It might seem hard to believe, but English football’s 2018-19 Premier League season is has just got under way, just under a month after the World Cup Final took place in Russia. As is inevitable in top-tier sports these days, the pre-season has been characterised by much media debate over the likely winners and losers and not a little speculation about the relationships between star players and their coaches. The latter issue is especially pertinent because the first game of the season features the mighty Manchester United, managed, of course, by Jose Mourinho, a coach who has enjoyed huge success in some of the best leagues in Europe but who has been increasingly irritable of late.
Mourinho is a shrewd observer of the game and a master technician, but is often regarded as not so astute in his man management. Where many managers take responsibility for their teams’ failings, Mourinho famously criticizes players when he feels they have not performed to the (admittedly very high) standards he sets. For instance, towards the end of last season, when his team lost to newly-promoted Brighton, he let out his frustrations on younger players, saying: “Maybe now you will not ask me why A, B and C do not play so much. People always ask: ‘Why always [Romelu] Lukaku?’ Well, now they know why always Lukaku, and why always this player and why always that player. We are probably not as good as people think we are individually.”
Many former players and commentators felt this was unfairly undermining of young players, such as Marcus Ashford and Anthony Martial. But the relationship that really attracts comment is the one between Mourinho and Paul Pogba, the French international who started in Manchester United’s academy before moving to Juventus of Italy before being brought back two years ago for a then world-record fee of £89 million. A commanding, even swaggering, figure who can turn a game in an instant, Pogba can also coast through matches – to the irritation of fans and manager alike. Oddly, playing a key role in France’s World Cup success seems to have added to the stress in his relationship with Mourinho. The Portuguese praised Pogba’s performances in the latter stages of the competition and said he hoped he “understands why he was very good”. This, and a call for Pogba to bring the same intensity to his games for United that he showed in the World Cup, have apparently unsettled the player, leading to speculation that he might seek a transfer.
Mourinho’s response? Making Pogba captain for the opening game this evening. The decision was duly rewarded with Pogba scoring an early penalty in a 2-1 win in which he showed much of the ability and confidence displayed with France in the summer. Mourinho told the club’s media service that Pogba had been given the role because he had impressed with his willingness to play in the game despite only returning to training earlier in the week.
But the Pogba saga was not the only little drama at Old Trafford in that game. Defender Luke Shaw also arrived at Manchester United with great fanfare – in June 2014 for what was then a record fee for a teenager. Not helped by a double fracture of his leg in 2105, Shaw has not made the impression that was expected of him and has been frequently regarded as likely to be transferred. But, after much criticism from Mourinho, he appears to have returned to favour. His performance against Leicester was not perfect, attracting shouted instructions from Mourinho at one point, but he recovered to score the first goal of his professional career and to win some praise from his manager.
Of course, one game is not enough to provide evidence for he argument that Mourinho is a better man manager than is widely acknowledged. But there are signs that his tough love can work. In France, they seem to think so, with at least one commentator reportedly suggesting that Mourinho’s demand for more from Pogba had been the foundation of his displays in the World Cup.
I am a journalist with a special interest in all aspects of management, but especially leadership.