One of the great cliches of football commentary is the contention that if you take ‘that little bit of spark’ out of whatever angry flavour of the month is alternately scoring goals or getting sent off, then ‘he wouldn’t be the same player.’ It’s not clear why that is. Wanting to clump someone in the side of head, or set off a violent stramash with some off-colour words, does not appear to be essential to good form.
There is, though, the idea of bronca, or mongrel. The importance of controlled defiance, determination and aggression that makes you a miserable opponent to face. Wayne Rooney had that, just as he occasionally had to deal with his own ill discipline. Carlos Tevez, when he could be bothered, had it too. It is the knowledge that hard running and abrasiveness can catapult you to places where talent cannot alone.
Jose Mourinho has never quite matched that idea. He has given it to past teams, and cultivated it in past players. Chelsea and Inter Milan were often enough indomitable. Real Madrid were content to sacrifice their dignity and their disciplinary record in order to batter Barcelona off course. It was such a wretched few seasons between Barca and Real that relationships in the Spanish national team were stretched, they were destroyed at Madrid, and Spanish manager Pep Guardiola needed to take a year off.
Mourinho was at his best when he was causing aggro, more out of a sense of boorish arrogance and confidence in his own talents, than any spirit of resilience. He could happily dismantle Rafael Benitez and shoosh the Anfield crowd because he knew he was going to win the Premier League. He could term Arsene Wenger a specialist in failure, because Wenger’s mediocrity was indulged. He was rumoured to have chinned an Italian journalist when in charge of Inter. It didn’t really matter, because he kept winning.
At Real, he stretched himself further than he could probably endure. He declared himself the Happy One, which isn’t what he was good at. The return to Chelsea was comfortable, but the abuse of Eva Carneiro – off limits because she was simply staff, and unacceptable because of the sexism that came across from the attitude – didn’t reinvigorate the squad. They had tired of his antics and simply jacked it in. While it is not what a manager should get from players who are paid well to try, he can hardly be surprised that he was no longer a man who commanded respect.
The move to United was ultimately one of convenience. Ed Woodward needed a big name and Mourinho needed a big club. Mindful of a sceptical board, he was on his best behaviour. Even last season he was relatively cowed. There were punishments for touchline and press transgressions, but nothing on the scale of the past. With it came a wan United that improved in their first season off a low base, and then struggled to locate serious gumption the following year.
Woodward was probably wrong not to hand over cash to Mourinho for transfers this summer, but it was certainly not the same manager who demanded and got what he needed at previous clubs. There was less chance of success, and he appeared slightly outmoded. That brought back something like the old, offensive Mourinho.
He performed pointless tomfoolery with his squad selection, leaving midfielders in central defence. He made no substitutions in a defeat to Juventus. He picked a fight with Paul Pogba over the vice captaincy and reportedly behind closed doors. Mourinho looked like he was picking a broader fight to engineer a departure.
And then, the win at Newcastle. From 2-0 down and hapless, to 3-2 up and swearing into the cameras, gesticulating with a mini-member. It was aggressive, and it was gratuitous. It was what Mourinho used to do. More came, with a contretemps with a Chelsea coach, a gesture at the Stamford Bridge crowd, and yesterday evening a gurn on the pitch after the final whistle. A gurn that was entirely justified, and very funny. It might have detracted from the players’ efforts, but they are adults, they will be able to handle an excited, angry boss in victory as opposed to a miserable, critical and sullen one.
It may be bravado, and a last attempt at a turnaround. He could be faking self-confidence in the hope that it carries through to the rest of the squad, now with the habit of fighting back and scoring less. Of course, this is football, so the whole thing could fall apart again in days, but something has changed in Mourinho, and it appears to be working.