not what you got.”
Mourinho’s comments hardly constitute a ringing endorsement of his players at a time that the Portuguese veteran’s man-management skills have come under close scrutiny.
Only Cardiff’s players have covered less ground than United’s stars this season, while United are among the worst four teams for the completion of sprints so far in the Premier League campaign but Mourinho still stopped short of accusing his players of a lack of effort.
“I said already that after 20 years of football, I am still the kid that I was 20 years ago and I am still naive, but I still don’t believe that a player is not honest,” he said. “Until somebody that was a big professional player tells me ‘I was a dishonest player’, I will always believe that the players are honest players and the players want to give their best.
They do it, they don’t do it - that’s a different story. They perform, they don’t perform - that’s a different story. But, I repeat, I am naive or I still believe that a football player is an honest man.
Tellingly, Mourinho selected his former Chelsea lieutenant Nemanja Matic to accompany him to the press conference with the midfielder confessing he played his worst game for the club in the 3-1 defeat at West Ham on Saturday.
“For me, I played one of the worst games since I signed for Man United,” he said.
“I look in the mirror and I want to see where I made mistakes and where I can do better. For sure, everyone does the same.
“This game was really bad but everyone has a responsibility for that. I don’t believe that any player goes onto the pitch not giving his best.
“Everyone who started the game wants to do better for himself, and after that it is about being better for the team.
Pressure is always there. All my life I play with pressure, and it is the same for my teammates. We are not scared to play. Everyone is trying to win. Everyone wants to fight against us but we are not scared to play and I’m sure we will show that in the next few games.
“But I don’t think with talking you can resolve something. The leaders need to be on the pitch. The leaders are the players who are not scared to play. We will see tomorrow (Tuesday). That match, and in the next games, we will see who are the leaders.
“For me, if you talk in the dressing room that doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes it can help but the most important is on the pitch.”