It's not just on the pitch that Pep Guardiola's been outdoing Jose Mourinho. Manchester City's manager has attracted much praise for his off-pitch ruthlessness; for the cold-eyed manner in which he's jettisoned senior members of his squad when they don't fit his needs. That ruthlessness is why Joe Hart and Yaya Toure — key parts of title-winning City sides — are, respectively, in Turin and on the naughty step.
Wayne Rooney, you'll doubtless have noticed, is still in Manchester United's first XI.
The contrast is a tempting one. Both managers arrived with a reputation for having absolutely no ruth whatsoever, yet City, sans Hart and Toure, have won all their games under Guardiola, while United, with their captain playing all over the place, recently managed to lose three in eight days. There are, as always, contextual differences to be taken into consideration; since Toure is 33 rather than 30, and since Hart is apparently the wrong type of goalkeeper, perhaps those were easier decisions to make. But it's mighty easy to fold this into the wider 'is Mourinho still Mourinho?' question.
Maybe Madrid broke him. Maybe his last season at Chelsea broke him. Maybe he's not Special any more. However strongly Mourinho may rail against football's self-proclaimed "Einsteins", these were all perfectly valid concerns before the season started, and remained so when United were winning, then losing, and now winning again. After all, if Mourinho's Chelsea hadn't fallen into a million pieces last season, he might not even be at Old Trafford.
But. Just as the presence or absence of Specialness will not be confirmed in Mourinho's first September, so too the question of ruthlessness (except when it comes to Bastian Schweinsteiger) will remain open for a while yet. If we imagine that we're looking back on this season from some unspecified but reasonably distant point in the future, then this sounds pretty ruthless:
After seven games of his first season in charge, Jose Mourinho dropped club captain Wayne Rooney.
As does this:
After fifteen games of his first season in charge, Jose Mourinho dropped club captain Wayne Rooney.
This too, frankly:
By Christmas of his first season in charge, Jose Mourinho had dropped club captain Wayne Rooney.
And maybe even this, if you'll permit the "just":
After just one season in charge, Jose Mourinho dropped club captain Wayne Rooney.
It isn't entirely clear when we decided to treat everything that is happening now as though it were happening after six months, or two years, but that's probably what happens when we add Jose Mourinho to Manchester United and then multiply first by The Rooney Question, then by a fifth-placed finish, and then again by the hyper-accelerated character of modern football. Everything become more significant, everything gets compressed, and the feeling in the moment overwhelms everything else. Which is why three limp, lifeless, luckless performances sends the team screaming from possible title competitors into a hot, hot mess and transforms Mourinho from a flinty-souled assassin into a dithering buffoon.
Ultimately, dropping a popular (in the dressing room), well-liked (in the dressing room), much-respected (in the dressing room), vastly experienced captain is not the same as dropping, say, Daley Blind. Apart from anything else, Rooney is one of very few established players in United's squad with a history, if not a recent one, of consistent, top-level, title-bothering form. You can see why Mourinho might want to give him a shot, even if you might also think that he is, well, completely shot. Why he might want to see if the problem over the last few years has been, at least in part, with United's managers rather than Rooney. To see if there's any utility there before he takes what will be a very noisy decision.
Ruthlessness doesn't always equate to immediacy. It amounts to identifying the right moment and then taking the right action. And while there have been earlier opportunities for deroonification that could and maybe should have been taken, from the arrival of Shinji Kagawa, through Alex Ferguson's retirement, and on to the beginning of this season, we kind of have to allow Mourinho the time to make his own mind up. It may not make up watching Rooney clatter around midfield any more entertaining, but the window for ruthlessness will be open for a while yet.