José Mourinho’s duel with Mauricio Pochettino presents clash of outlooks

Manchester United’s manager has handled problems in sharp contrast to his Spurs counterpart before their Premier League match

Mauricio Pochettino has just a sheet of toilet paper compared with José Mourinho’s roll of honour but that is not the most pertinent difference between the two managers right now. As Manchester United prepare to host Tottenham Hotspur in a pivotal Premier League clash on Monday, it does not matter that their manager has won eight domestic league titles, five domestic cups and four major European trophies while Pochettino’s only silverware lies in his cutlery drawer.

What is moststriking is the contrast between the way each man appears to be handling similar problems. This could help to determine the outcome of the duel at Old Trafford. And probably much beyond.

Mourinho seems to have stewed in woe this summer while Pochettino has remained positive when he could have whined. Mourinho has complained about being given only three new signings since finishing second last season; Pochettino got none since finishing third but has put on a brave face. Mourinho complained about the number of United players who came late to pre-season training because of the World Cup; Pochettino had more players who went far in that tournament but did not bellyache. Nor has the Argentinian moaned about the delays to the completion of Spurs’ new stadium.

When Mourinho warned this will be a difficult season for United he did so in the tone of a weatherman predicting rain, whereas Pochettino hits a subtly different note when describing this as the most difficult summer he has known as a manager. He embraces the challenge, saying: “This is the most challenging season for different circumstances but I feel the opposite, too. I have plenty of energy. I’m so happy because we can only learn and we can be better as coaching staff.”

Pochettino suggested on Friday that the abbreviated pre-season and lack of reinforcements will force him to improvise in the early months of this campaign to avoid putting too much strain on core players but he spun that as exciting: “I’m not worried,” he claimed. “For the first few months you need to expect we play with a different starting XI, change a lot and maybe go from one system to another. We need to be sure that, in our opinion and knowledge, we don’t take risks for players. Now, more than ever, we need to be clever in the way we manage.”

He said all that with a smile, portraying it as part of the game. Of course, he may say something different, and in less cheery fashion, to Daniel Levy, the man responsible for Tottenham’s transfer budget, but Pochettino takes care to preserve a positive mood around the club, or at least the convincing appearance of one.

Contrast that with Mourinho’s petulant routine at his last press conference, when he could not bring himself even to say he was happy with his squad. “You know the answer,” he replied when asked that question outright. When invited to clarify, he repeated the same thing.

A football manager being unhelpful to journalists does not necessarily matter, but who is helped by Mourinho’s recent public performances? They just seem self-indulgent, an opportunity wasted, at best, by a man who knows very well the power of the media and previously manipulated it with skill.

Mauricio Pochettino has remained positive despite Tottenham’s failure to add to their squad this summer.
Mauricio Pochettino has remained positive despite Tottenham’s failure to add to their squad this summer. Photograph: Stephen Wright/ProSports/REX/Shutterstock

Frank Lampard once said that when Mourinho was Chelsea’s manager his players used to get a kick out of watching coverage of his press conferences, particularly his jabs at other managers. Mourinho took out Antonio Conte with a verbal swipe last season and aimed a well‑judged barb at Manchester City last week. But one wonders what United’s players have made of most of Mourinho’s recent soundbites. Especially as some of those players seem very publicity-conscious.

Still, what should be most important is what the manager says to the players directly. Mostly we can only guess at that, taking our clues from performances on the pitch. The display at Brighton last week suggested some very garbled conversations have been going on at Old Trafford, and there must have been some angry ones before and after.

It is interesting to reflect now on something else Lampard said in the past when describing Mourinho’s man-management. “It’s a presence and an aura and a way with people,” Lampard assessed in 2013. “He galvanises people. His own self-confidence reflects back on teams.” He does not seem to be galvanising many of United’s players at the moment.

Maybe that is partly because many of those players already had self‑confidence – and have got more of it since, for example, winning the World Cup – and they do not believe the manager advocates a style that enables them to express it. Maybe the manager thinks some of them have too much self-confidence and not enough appetite for essential chores such as tracking back and concentrating for 90 minutes. Maybe there is truth in both views and Mourinho and some United players will never get along. In which case United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, will have to give the manager more new players or the sack.

Monday’s performance against Tottenham may bring one of those outcomes a little closer. If Mourinho is in a positive mood, he will certainly remind his players that for all the progress Spurs have made under Pochettino they have lost on all four visits to Old Trafford under him. If he is at his crafty best, he might even deflect media questions about the environment he is creating at his club by suggesting they would be better directed at the representative of the one whose captain, Hugo Lloris, was charged on Friday with drink-driving. That is a problem even Pochettino would not try to cast as a positive, although if he selects the Frenchman he can at least be sure the goalkeeper will be especially eager to begin atoning for causing it.

The Argentinian says he likes Mourinho personally and admires him as a manager. “For every single manager that is younger than him he is an inspiration. The circumstances that happen with myself and with other managers, they will happen, it is up and down. But he is an inspirational manager for a manager like me.”

Will Pochettino’s team finally prevail at Old Trafford, a result that would augur well for Spurs’ trophy ambitions and maybe even increase the possibility of Pochettino following in his inspiration’s footsteps one day, either at Real Madrid or United? Or will Mourinho and United pull themselves together to ensure Pochettino’s Spurs remain a nearly team, at least at Old Trafford?

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Paul Doyle

The GuardianTramp

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