There was a moment, at around five past four last Saturday afternoon, local time, when it seemed that everything might actually be all right at Old Trafford. Manchester United, having won its three previous games, led Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0. Jose Mourinho, perhaps, had ridden out the storm.
But then Joao Moutinho equalized. United only drew and found itself eight points behind the leader, Liverpool. Those three wins began to be re-examined: comfortable enough successes at Burnley and Young Boys, but for a club of United’s resources that shouldn’t be anything noteworthy; and an edgy victory at Watford, secured by a fine save from David De Gea, without whom United might easily have lost to Wolves. Talk of resurrection, it became apparent, was greatly exaggerated.
Paul Pogba made some indiscreet comments about United’s style, and the tensions within the club became apparent again. On Tuesday, the news broke that Mourinho had stripped Pogba of the captaincy. That night, United lost on penalties in the Carabao Cup to Derby County, managed now by Frank Lampard. If that seemed a clever joke on the part of football, involving one of Mourinho’s greatest loyalists from his Chelsea days in whipping up a new crisis, the weekend’s is even better, as United face a West Ham side managed by Manuel Pellegrini.
The Chilean is an urbane man, flamboyantly dull in press conferences, whose capacity for anger seems to run the gamut from 1 to, well, 1.1. He has never knowingly expressed an interesting emotion, but not even he, surely, could not be so buttoned up as not to relish the situation. Pellegrini was replaced by Mourinho as manager of Real Madrid, his one season in charge yielding a then-record tally of points, which still wasn’t enough to finish above Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. When it was suggested to Mourinho the following season that there were similarities between the situations faced by him and Pellegrini, he snorted and replied that when he left Madrid he would be going to “a big club,” a reply that seemed disrespectful to both Pellegrini and Malaga, the side he had taken over. After that, Mourinho took every opportunity to belittle his predecessor.
Mourinho has the upper hand in the rivalry, if it’s possible to image Pellegrini being involved in such a thing, winning seven of their 13 meetings with three draws. But Pellegrini is unbeaten in their last four meetings, the most recent of which was his Manchester City side’s 3-0 victory over Chelsea that first raised the alarm that something had gone badly wrong for Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. With West Ham beginning to find a little form, it’s not inconceivable Pellegrini could play a similar role this season.
But the picture at Old Trafford is far from clear. That something is badly wrong is obvious, but who will get the blame is not. The situation with Pogba seems irreconcilable. His agent, Mino Raiola, let it be known over the summer that Pogba was keen on a move, with Barcelona expressing an interest. But Pogba remained at United and was made “second captain” (Antonio Valencia is the first-choice captain), seemingly a ploy to make him take more responsibility.
Pogba has captained United on three occasions this season, the first two league games and last week’s Champions League win in Bern, when he scored twice. After the first of those league matches, the 2-1 win over Leicester City, he was coy in his post-match comments, saying he couldn’t say what he wanted to say for fear of a fine. On Saturday, that reserve had gone. United, Pogba insisted, had to “attack, attack, attack.”
Mourinho could not take the challenge to his authority, and at Tuesday’s pre-match squad meeting he demoted Pogba, telling him he would never captain the club again. While there are those who blame Mourinho for the situation–France manager Didier Deschamps, for instance, this week suggested Pogba is not as “individualistic” as many believe–there is also a section of United fans who remember Sir Alex Ferguson tiring of the midfielder and his agent’s agitating before selling him in 2012.
Video them emerged of the two exchanging frosty words at training on Wednesday, seemingly because Mourinho believed Pogba had posted footage of himself laughing at United’s defeat to Derby to Instagram. It subsequently emerged that the film was from around an hour earlier, when United was leading, but that issues with the stadium wifi–and, as any journalist will tell you, the Old Trafford wifi is among the least reliable in the Premier League–had led to a delay.
Although there are understood to be increasing doubts in the boardroom about Mourinho’s future at Old Trafford, this seems to be an area in which he has the support of the board. Certainly the way the club figures have been briefing against Pogba this week–criticizing him for rushing off to take a flight for international duty with France after the Burnley game, playing loud music on the team bus on the way to the Wolves match, leaving the Derby game before the end and reporting for duty at the Lowry Hotel in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce–seemed revealing. And with the regulation preventing players from playing for more than one club in the Champions League in the same season now abolished, there is no reason for Pogba not to be sold in January.
What that means for him and United over the coming months is uncertain. Two things, though, are clear. Firstly, that the constant aggravation with its record signing is a further indictment of United’s post-Ferguson transfer policy; and, secondly, that Mourinho’s time at United is as uneasy as it’s ever been.