Monday 22 January 2018

James Lawton: Belittling your squad is not a sign of a strong manager

Mourinho's vitriol as United stumble contrasts with Conte's inspirational faith in Chelsea squad

Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte are miles apart in terms of how they deal with players. Photo: Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte are miles apart in terms of how they deal with players. Photo: Chelsea FC via Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

If Chelsea win the Premier League title, as logic and merit and competitive character still insist they will, the triumph will gleam as brightly as any in the already extraordinary record of their manager Antonio Conte.

It may also be remembered for something more than a brilliant example of how to re-construct a talented squad which appeared to have lost its way.

It might well be said that not only did he clear up a mess at Stamford Bridge but placed in a searing light the man who created it.

Certainly, this has been a week in which the operating styles of Conte and Jose Mourinho have not been so much at variance as inhabiting different planets.

Conte, facing his first crisis since the early season defeat at Arsenal which provoked him into an instant tactical revamp and a three-man defence, has invested much public trust in his players. Mourinho has done precisely the opposite.

The Chelsea manager healed wounds after the defeat by Crystal Palace and then responded with superbly conceived substitutions to some extremely threatening football from Manchester City.

Mourinho was again flipping through his manual of the snide and demeaning before discussing again his players' contribution to the growing malaise of his Manchester United.

The contrast was at times stomach-churning as it raised again the question first posed when Mourinho was fired after losing a dressing-room which had delivered the title six months earlier.

Is Mourinho's ego flushing away the last of what once seemed like a genius for drawing the best out of any team he ran?

Not so long ago such fears were made to seem both extravagant and premature. He seemed to be stirring back to life at least a trace of the aura of United which drained away so rapidly under the regimes of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

Around the charisma and goals of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the promise that record signing Paul Pogba might be hinting that he was the player who had performed so well under Conte at Juventus, United were challenging for a Champions League place and showing some of the old swagger.

Now the players look disillusioned and resigned to fresh bursts of withering criticism from the man who is supposed to set their blood racing.

Mourinho's default position is increasingly brutal and charmless. It seems to be nothing more psychologically subtle than picking out a dressing room victim - or victims - and firing away.

He exceeded himself in the wake of the embattled, 21-year-old Luke Shaw's winning of the penalty which rescued a point from the dismal home performance against Everton.

Mourinho explained that Shaw, already raked by criticism going back to the first days of the reign, used his own body against Everton but required the help of his coach's brain.

It is hard to imagine a more damaging dismissal of a young player attempting to save a career or understand the psychology that persuaded Mourinho to single out Henrikh Mkhitaryan after the earlier, and equally tepid, home draw with West Brom.

Mkhitaryan, who performed so well for Borussia Dortmund, responded with the abject confession that he was still fighting to adjust to the demands of the Premier League.

Read more: Manchester United have their worst home record since they were relegated 43 years ago

Meanwhile Anthony Martial, a young striker of proven calibre, languishes on the bench and his team-mate Marcus Rashford, the great hope at the start of the season, appears to be playing from a vague memory.

At what point does Mourinho acknowledge his role in the gathering Old Trafford crisis? Don't watch this space.

This reluctance underlines still more the differences between him and Conte.

Maybe the most significant is the one obscured by the first long and brilliant reach of Mourinho's coaching career. It is that he played the game only at a minor level.

So it is surely much easier for someone like Conte to understand the thoughts and emotions of young players struggling to establish themselves at the top of football.

Conte, who was not one the great natural talents, won five Serie A titles with Juventus as a hard-driving midfielder. He won a Champions League medal. He also won runner-up medals with Italy in the 1994 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship.

He knew, at pitch level, the fineness of the line between winning and losing, believing in yourself and not.

It is a perception which seems to radiate into every corner of the Chelsea performance and is maybe best reflected in the dramatic reclamation of such major assets as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.

Hazard, so detached in the last days of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, blazes again with the highest skill and serious intent. He was utterly decisive against City.

Costa's anarchy had become a liability. Now, despite a lapse against the returning Vincent Kompany, he is a paragon of commitment.

David Luiz, who in a Brazil shirt looked like the remnant of a notably talented footballer in the last World Cup, has become crucial to Chelsea's momentum and the confidence since his return from Paris SG.

And so it goes through the team that less than a year ago looked displaced and time-expired.

It was hardly a surprise that Conte this week was required to fend off questions from an Italian media made a little frenzied by the possibility that the Premier League will fall to an Italian coach for a second straight year.

No, he said, he would not be returning to Juventus or Mourinho's old club Inter Milan in the glow of an English triumph. He would be building, at least for another season, in a place he has conquered with a passion that embraces all around him.

And, no doubt, an old pro's instinct to make his players feel a little better about themselves.

Read more here:

Irish Independent

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