For a man who came back to English football with the stated intention of being one of the greybeards of the management fraternity, one whom the younger generation could turn to in times of trouble, it is still more about starting fights than group-hugs for Jose Mourinho.
The difference is that these days, Mourinho tends to deliver the barb in the middle of a bouquet and the approach has been no different in the run-up to tonight’s first clash of the big boys, when his Chelsea team face David Moyes’ Manchester United at Old Trafford.
For a while the R-word was off-limits for Mourinho, but by the time he embarked on his third press briefing of Friday afternoon, and with Tottenham’s hopes having been delicately shattered by his late intervention in the Willian deal, Mourinho had forgotten the rules of engagement on Wayne Rooney.
There was one question that got to the heart of his dilemma over Rooney. It was put to him that, come this evening, he will be the villain of the piece at Old Trafford and the target for a home crowd who feel that he is taking liberties with their club by pursuing Rooney in such a public fashion. Needless to say, that is not how Mourinho sees it.
“Why? They are against me?” Mourinho said of the United fans. “But I didn’t say [to Rooney], ‘You will be a second choice for me’. And they are against me? We are trying to get a player that a manager told, ‘You will be a second option for me’. We are not going for Robin van Persie. They don’t have to be against me. If I say Ramires is a second option for me and he plays when Frank Lampard is tired or injured, if someone comes here to buy Ramires, nobody is upset.”
So it was Moyes’ fault for that now infamous assertion while United were on tour this summer that Rooney would be used as an understudy to Van Persie? “Of course,” Mourinho said. It is at times like these when, with his temper provoked, that he is prepared to push it.
He said: “In every big team, I am not criticising, you have first options and second options, and those second options must be very good players. That’s why we are buying another good player [Willian] who will be in the same area of Mata and Hazard and Oscar. Of course big teams must have second choices. Big players too. The point is if the players are happy to accept that situation or the players are not happy. A big club manager wants to keep players in a very big squad.”
Asked whether it concerned him that Rooney’s position as understudy showed the depth of United’s squad, Mourinho rowed back a little. “Concern me? It means they have a fantastic squad. Fantastic. I played against them last season. He was on the bench and he [Sir Alex Ferguson] was playing Van Persie, [Danny] Welbeck, [Shinji] Kagawa. The squad is amazing. So it is natural some players have to be second choice. They have a fantastic squad.”
This is what Moyes is up against in Mourinho: an adversary whose approach is to provoke up to a point and then withdraw. In terms of his personal relationship with Moyes, he has never attacked his opposite number directly but he has asked some pretty blunt questions about Rooney’s place in the United hierarchy, or his situation in a World Cup year, with a shrug that says, well, he is only telling it how it is.
Although Moyes has suggested otherwise, it will be difficult for Rooney to play any part tonight. Nevertheless, Moyes still has Van Persie to call upon while Mourinho has a choice of Fernando Torres – in whom he seems to have little faith – Demba Ba – ineffective against Aston Villa – or Romelu Lukaku, whom he likes but is still raw. Asked how he kept them all motivated when they know about his pursuit of Rooney, Mourinho said: “They are professionals. They want to stay.” But there are never any words of encouragement for Torres.
His team tonight will give an indication of who Mourinho regards as his greatest assets. David Luiz will not be back fit in time but it will be instructive to see whether he selects Juan Mata. Certainly he was dismissive of any suggestion that Willian would be superfluous to requirements once he had reduced his squad by one out on loan – most likely Victor Moses.
“It is a crucial department [the creative three] for us, the game we want to play and the intensity we want to have,” Mourinho said. “At the moment it looks like we have a lot of players but when we get to September – and I am not even talking about October, November, December, January – we have Premier League; we have Champions League; we have Capital One Cup; we have two international fixtures. When this time arrives, 22 players is not a big squad.”
While the interest in Willian is longstanding, the move to sign him this week still feels like a snap decision. Asked whether it was personal between him and Andre Villas-Boas, Mourinho tutted and said it was “purely business”. But Chelsea signing Willian perhaps says something about the judgements that Mourinho has already made on his squad two league games, and two wins, into the season.
But as the days tick down to the transfer deadline next Tuesday, the club will have to make a decision on how they plan for the reality of failing to sign Rooney. The club have been in talks with Anzhi’s Samuel Eto’o. If that deal goes through either Ba or Torres will leave. Mourinho does not want four strikers and above all he wants one of his three to be Rooney.
“Now we are quiet [about Rooney], we have no contact,” Mourinho said. “Nothing at all. Tuesday, we will have another feeling.” Had he seen Rooney play last season? “I didn’t see much English football. I was at Real Madrid.”
Mourinho is aware that the one question that pricks his bubble is why Moyes and not him was anointed by Ferguson as his successor. Asked why he had not been selected to manage what was, the reporter in question suggested, the biggest club in the world, Mourinho replied, “Chelsea” – the implication that they were the bigger of the two clubs.
Eyebrows were raised. So Mourinho repeated himself, although this time he was singing, “Chelsea, Chelsea”, from the club’s Blue Day song. It is impossible to tell what he will say or do next, especially amid the tension of tonight’s game.