Loss to Derby, Paul Pogba drama create tense times at Old Trafford for Jose Mourinho
MANCHESTER, England -- It was a coincidence that as Paul Pogba, dressed in a white tracksuit, flashed up on the television screens at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, the Manchester United fans started to sing "Jose Mourinho."
Most of the supporters inside the stadium will not have seen the Frenchman, tucked away in a private box in the Sir Alex Ferguson stand after being rested in Tuesday's Carabao Cup loss to Derby County, but it did serve as a reminder that, in this increasingly messy power struggle, most fans have now sided with Mourinho.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ed Woodward seemed to take his side, too. In a call with investors to reveal fourth quarter financial results, United's executive vice-chairman suggested the club were committed to winning trophies with Mourinho. It was not a vote of confidence but, then, Woodward makes so few public statements it was as close to a show of support as you're likely to get.
It was particularly significant that it came three days after the latest set-back in the Premier League -- a 1-1 draw with Wolves that saw United slip eight points behind Liverpool after just six games.
"It's easy to get caught up in the game-by-game fluctuations of our season but I would like to take this opportunity to take a step back and look at the bigger picture," said Woodward. "Our board, our investors and everyone at the club are aligned with the fans about what we need to do on the pitch, and that is to win trophies. It is one of the reasons we hired Jose Mourinho and we have already won three with him."
If that was strengthening his position in the board room, at the same time, Mourinho was making sure he was doing the same in the dressing room. Ahead of Derby's visit, the 55-year-old told Pogba he will not captain the team again. It could have been in response to any number of things. His lazy jog back towards his own goal after losing the ball in the build-up to Wolves' equaliser on Saturday, perhaps, or his comments after the game when he suggested Mourinho was behind a lack of attacking football.
Mourinho might also have got fed up with Pogba refusing to put to bed stories that he wants to leave Old Trafford. It has become a long-running saga. The Portuguese coach refused to expand, confirming only that the 25-year-old was no longer "second captain."
"The only truth is that I made the decision of Paul not to be the second captain anymore," he told Sky Sports. "But no fall-out. No problems at all. The same person that decides Paul is not second captain anymore was exactly the same person that decides that Paul was the second captain, myself.
"I am the manager, I can make these decisions, no fall-out at all, no problems at all, just one decision that I don't have to explain."
But if Mourinho spent most of Tuesday coming out on top in his personal battles with Woodward and Pogba, he didn't against Frank Lampard and Derby County. It undermined it all. Ultimately, Mourinho's position will only be secure when United are winning games and, against the Championship side, they did not. It is not the end of the world because, as Mourinho said himself after the penalty shoot-out defeat, the Premier League, Champions League and the FA Cup are bigger competitions.
What is worrying, though, is that the same thing is happening again and again and again. Mourinho's pre-game programme notes got lost in all the furore surrounding Pogba but they were fiercely critical of his players.
"I hope we can look back on Saturday's game against Wolves for an important lesson; a lesson that I repeat week after week after week, a lesson that some boys are not learning; every team that plays Manchester United are playing the game of their lives and we need to match that level of aggression, motivation and desire -- 95 percent isn't enough when others give 101 percent."
Against Wolves, United began to lose their way after taking the lead. It happened again against Derby and, considering what Mourinho had written in the programme, Ashley Young's post-match interview was startling.
"They had more intensity than we did," he told MUTV. "When you're playing these games you've got to show that intensity and go further than the opposition. We didn't do that, we got punished and they won the game."
On Saturday, Mourinho had called desire and commitment "the basic laws of football" and, according to Young, they are still missing. Tactics, transfers, captains and second captains are fairly trivial issues in comparison.
It looked for much of a day of drama at United that Mourinho would end it with his position strengthened. It ended with far more questions than answers.