Jose Mourinho was ahead of his time but as he struggles to get results on the pitch and to maintain control off it, has the game moved on? He is a victim of his success, writes Adam Bate.
Twice in one week the Manchester United supporters have trudged away from Old Trafford wondering what has become of their team. Having been outplayed by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League, any hope of a response in the Carabao Cup proved forlorn. They were beaten on penalties by Championship side Derby County.
The significance of the identities of the two opposing managers in those matches will not have been lost on Mourinho. These were his first two competitive games up against coaches who had played under him. Nuno Espirito Santo was part of the Porto squad that won the Championship League in 2004. Frank Lampard was a colossus for him at Chelsea.
Lampard himself joked that facing Mourinho in the dug-out will have made both of them feel old but there is more to it than that. Like Nuno, Lampard learned from his old boss. He absorbed his methods, embraced them and refined them. What once made Mourinho unique – special – has become common practice. He is a victim of his own success.
How could he not be? His words have left an impression, adding phrases to the lexicon. It is hardly surprising that his coaching has made an impact too. “His attention to detail was incredible and he changed the way I thought about football,” former Chelsea captain John Terry explained when appearing on Monday Night Football last year.
Terry remembers being astonished by the professionalism of Mourinho’s very first session as Chelsea manager. The pitch was divided into four grids. Each drill was timed with drinks there waiting for after each phase was complete. “At the end of it, the lads thought, wow that was a session,” said Terry. “Mentally and psychologically, he had us from day one.”
The description of this session does not seem particularly remarkable now. But in a way, that’s the point. Just as Arsene Wenger triumphed so totally in changing the diet of Premier League players, Mourinho’s level of organisation is now the norm. If he were to turn up at Wolves or Derby tomorrow, these drills would feel far less alien to the players.
How has it come to this?
Sky Sports News reporter James Cooper examines the increasingly strained relationship between Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba.
Of course, Mourinho recognised years ago that this was no longer a unique selling point. It is why he is so generous with aspiring coaches. “Any coach can come into my office, plug a memory stick into my computer and download my training schedules and ideas,” he said. “Honestly, why not? They can download my information but they can’t download my DNA.”
This raises the second key point about how things have changed for Mourinho, a manager whose personality was as integral to his success as his training methods. The bond that he was able to forge with players, particularly in the early phase of his career, was extraordinary.
At Chelsea, it was not just Terry and Lampard but Petr Cech and Didier Drogba. The four men set the tone even in Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge. Indeed, things only unravelled for him there after the latter two departed the dressing room in the summer of 2015.
At Inter, his band of battle-hardened veterans were inspired to new heights in winning the Champions League in 2010. The youngest player to get on the pitch for Mourinho in that final was 25 years old. It did not stop Marco Materazzi crying like a baby when Mourinho left.
But while the motivational methods haven’t changed, the players have.
Another tale from Terry illustrates this clearly. Mourinho had once set out to “humiliate” him during a pre-season training session in the manager’s first spell at Chelsea. Terry had just captained the club to the Premier League title but this did not stop Mourinho from dressing down the defender and even threatening to buy someone else to replace him.
While Terry could not understand why he found himself on the receiving end, his reaction was telling. His response was to work even harder and do even more to impress. “I would leave that pitch in a coffin for him and every player felt the same,” he has since claimed.
Could Mourinho engineer that same response from a player now? His troubled relationship with Paul Pogba would suggest not. But then, even Sir Alex Ferguson had his problems in dealing with the Frenchman and his notorious agent Mino Raiola. It is getting more difficult, something acknowledged by the man himself in an interview with France Football.
“I have had to adapt to a new world and what young players are like now,” admitted Mourinho. “I have had to understand the difference between working with a boy like Frank Lampard who, at the age of 23, was already a man – who thought football, work, professionalism – and the new boys today, who at the age of 23 are kids.”
His assessment of the changing nature of dealing with young players feels particularly prophetic in light of the furore over Pogba’s use of social media. “Today I call them boys not men because I think that they are brats and that everything that surrounds them does not help them in their life or in my work,” he added.
“I had to adjust to all of that. Ten years ago, no player had a mobile phone in the dressing room. That is no longer the case. But you have to go with it, because if you fight that you are bringing about conflict and you risk putting yourself in the stone-age.”
Reinvention is the challenge for any ageing manager seeking to extend their stay at the top. But it surely presents the greatest problem for those who not only have to work with the most high-profile players but whose success has been built on an abrasive style.
There is no denying that the game has moved on. The irony for Mourinho is not just that it is his work that has been a catalyst for that progress. It is that the men who respond best to him are now the managers he has helped to win against him, rather than the players who can help him win.
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