After his team had stressed their character, Jose Mourinho stressed the point. “I’m very happy,” he said, repeating it twice. “I’m very happy, I’m very happy.”
He was asked about this, of course, because he didn’t look all that happy. Amid all of the smiling and laughing faces from the Manchester United camp after their remarkable League Cup final win over Southampton, Mourinho’s was conspicuously serious.
It was difficult not to notice, but not that difficult to remember similar moments. Mourinho was famously unsmiling on the night of his launchpad career achievement, winning the Champions League with FC Porto in 2004, so this isn’t new.
There’s almost always an element of performance to these moments with him, so that makes it all the more difficult to work out the angle with what initially seemed a rare instance of vulnerability. After this rip-roaring 3-2 win, Mourinho admitted that it was a “relief” to win. And not just because of how Southampton were so much the better side. He said it was a “relief” to win that first major trophy at Manchester United, to get up and running.
“I try to put myself secondary,” Mourinho said, “but the truth is it was important for me. I put pressure on myself. I try to win a major trophy at every club, so to win with Manchester United is a relief.”
Some of this might have been to remind everyone of how just how remarkable his record is, with 20 major trophies now won across five jobs since joining FC Porto in 2002, but it was also recognition that he was under more pressure than just that he puts on himself. It’s been impossible to separate everything about this season from the failure at Chelsea, with Mourinho himself reminding everyone of it in his pre-match press conference by drawing a link between his own squad troubles at Stamford Bridge and what happened to Claudio Ranieri.
Raising the stakes here was so much debate about whether the Portuguese is the same manager, and the fact that his first trophy in both his two previous spells in England with Chelsea was the League Cup.
This offered the opportunity to maintain that trend and emphasise that he is still the same, but also the possibility that he would lose a first League Cup final at a club for the first time, and thereby further illustrate his decline. It did look like the latter could be the case for a lot of this game, as a supreme Southampton really put it up to United. Claude Puel’s side probably deserved to win, and an ostentatiously magnanimous Mourinho greatly praised the opposition and their manager, saying they were “fantastic”, and at least “deserved extra-time”.
They didn’t get that because United won in the most crushingly familiar way, in the most typically inevitable way, and one that the Portuguese described as “a little bit unfair”. They got a late winner.
If that felt undeserved and some elements of a poor performance will bring questions about the future, the flipside is that the very nature of goals like that – when you haven’t played well, when you haven’t deserved it – will bring confidence; will bring deeper cohesion.
As Mourinho knows better than anyone, and has spent his career stressing to all players and staff who are willing to listen and thereby get fully on board, this is the true benefit of moments like this. As he also said before his previous League Cup win, with Chelsea in 2015, “nothing else matters” in matches like this other than just winning.
Cups like this shouldn’t be dismissed because lifting them is often about more than just lifting that specific trophy. It fosters that winning culture, that kind of conviction-filled resilience that brings more trophies, that means you don’t buckle when it comes down to it like this. Winning it like that, of course, only strengthens it.
This shouldn’t mean that all the debates about Mourinho should be dismissed either. Before he beat Southampton, a lesser-resourced Tottenham Hotspur beat Stoke City, to also emphasise how difficult the race for the top four will be. If United do miss out on the Champions League, then the League Cup will feel less like a landmark for the future, more a mere consolation for an otherwise disappointing season.
But that’s the wider point of a win like this. They can face that run-in with more conviction, more belief that it is going in the right direction. That might sound a flighty intangible, but it does genuinely intensify application; makes teams harder to beat.
We still don’t truly know if Mourinho can beat everyone else in the way he used to.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. He wins trophies, and fully knows the value of winning trophies.
That is to his immense credit, and to be hugely respected. It should be something for he and United to smile about.