Upon returning to the Premier League to take charge of Chelsea for a second time in June 2013, one of Jose Mourinho’s first actions was to drop Juan Mata from the starting line-up.
The symbolic significance of the move was grave.
But, to Mourinho, none of this was important. The manager quickly determined that Mata lacked the athleticism and work ethic required to fit his system and, in January 2014, he sold the playmaker to Premier League rivals Manchester United.
2014/15 Premier League “Player of the Season” Eden Hazard, for instance, is presently experiencing a taste of what Mata went through two years ago and Mourinho’s controversial decision to demote the now departed team doctor Eva Carneiro seemed to have had less to do with her behavior during Chelsea’s 2-2 draw at home against Swansea in August than it did with her perceived act of defiance toward the manager on social media after the match.
Mourinho demands 100 percent loyalty from all of his staff, all of the time. Without that, his managerial system – one characterized by the relentless cultivation of an “us against the world mentality” – cannot be successful.
When his team is winning, this strategy can prove to be highly effective. The dominant nature of Chelsea’s Premier League triumph last season alone is testament to this and Mourinho’s record of having won at least one first division title in each of the four countries in which he has managed suggests he would be capable of creating a winning mentality in almost any dressing room.
The problem with this authoritarian management system, however, is that it relies upon success in order to be effective. Players will yield to Mourinho and put up with his abrasive man-management style only so long as the team is winning.
When results dry up, player loyalty evaporates.
One might argue that this is the case with all managers, that a coach only commands the respect of his squad if they believe that he can help them to win football matches. While there is an element of truth in such an assertion, experience suggests that the effect of losing matches is far more negative on Mourinho teams than it is at other elite clubs.
Arsene Wenger, for instance, went nine years without winning a trophy at Arsenal prior to claiming the FA Cup in 2014. Despite this, Wenger kept the club competitive in the Premier League and in Europe throughout the last decade and there was never any substantive suggestion that he “lost” the dressing room in that time.
Similarly, Sir Alex Ferguson went three seasons without winning a Premier League or Champions League at Manchester United between 2003 and 2007 after coming close to resigning in 2001. However, the Scot was able to maintain the backing of his senior players throughout that barren spell and he went on to win another five Premier Leagues and a Champions League before retiring two years ago.
Wenger and Ferguson’s longevity owes to the fact that their managerial authority derives from more than simply winning. Both are uniquely gifted man-managers who have proven themselves capable of engendering a loyalty from players that endures even when results are bad.
“I did everything to please Sir Alex Ferguson”, the four time Premier League winner with Manchester United Darren Fletcher observed in an interview with Graham Hunter.
“You wanted to earn his ‘well done’, you wanted to play for him, you wanted to win for him, you wanted to do everything for him because of how much respect he treated you [with], how much he learned you and how much of a winner he was. He had a presence, you were so overawed by him, but, at the same time, he would feel like your father.”
Chelsea’s run of six defeats in 11 matches in the Premier League this season means that their chances of retaining the title are already gone. In order to revive the season, Mourinho must unite an apparently divided dressing room and the absence of success means that he can only do this by owning up to mistakes and by showing humility.
Mourinho’s record of having never lasted more than three seasons at any club suggests that this is unlikely, however, his job and Chelsea’s Premier League fortunes depend upon him regaining his players’ trust.
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