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Mourinho and the art of wielding trust as a management tool

Thursday 27th September 2018

Consensus decrees managing an elite club’s a different kettle of fish. Why? The answer’s simple. Competition’s about proving yourself. Are you better than the rest? Players and clubs must always ask the question then seek the answer. When they stop, they’re swept aside.

When a player signs for an elite club, everyone tells him he has arrived. If he listens, the question changes to ‘what’s left to prove?’ Again, a player with nothing to prove’s easily beaten. Managers at elite clubs must teach players arrival’s one thing, belonging another. Even elite players must prove they belong every day.

Convincing a player he must still prove himself on a daily basis when his support team flatters to deceive is difficult. The manager must become the most credible individual in the player’s inner circle. That bond is achieved through trust.

Some managers offer trust like a free sample. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp initiate positive bonds with their players. Their results demonstrate they’re in touch with the times.

Others, like Jose Mourinho, withhold trust until it’s earned. They’re the distant parent, the one difficult to reach whom you always seek to please. In contemporary society, where abuse and hate are terms applied to any negative emotion, such an old-school dynamic is fraught with risk. What happens, as may be the case now with Paul Pogba, when the player is so confident in himself he doesn't feel the need to please?  Do you take a different approach? Changing one’s core belief to reach such a player isn’t like popping a TV dinner in the microwave. It’s slow cooking.

Positive reinforcement’s the accepted teaching tool now. A hand on the shoulder. A kind word. Stand behind the player and say, “You can do it. I know you can.”

Negative reinforcement’s viewed as unhealthy. And it is. The problem’s distinguishing between negative reinforcement and challenging the player. Time blurred the line or moved it until tough love was on the wrong side.

When I was five, my mother remarried. We moved to Canada to be with her new husband. Hamilton’s unique. An interminably long cliff, known to geologists as an escarpment, bisects the city while winding its way through Southern Ontario. We called it the Mountain. Around 15 stories high, roads cut into its face for cars to travel up and down. Stairs were built for pedestrians.

We lived ‘below the Mountain’. The spring after we arrived, my stepfather began taking me for long walks to build up my strength and endurance. We’d climb one stairway, walk a distance ‘above the Mountain’, then descend another. At first, we rested at the top. When my stepfather believed me fit enough to forego the pause and kept walking, I lagged behind. He’d always put 50-100 feet between us before waiting. The silent communication was simple. I had to put in the work to grow into a man. The distance between us grew if I dallied too often. Hateful thoughts sprang to mind, but I always followed. It was up to me to prove I could do it. Like it is now.

My stepfather rarely put an arm around my shoulder to tell me I could do things. He’d lead the way, expecting me to follow. If I struggled, the words, “You’ll never amount to anything,” never crossed his lips. That was my mother. He challenged me. Bitter for reasons irrelevant here, she only offered negative reinforcement.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to decide whether I see more of my stepfather or mother in Jose Mourinho. Certainly, I’ve never heard the United manager say any player was useless or would never make it. With Memphis Depay, for instance, his response to inquiries about the winger’s success in Lyon was “it didn’t work” at United but the player always dedicated himself and was “a total professional.” In my opinion, he went too far when claiming Luke Shaw was useful solely for the 45 minutes when the left-back played nearer the technical area because Mourinho had to think for him. That isn’t a final judgment, though. Everyone crosses a line, now and then. We’re human.

Now, even the BBC is reporting he told Pogba the Frenchman would never captain United again. There's a video making the rounds of a spat between the two on the training ground. Tensions are obvious, but the only quote attributable to Mourinho remains this:

The only truth is that I made a decision that Paul is not the second captain anymore. No fallout, just a decision that I can make, I'm the manager and I've made the decision.

It's important to note there is nothing permanent in that statement. Player and manager are at odds; manager has not thrown in the towel. 

Overall, Mourinho’s making a visible effort to be less confrontational. That, too, is understandable. Facing changing times, he’s running out of veteran players who can act as big brothers to the squad, promising them the old man’s methods may be harsh, but they’ll benefit you in the long run if you put trust in his motives.

Frank Lampard isn’t going to do it. He’s busy cracking on from Tuesday night's penalty win over United in the League Cup. These days, for every Nemanja Matic to vouch for Jose, there’s a Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Mo Salah, maybe even a Juan Mata, to claim Mourinho never offered the emotional support they needed. They believe he didn’t trust them, so they don’t trust him.

And that’s the risk inherent in Mourinho’s approach in contemporary football. No one believes in paying up front anymore.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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