By Mark Ogden
Sir Alex Ferguson was often described as a bully and a tyrant during his time in charge of Manchester United, but you would have to go a long way to find one of his players supporting those accusations.
Ferguson was tough and demanding and there are countless examples of his players being on the wrong end of his temper — David Beckham and the flying boot being one of the most memorable — but once out of the dressing room, the finger-pointing stopped and a protective blanket was thrown around each and every one of his men.
When Ferguson retired as United manager in May 2013 — Tuesday is the fifth anniversary of the announcement of his retirement — he was asked about his management style and motivation and he claimed that the two most important words he could ever say to a player were “well done.”
Ferguson could dish out criticism as well as anyone, but he also knew the value of praise at the right time. That is why he was so successful and why, with the Scot fighting for his life in a Salford hospital following a brain haemorrhage at the weekend, the affection and respect of so many of his former players have been forthcoming.
In the five years since Ferguson stepped down, however, management has changed. Players have become so much more than members of a squad — the biggest stars are almost media empires in their own right such is their profile; the cult of the individual appears to be eclipsing the sense of the collective.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are two managers who seem to have found the perfect balance between managing players and managing personalities at Manchester City and Liverpool respectively, but others are struggling.
Arsene Wenger will leave Arsenal with his grip on his squad having been loosened months, maybe even years, ago, while Jose Mourinho’s latest outburst about under-performing players at Man United, following Friday’s 1-0 defeat at Brighton, is merely the latest example of a hard-line approach that could prove hugely damaging, both for him and his club.
Mourinho is all iron fist without velvet glove right now. He had a similar way of working during his first spell at Chelsea when he was arguably at his peak, but there was a softer, more approachable side to the Portuguese back then.
At United, he is increasingly turning to the tough love approach. The problem is, the love isn’t visible beneath that tough exterior and he is in danger of presiding over a group of players who only fear him.
It is difficult to earn respect when you rule by fear. Ferguson was able to blend control with respect and admiration, but the Mourinho way is at odds with the philosophy of the man whose achievements at Old Trafford have made it so hard for his successors to succeed.
Sources have told ESPN FC that a number of players at United are struggling to cope with Mourinho’s approach and his habit of criticising individuals, either directly by name or by inference.
Luke Shaw has been on the receiving end more than most, but Mourinho has also targeted Chris Smalling, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly with his brand of man-management and his recent complaint about United’s lack of “heritage” was rooted in his belief that the squad of players at his disposal is not good enough.
And then there was his decision to hand his Manager’s Player of the Year award last week to Scott McTominay, the 21-year-old midfielder who has started just 12 games this season. Depending on your point of view, that was either a rare example of Mourinho heaping praise on a young player or a pointed dig at the rest of his squad for failing to live up to his standards.
But can Mourinho prosper at United if he continues to alienate himself among the players?
If the likes of Pogba, Martial and Rashford push to leave this summer because of issues with their manager, can United allow their brightest young players to depart on the basis that Mourinho has not been able to get the best from them?
After he rejected them at Chelsea, both Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have shown this season (for Liverpool and Manchester City) that Mourinho can get it spectacularly wrong with young players and there will be a concern that similar mistakes could be made with the United stars who may be dispensed with this summer.
Is it the players who are failing or is it Mourinho’s approach with them that is at fault? It is an immensely difficult question to answer because United are second in the Premier League, confirmed qualifiers for next season’s Champions League and less than two weeks away from contesting the FA Cup Final.
In black and white, they are moving forward and succeeding under Mourinho. But he does not look happy and neither do many of his players, so where do United go from here?
A few more “well dones” from Mourinho and a few less barbs directed towards his own players in the media might be a good place to start because he is at risk of becoming the embodiment of the bullying, tyrannical manager that Ferguson was wrongly caricatured to be.
And that is not good for him or United.
Mark Ogden is a Senior Football Writer with ESPN