Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho and the cultivation of liderazgo
With Manchester United and Liverpool set to meet at Anfield on Monday, one manager’s approach seems stale while the other sounds the voice of modernity
José Mourinho is only four years older than Jürgen Klopp but in football terms it can feel as though there is a lifetime between them. In part it is an issue of tactics: the hard, high press of which Klopp is such a devotee is modish. When Liverpool and Manchester City went to Tottenham this season and engaged in breathless, percussive styles, it felt like the football of today, the freshest ideas being pitched against each other. Mourinho’s style is more conventional. That does not render it invalid but, with the two managers’ sides set to meet at Anfield on Monday night, it is part of a general sense of familiarity about the Manchester United manager that may be damaging.
The great Argentinian coach Carlos Bianchi, who won four Copa Libertadores with Vélez Sarsfield and Boca Juniors, once laid out 10 “unwritten rules” of successful coaching for the magazine Management Deportivo. Not a single one of them referred to on-pitch strategy. For him the most important thing was to “cultivate el liderazgo”. The term literally means “leadership” but for Bianchi it was more than that: it was about developing a cult of personality. It is a strategy at least partially shared by Mourinho and Klopp.
Klopp is warm and charismatic. To see him celebrating on the pitch after the 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season was to see a manager who is clearly loved both by his players and by the vast majority of Liverpool fans. His antics on the touchline, his obvious involvement in the game, make clear he is one of them.
His manner in press conferences and interviews is convivial but there is a structure to his spontaneity. Watch him do a line of television interviews and you realise even the “Ha!”s are to an extent pre-programmed. That is not to accuse him of hypocrisy or to suggest there is anything dishonest about his public persona but it is a performance geared to making certain points and achieving a certain effect.
Talk to anybody who played for Mourinho at Porto and it can feel like talking to members of a cult. There is affection but also awe. “He knew everybody so deeply that he could control our emotions in every situation,” said the goalkeeper Vítor Baía, who described how Mourinho’s planning was so precise that at times it seemed as though he could foretell the future. In Issue Eight of The Blizzard, Roy Henderson outlined how closely Mourinho conforms to German political theorist Max Weber’s definition of the “charismatic authority” needed by demagogues. The line about being a “special one” is a case in point: he knew the media would pick it up and that it added to the image he wanted to present of self-confidence and control.
For managers who rely on liderazgo, the problem comes when the aura is punctured. As the former Benfica coach Bela Guttmann once observed, a coach is like a lion-tamer: “the moment he becomes unsure of his hypnotic energy, and the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.”
This season Mourinho, rumpled and grouchy, has at times seemed hesitant, bereft of the ruthlessness of old. Worse, when he has been ruthless, as he was in his treatment of Bastian Schweinsteiger, it felt like a trick. There is resignation rather than shock: Mourinho doing his thing again. His interviews and press conferences no longer have the same impact: the same strategies recur and rather than report the outrage they are designed to provoke, the media now focuses on the strategy.
The demand for constant evolution is wearying. Very few managers manage more than a decade at the very highest level and those who do often have a fallow period – as, for instance, Sir Alex Ferguson did between 2003 and 2006. Mourinho is a coach of extraordinary gifts. He may find a way back to the top as he did, exhaustingly and self-destructively, in Madrid by beating Barcelona to La Liga title in 2012. But at the moment it feels as though the momentum is against him and, for a coach whose method is so based on perception, that is a major concern.
Last season, although United got the better of Liverpool in both league games, there was a sense that Klopp represented modernity and Louis van Gaal something more traditional. One was vertical, the other horizontal, the difference between the two demonstrated as a rampant Liverpool beat United 2-0 in the home leg of their Europa League tie.
There is little sense that anything has changed this season. United may be less conservative than they were under Van Gaal but they still seem sluggish by comparison with City, Spurs or Liverpool. Perhaps that is, as Mourinho has claimed, simply a case of him having to re-educate players encumbered by Van Gaal’s indoctrination (resistant as they seemed to his philosophy at the time).
But stylistically, since his first spell at Chelsea at least, Mourinho has stood alone, a brooding breakwater against the press-and-possess tide. And that too may count against his liderazgo: when the image of leadership is paramount, style and substance, reputation and actuality, go hand in hand. There was a time when Mourinho’s talk of resting with the ball, of transitions and midfield triangles seemed thrillingly new. He was the iconoclastic pioneer of a new age.
But football has moved on. Klopp is modernity and that inflates his image. Mourinho, dulled by familiarity, is in danger of becoming the past.