One of the surprising pleasures of this World Cup, aside from watching established giants like Argentina, Brazil and Germany stumble their way out of the competition with varying degrees of farce, has been England’s progress.
22 years after they captured the hearts of the nation with a stirring run to the Euro ’96 semi-finals, Gareth Southgate’s side have surprised everyone, presumably even themselves with their progress to the last four of this year’s World Cup. That it comes as a direct consequence of the work of a manager that truly seems to be a decent, thoughtful human being makes it all the more enjoyable, and offers some pause for thought as to the behaviour of Manchester United’s current manager.
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Doubting the methods of Jose Mourinho is hardly a new phenomena, and there’s no arguing with the success that the Portuguese has brought to every club that he’s been at with his combative, brash and frequently adversarial style. Frequently, the attitude of fostering a siege mentality, suggesting that his players are against the world has worked; it’s brought league titles in England, Spain, Portugal and Italy. But if the manner of his exits from Real Madrid and Chelsea are anything to go by, and if his behaviour and the responses of his players at United are taken into account, then perhaps this approach is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.
There’s certainly been an element of Southgate’s England side exploiting the dearth of quality, strong sides at this summer’s World Cup, and it’s difficult to argue that their path to the last four would have been far more perilous in previous tournaments, but there’s a togetherness to his side that is evident from top to bottom.
The manager has been able to get a crop of young players who lack a wealth of tournament experience believing in themselves, playing for each other and has gotten the nation onside, too. All while being a charming, genuine person with the sort of approachability and manner that could make him your Dad’s best friend from school. Not to blow too much smoke up Southgate’s backside, but it makes for a refreshing change.
Contrast that with Mourinho, who has spent far too much of his time picking fights with his players and publicly hanging them out to dry if they don’t provide what he’s after, and it’s not hard to see why a clutch of United’s players have struggled to deliver their best under the former Chelsea boss. For example, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw have all been on the end of their manager criticising them in the press for a variety of reasons. Whilst these four examples all had points last season where they were performing well, there seemingly was little backing (publicly, anyway) when they were struggling to provide the form that we know they’re capable of.
Interpersonal skills are a huge part of a modern manager’s job; being able to understand the pressure that young players are under, the criticism and the world that they live in is integral to being able to get them on side, and get the best out of them. It’s something that Southgate has been able to do during his two-year reign, and the culmination has been a surprising run that saw England get within one game of a World Cup final.
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Mourinho isn’t totally bereft of people skills, of course. It’s that so much of what this manager seems to want from his side is seemingly tied up in a somewhat archaic notion that his players must suffer for him, show unwavering loyalty and carry out his instructions to the letter of the law, or he’ll throw them under the bus that he occasionally likes to park.
He deserves plenty of credit for taking United to three finals in two seasons, regardless of what happens in his third year in charge of the club, but the growing sense that Mourinho’s methods of relating to his players no longer fully click with the modern game remains simultaneously valid. He most likely won’t be taking notes from Southgate on team unity and togetherness, but if United are to challenge for the club game’s biggest honours, then a softening of his approach could reap huge dividends with a team that appears fired up and ready to challenge again.
Here’s hoping it happens, even if it’s against established wisdom. Because, going into season number three, we all know what happens if Mourinho doesn’t get what he wants, and United have had to cope with more than enough destruction in the last five years.