By Ryan Baldi, Football Whispers
There’s been a change in Jose Mourinho’s demeanour this season. The Portuguese coach often cut a disgruntled figure last term, appearing sulking and, at times, spiky and confrontational.
Now, though, the former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager, besuited in the Old Trafford dugout in lieu of the tracksuits of 2016/17, looks altogether more content. Happy, even.
He has every right to be, too: his Manchester United have stormed to an early lead in the title race by comfortably winning their opening three Premier League fixtures, scoring 10 goals and conceding none; what’s not to be happy about?
But make no mistake, when the time is right, when points are on the line, the fire will appear behind his eyes once more and Mourinho will have no problem picking fights and causing controversy if it gives him any semblance of a competitive advantage.
Our friends at Football Whispers are on hand to introduce us to the new Mourinho, just like the old Mourinho.
Last season, having been appointed United manger – a job, according to some, he had coveted ever since eliminating Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils from the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2004 – many questioned whether Mourinho was somehow discontented in Manchester.
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Theories were espoused that the way in which his second spell at the helm of Chelsea ended had scarred the experienced tactician in some way, or that perhaps having left his family behind in London and residing, year-round, in a hotel was preventing him from taking to his new tasks will full gusto.
With sub-par league form, eventually leading to a disappointing sixth-place finish, United’s season was salvaged by their Europa League triumph. But that was perceived as merely papering over the cracks: progress was negligible and it was suggested in some quarters that the two-time treble-winning, hyper-successful coach of his Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid days was gone.
But Mourinho has altered that perception so far this season, looking more at ease in the Old Trafford dugout, charming and engaging, and results have followed suit.
There appears to have been a change within Mourinho, something that looks akin to a softening of his edges. Maybe he has found his old methods are not as effective as they used to be? Perhaps he now thinks an inclusive, understanding approach to man management and outward PR is a better way to go?
Don’t be fooled, though. United have enjoyed a soft start to the season, comfortably rolling over West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City; untroubled throughout. When the time comes for the 20-time champions to employ a more aggressive, competitive approach in anticipation of crunch encounters with fellow title contenders, their manager will be leading the charge, flag waving, thumping his chest.
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There may be a twinkle in his eye right now and a permagrin fixed upon his face, but there has, underneath the new exterior, been evidence of the old fire still burning within.
Before the season had begun, there was a period where Mourinho appeared to have grown frustrated as the club’s inability to deliver the four signings he had requested – they still stand on three starting XI additions with deadline day approaching – and the manager appeared apply a little pressure on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward with comments to the press.
“We always feel there is room to improve,’ he told ESPN in June, with only Victor Lindelof and Romelu Lukaku signed by that stage. “And I cannot say that I am happy with our transfer window.”
Later, ahead of a friendly in the United States against rivals Manchester City, he said, pointedly: “I would like four players – I asked for four players.”
It was just a little glimpse that the master manipulator has not lost his powers of persuasion. Likewise, after last weekend’s victory over Leicester at Old Trafford, Mourinho called on the home fans to do better, to be more vocal in their support of the team.
“I didn’t see the first goal,” he said after the game. “I was speaking with Jesse Lingard because Lingard was going to be the next player to come on.
“I saw the ball in the net and all the guys jumping around. It was the first time I saw the crowd. They were very quiet.
“It was easy to know that was a goal because it was the first time I really understood the stadium was full.”
These instances are mild in comparison to some of the scorched-earth techniques he has adopted in his efforts to gain every possible advantage for his teams in the past. But they show that Mourinho’s instinct for conflict lives, and will be utilised for a long time yet.