For an idea of how Jose Mourinho got it so wrong at Old Trafford and what Manchester United now need to get right, a good place to begin is with the first press conference the last manager he’d lose to held, writes
When Jurgen Klopp was presented as Brendan Rodgers’ successor at Anfield — the same venue that at the weekend staged not so much Mourinho’s last stand as his last collapse as United supremo — it didn’t take long for him to be asked about the dubious quality of squad he had inherited and how active he planned to be in the transfer market.
Klopp didn’t give the answer which that line of inquiry was seeking. Instead, he gave one that the players needed, and thus by extension, the club and its supporters. As Raphael Honigstein, a leading writer on German football, would put it in his fine study of his fellow countryman, Klopp: Bring The Noise, “There was no point joining in the public lament about the team’s poor defenders and general lack of quality in relation to the title contenders; Klopp had to work with the squad at his disposal and talk up its strengths instead.”
“This is a talented group of players and there is still much to compete for this season,” Klopp would declare at that first press day, three years ago now since October. He believed in “the potential of the team”. It had “speed”, “technical skills”, “tactical skills”, “good defenders”, “good midfielders”, “good strikers”, “wingers”.
Everyone needed to stop “thinking about money” as the solution.
“I’m not a dream man. I don’t want to have Cristiano [Ronaldo] or Lionel [Messi] and all these players in one team. I want these guys [the current squad].”
It’s fair to say that for a while now — not just since this past pre-season — that Mourinho didn’t want a lot of “these guys” in his dressing room. Instead he was a dream man constantly thinking and moaning about the money he wasn’t allowed to spend on yet another centre-half and that he no longer had a Cristiano or Di Maria to counter-attack as he did in Madrid, or even a Derlei or Maniche when “my Porto team” were like “mad dogs” in defensive transition. He didn’t just join a Roy Keane in the public lament of his players — he led and initiated much of it.
Whatever about who eventually succeeds Mourinho as ‘permanent’ manager, whoever follows Michael Carrick as caretaker could well do with realising and remembering just how much potential is at his disposal and that it still has, as Klopp would put it, “much to compete for this season”.
A top-four spot is probably beyond them, just as it was for Klopp when he landed the Liverpool job; in fact United are bound to outperform Liverpool’s final league position that season (eighth), though not necessarily their points tally (60) or goal difference (+13).
But they are still in the last 16 of the Champions League, just as Klopp recognised and relished that Rodgers had left him with a side still in the Europa League. And they are obviously still in the FA Cup, just as Klopp three years ago made the most of Liverpool still being in the League Cup.
Liverpool would win neither of those competitions; as Klopp’s dwindling number of critics increasingly like to shout, he has yet to bring any actual silverware to Anfield.
But the way they went about reaching the final of both and the joy and the work they invested in the journey goes a long way towards explaining why they are now challenging for both Premier and Champions League honours in a way United fans can only envy and wish to emulate.
Last Sunday, Mourinho bewailed the contrasting physicality and intensity between his players and Liverpool players like Robertson, Salah, Mane, Keita, Fabinho. And in his eyes there was nothing he or they could do about it.
“There are qualities that a player has or he doesn’t have,” he’d claim. “You cannot improve, you cannot make them have [these qualities].”
While Mourinho’s thinking would be classic — and undesirable — fixed mindset, Klopp’s would be vintage — and desirable — growth mindset. As Honigstein observed: “His trick was to stress the link between performance and effort, rather than with ability”.
Jamie Redknapp isn’t renowned for offering pearls of wisdom but upon Mourinho’s sacking yesterday he pointed out United hadn’t outran an opponent since a league game against Swansea back in March; the lack of results was clearly down to a lack of work-rate, or to be more precise, a lack of managerial motivational powers, than any lack of playing talent. Klopp was the complete contrast of that. Adam Lallana has told Honingstein about how in his first week in the job, Klopp put his arm around his shoulder and told him to just work hard for him.
“That’s all he wants,” says Lallana. “He can handle mistakes, he can handle bad games. ‘Work hard for me and give me everything.’ He’s convinced that technical ability and quality will come out as a result.”
Many United commentators and critics defending Mourinho have spoken about how too many of his now former charges hadn’t taken enough individual pride in their work-rate and performance, but Klopp and his staff recognised it’s more of a collective and managerial task than that.
“One guy doing it by himself is nothing,” Klopp’s coaching assistant and chief scout Peter Krawietz would tell Honigstein. “He’ll try once, he’ll try again, but then he’ll turn around and say, ‘Where’s everybody else?’”
Klopp preached about a “social contract” that was “binding for everybody”.
Mourinho clearly didn’t sell his players on such a covenant, not least because he seemed most preoccupied with looking after number one and his reputation than anyone and everyone else.
Instead of zoning in on a player’s reputation and the things he supposedly couldn’t do, Klopp approached and viewed every one of Rodgers’ outgoing squad through “fresh eyes”.
In England, Honigstein found, there was a tendency among the media and supporters to label a player as “shit”, not just for a while but “for eternity”.
“They will wait as long as it takes until he makes a mistake and then say, ‘We told you so.’ It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, in a negative sense.”
At Old Trafford that air has been pervasive, with the manager — and his predecessor — often the initiator of that self-fulfilling prophesy. But what if the caretaker manager, and his successor then, view things through fresh eyes? Surely between them a Rojo or Bailly or Lindelof is salvageable?
There has rightly been a lot of commentary on the need for United and especially Ed Woodward to change the structures of the club and adopt the director of football model or front-office template so pervasive in the other sports the Glazers and John Henrys have also operated in. But even more important than changing the structures of a club is changing its culture and that’s something both the temporary manager and his successor can set about improving.
Within a couple of weeks of being at Anfield — or rather, Melwood — Klopp had learned the name of all 80 non-playing employees. Then he lined them up in the dining hall and introduced them to the players, explaining how they were all dependent on one another for the club — the family — to achieve its best. He’d even become an unofficial resident agony aunt within that family, with at least one employee with relationship troubles turning to him for advice.
Carrick’s successor as the caretaker manager doesn’t have to be a Klopp, just as the man after that again doesn’t necessarily have to be a Pochettino in the case that the Argentinian cannot be prised away from Tottenham.
What he can do is start bringing a sense of optimism to the place. See players through fresh eyes, build some kind of social contract and identify who can be the cultural architects going forward.
In Frank Rijkaard’s last year at Barca, Xavi and Iniesta were nearly discarded. Instead, Guardiola built the team around them and got rid of stars like Ronaldinho and Deco.
Is Pogba an energy-sapper or, like another errant Frenchman, someone to build a team around who just needs to be loved, as Alex Ferguson found was the case with Eric Cantona?
It has been said that the situation either now or in the summer is not something a Zinedine Zidane would want to take on.
It’s rare though a manager walks into an ideal situation otherwise there wouldn’t have been a vacancy at all. But as Klopp would say in that first press conference, “the situation is not as difficult as some people in this room would think”.
A lot of players have moved on from the first side Klopp selected but the image of him genuinely embracing a Joe Allen after a League Cup semi-final penalty shootout against Stoke and the tone he set from his first week in the job with them — You’re better than everyone thinks but only as good as you work — resonates.
United can reset the same way.