Has Jose Mourinho lost the Manchester United dressing room?
"Play for him!" shouted the female voice from Old Trafford's most vocal section during Manchester United's 0-0 draw against Valencia on Tuesday. "Stop letting him down."
"Him" is beleaguered United manager Jose Mourinho and, watching his side lose at West Ham last weekend, it look like several players had downed tools. Another defeat at home to winless Newcastle on Saturday will leave fans in little doubt; United have more talented players than Wolves, Derby and West Ham, yet have been outplayed by all three of those clubs in recent weeks.
Despite poor results and sitting nine points adrift of the Premier League leaders, United have little appetite to dismiss their manager of two years and three months. It would cost £15 million to pay Mourinho off, for one, and he does not want to go, either. He is working as hard as he can to right the current wrongs, but does the oft-heard cliche that one has "lost the dressing room" apply?
"It's hard for me to say because I was never in a team, be it Man United or England, where I went out with the intention of getting a manager sacked," former midfielder Paul Scholes told ESPN FC on Thursday. "I never went out and thought, 'I'll not try.' I'm not saying that any Man United player has ever done that, but you hear so much stuff now that you think it could be possible. I'd hate that if it's true, if any player set out to play badly on purpose. I've had loads of bad games, but never on purpose."
During David Moyes' time in charge at Old Trafford, several players felt their teammates were not giving 100 percent all the time. It was done in subtle ways; perhaps, for example, someone would not play while carrying a slight injury, as they would have done under Sir Alex Ferguson. Though he never said it publicly, Moyes felt he could trust some players more than others, on and off the pitch. He felt that he had a few warriors, but not enough.
Before Moyes was sacked, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward spoke individually to players in his office at the Carrington training ground to gauge the mood with regard to their manager. Almost all accepted some of the blame and responsibility for the team's problems -- United finished seventh in that 2013-14 season -- and said the dressing room was not a happy place. That feedback helped the club decide to dismiss its manager.
"Managers don't lose a dressing room because they never have full control of it in the first place," former Ipswich and Leicester striker James Scowcroft, a United fan, told ESPN FC. "Good managers have an aura which wins them respect, not absolute control. It's about degrees of control, and managers earn that aura through being good at their job, but if they don't get results they are goners. I've never seen a manager lose control and take it back. When they lose control, they start making irrational decisions, like when Ruud Gullit dropped Alan Shearer at Newcastle. Players are selfish. You play firstly for yourself, for your career. Not for a manager.
"Managers get unhappy when they think players aren't giving it their all, like Jose Mourinho at the moment," Scowcroft added. "Players will be late for training, late for anything. Poor managers don't want the physio coming up to them and saying: 'So-and-so was half an hour late this morning.' They don't want the confrontation of dealing with a player in his office. Poor managers are paranoid that certain players have the ear of an interfering chairman or executive, which they always do. Poor managers will play fans' favourites even when out of form because they don't have the guts to drop them. Better managers will have more control and confidence in their decisions and are far smarter than their players."
Scowcroft says a telltale sign of when a manager has little control over his team is the reaction when someone is substituted. If a player comes off shaking his head and waving his arms, there is trouble in the dressing room.
"A manager who gets into that position will then be petrified of taking certain players off because he's scared of the reaction," he said. "The players have the power then. Sir Alex Ferguson was the best. Did you ever seen a player ranting and raving at him after coming off?"
You do not really see such a reaction toward Mourinho, either, but his authority has been challenged in other ways, and he feels pressured into playing the star players who have cost so much -- like £89 million Paul Pogba -- and has told people that.
Mourinho has also mentioned that the modern-day manager is more like a coach, with less control than before. Ferguson's word on selling or buying a player might have been as good as final, but Mourinho does not have quite the same sway.
He is, though, still the most important man at the club as he goes into Saturday's huge match against his old rival Rafa Benitez and Newcastle.
"The big thing with United is the effort and the attitude," Scholes said. "When you looked at the West Ham game last week, that looked like the biggest sign of players not wanting to play for Jose, but I would not sack him. I hope the situation is retrievable. I'd like Jose to show people why he's such a great coach, because this is his biggest test in football."