Does Mourinho struggle with the new age footballer?


Millennials (also known as Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when this cohort starts or ends; demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years – Wikipedia

In an interview earlier this week, Jose Mourinho called modern young players ‘brats’ and put forward the view that everything surrounding them do not help with their lives, nor in his work. It might be viewed as an extraordinary claim for a football manager to make about some of his players, until you realize that his views are no different from those held by many parents, social commentators, psychologists and his peers at most workplaces today.

I remember a stunned group of 23 year olds who were at the receiving end of a similar rant by a manager who had been at the organization I was then working with for the entire duration of his working career. How one manages millennials is a question that a lot of people around the world are looking for answers to, and Jose Mourinho is no exception.

He has not had a lot of success with them, probably from the end of his time at Real Madrid. In his final season, he had this to say about Cristiano Ronaldo. “He thinks that he knows everything and the coach cannot improve him anymore.” I am sure that resonates with millions of managers from an older generation around the world who feel the same about their employees.

There are a lot of myths about millennials. There is a belief that young people entering the workforce in the last decade feel entitled, are lazy, jump jobs at the slightest opportunity, and do not respect experienced colleagues. We’ve all heard the same being said about footballers in the last 10 years. Sure, there has been an explosion in the kind of salaries young players receive these days, but managers are more likely to feel vulnerable, helpless and sometimes threatened by a player’s attitude more than the money he makes.

In the same interview with France Football, Mourinho spoke about the difference between today’s players who were only ‘boys’, and Frank Lampard, who he thought was a ‘man’ at 23 because he only thought of football, work and professionalism. For Frank there was no mobile phone in the dressing room, or social media.

But then, Frank was a product of a different time. Alex Ferguson once called Twitter ‘a waste of time’ and considered banning his players from using it. He was smart enough not to. And possibly smart enough to retire at the right time. I doubt many players today would take kindly to a manager kicking a boot at them and striking them above an eye, like David Beckham did.

It is interesting what Ferguson did in the immediate aftermath. He told the Manchester United board that Beckham needed to go. This is what he had to say.

“My message would have been familiar to board members who knew me. The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go. I used to say, ‘The moment the manager loses his authority, you don’t have a club. The players will be running it, and then you’re in trouble.”

And he was right. The manager cannot afford to lose his authority, but in today’s times, you cannot get away with the kind of dictatorial style managers of a certain ilk employed. Respect cannot be demanded, it needs to be earned, and it has to be mutual.

Today, for a manager to build healthy working relationships with his players, he needs to better understand their attitudes. The desire to match personal values with that of the work place is what marks out a millennial, and this is sometimes construed to be entitlement. According to Deloitte’s millennial survey, about half of them globally shun work, and even potential employers, who they believe do something that goes against their values.

In football, that means that a player is never going to think that he earns an obscene amount of money, whatever the world thinks about it. No teenager will like a salary cap, not in a world where millionaires are getting younger by the day.

A Mesut Ozil, who is naturally laid back, will not become a driven machine just because he is expected to, and will definitely not take kindly to it being demanded by a manager. An Eden Hazard might do a job for you (tracking back from the left of midfield) that he does not like for one season, as Mourinho discovered, but at some point he is going to tell you that it does not play to his strengths.

At Porto, Chelsea (first stint) and Inter Milan, he had players who would buy into the siege mentality he wanted to instill within his squads. The ‘men’ he would speak about. They would go into battle for him every single game and play through the pain barrier even when they had injuries. His man management was brilliant, being hard on his players when required and effusive with praise when they deserved it. He knew when to go public with criticism and when something needed to be shared in private. He was a tough taskmaster and brother/friend in equal measure.

And then he went to Real Madrid and encountered the ‘soft’ power of players for the first time. He was at a club where national idols and superstars played, all of whom had entrenched links with the media and the club hierarchy. By the time he left, he managed to alienate almost all his players. His man management approach, which had worked so well for him before, failed spectacularly. He has not been the same manager since.

The world had changed by the time Mourinho came ‘home’ to Chelsea. The modern young player had metamorphosed into a specimen he did not recognize. He was 50 when he rejoined Chelsea and he looked it. He found support from the old guard, but players weren’t ‘men’ in the way a Lampard or Keane or Vieira were anymore. Every modern player had understood the power of social media and maintaining appearances, and started using them to the hilt. They spent as much time on cultivating their brand as they did on their game.

When Eden Hazard started going public about his preference for the number 10 role in Mourinho’s team, he did so with the weight of his conviction and a few million Twitter and Instagram followers behind him. Mourinho was still the main man, but not by much, and in another tussle with his dressing room, he lost again.

Now, he is at Manchester United and there is still a sense that he is a bit bewildered and uncertain about how to deal with his players. His treatment of Luke Shaw and Bastian Schweinsteiger have left a lot of people unhappy and befuddled.

To his credit, he acknowledged in the interview that he needs to go with the changes in modern football players, because he has realized that if he fights it, he is bringing about conflict and puts himself in the stone age. He also had this to say.

“If you stop a player from doing something, even something a little stupid, on social media, you are going against nature. I admit that having a son and a daughter at that sort of age has helped me to understand the way they function and what the world is today.

I measured, from a methodological point of view, the nature of change. I worked as a result with my assistants to better, modify and adapt our work. Technology has given us new tools. Modernity and science too. But the key to everything, in terms of the leadership aspect, is to understand the people that you are working with today.”

In a world that is more individualistic and connected than ever before, and hence more equal, it would help more managers, and fans, if they understood that the modern player will always put himself first, not the club or the manager.

There was a generation that believed in staying loyal to organizations that they worked at. Our parents probably held the same job for a decade or two. Those days are gone. Even those working at blue chip companies these days move on in a few years. That is the nature of the world we live in. And football is no different.

The millennial footballer has recognized this. People tire of the same faces, the same philosophies, the same routines and sustained intensity. More than ever, people just want to be happy, only for themselves.

And maybe, finally, managers are beginning to realize this as well. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique calling time on their stints at Barcelona before being asked to leave may be a sign of things to come. Sometimes, the best thing a manager can do is remove himself from a job before everyone tires of him. Do a job and leave. The motto for a brave, new world. Are you listening, Arsene Wenger?

As for Mourinho, he may eventually rediscover his mojo with players. The first step to solving a problem is realizing that there is one. And he has done that.


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