Should Jose Mourinho be criticising his Manchester United players?
Footballing observers are still debating how Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea fell apart in such dramatic fashion last year. Ineffective tactics, unfit players, a lethargic pre-season and individual shortcomings have all been discussed to some effect.
But in the end, ‘palpable discord’, the infamous phrase used by the Chelsea board in the statement that accompanied his sacking, may well have been the most influential reason for his dismissal. What the Chelsea board meant by that interesting combination of words, was that personal relationships between Mourinho and his players had broken down beyond repair.
For Mourinho, last season at Chelsea was truly the first time in his career that he was completely out of his depth. When results slipped to the point of crisis, he riskily took to criticising his players individually. Emphasis should be laid upon the difference between a manager criticising his team as a whole and singling out players individually. Players will always accept criticism as a collective when it is justified, but lambasting players outright can polarise squads and damage interpersonal relations.
Shortly before Chelsea sacked him, Mourinho singled out Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic individually, before claiming he had been ‘betrayed’, by players who could no longer call themselves ‘superstars’.
Ultimately, criticising players individually in public is fine, but it has to achieve results. Players will likely accept criticism if there’s a tangible reward at the end of the humiliation of being publicly dressed down. But if there isn’t, bridges get burnt, and deep rooted divisions emerge. If results really then don’t improve, there’s only one outcome.
Mourinho was once placed next to Sir Alex Ferguson as being the ultimate man manager, someone who could absorb criticism and protect their players. Footage of Marco Matterazzi breaking down after Inter’s treble epitomised a manager who could frenzy his players to die for him.
But at Chelsea last year, results became so desperate that Mourinho abandoned his principles, refused to absorb the pressure, and decided to take a risk by singling out player .
Compare that to Sir Alex Ferguson who made it his mantra to never, under any circumstances, publicly criticise a player individually in the media. He would leave his dirty talking for the changing room, or to Carrington (the club’s training ground) where a perimeter wall kept everything discrete.
As he explained in his autobiography:
Sometimes a manager has to be honest with the supporters, over and beyond the players. They are not stupid. As long as you don’t criticise individual players in public, admonishing the team is fine, not a problem. We can all share in the blame: the manager, his staff, the players. Expressed properly, criticism can be an acceptance of collective responsibility.
United have had their worst start to a season since 1990. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, and Chris Smalling have all seem to be in the firing line, not least Bastian Schweinsteiger, who’s ostracising at the beginning of the season evoked international outcry.
Man management defines the world’s greatest managers, and often players need criticism to reel them back into reality. These days, professional footballers are multi-millionaires, with celebrity status and agents who empower them like never before. That foundational premise demands tactful approaches from the game’s best managers.
But there’s no doubting that Mourinho is taking a risk by singling out players.
On the one hand, there’s no doubting that he’ll have gained his players’ respect by embodying a no nonsense approach. United’s first team will also individually know that incompetence will not be tolerated. That will drive motivation and determination.
But on the other, if results don’t improve, players will begin to question the regime around them. Splitting a squad into divisions, by those who are in favour and those who have taken a public bashing, can be the catalyst for a player coup and a subsequent managerial sacking.
Mourinho is a unique case. He’s shielded by his remarkable record and proven techniques, particularly with regards to his uncanny ability to win a domestic title in his second season. That will buy him time, and to some extent, a justification on how he speaks to his players. But there’s risk in this strategy. Get it wrong, and an early exit from United will be a sledge-hammer to his reputation as being the greatest manager in the world.