Ten days ago, following his Tottenham side’s 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Wembley, Mauricio Pochettino dedicated part of his press-conference to a contentious decision which occurred right at the game’s end. As Spurs had scrambled for respectability in stoppage-time, Son Heung Min appeared to have been fouled in the penalty box. Pochettino wanted a penalty and, two or three times to the media, he bemoaned the referee’s failure to award one.
Two days later, Mark Hughes did see a penalty given in a game involving his Southampton side. James Ward-Prowse was correctly judged to have pushed Shane Duffy to the floor and Brighton were able to salvage a draw with Glenn Murray’s spot-kick. That too was the focus of press-conference debate, with Hughes insisting that the decision had been generous and that Duffy had been quick to tumble.
The common theme of those complaints was their emptiness. In a literal sense, yes, the respective decisions each had an impact on the result and provided the manager in question with some solace, but – in the context of the games and performances as a whole – the rights and wrongs were of little meaning. Southampton and Tottenham were both dreadful last weekend and Hughes and Pochettino each had more pressing concerns. Neither team deserved to win and, in the abstract and with no respect to the various rights and wrongs, the referees involved each enabled a cosmic footballing justice to be served.
Excuse culture is nothing new in football, but it has never felt so antiquated. There is and will always remain a pocket of fundamentalism within each fanbase, but playing to those galleries is a futile exercise. Supporters today are more educated, they are wiser to the PR cycles which surround the game, and their tolerance for misdirection is lower than ever before. When their teams lose, they want to know why.
The appetite, then, is for analysis. Instead of a scapegoat or bogeyman, supporters crave justification for why something has gone wrong. They want knowledge rather than cheap points for pub arguments. While bad luck will always be an X in the sporting equation, poor performance will only really be tolerated if it proves to be part of a learning curve. So, while complaints about refereeing performance still have a place, it’s counter-productive for any manager to deploy them as a means of avoiding a bigger picture.
Both Hughes and Pochettino did just that last weekend. Tottenham had been woefully non-competitive at Wembley and, on the following Monday night, Southampton were equally rotten in their feeble attempt to protect a two-goal lead. In the latter case, Brighton’s eventual equaliser was so inevitable and the pattern of the game so obviously hinting at the eventual outcome, that the manner in which it ultimately came to pass was essentially irrelevant.
You wonder, then, what the purpose is. Frustration is real enough in management and it’s certainly not unusual for irritation to bubble up in front of the television cameras, but the old assumption – that managers use these mechanisms to protect themselves from criticism – is clearly outdated. Managers who complain too much are as seen as weak. Those capable of finding conspiracy in every defeat become, over time, very hard to take seriously.
Pochettino isn’t one of them, he rarely dwells on decisions, but Hughes certainly is – and, actually, complaining about refereeing decisions is arguably the dominant association with his coaching style. While only a few are wise to his favoured formations and stylistic defaults, everybody knows that nothing is ever, ever his fault. Hughes may not be a particularly gifted coach, but this self-created reputation has reduced his standing from that of perfectly respectable Premier League manager to almost a parody cliche.
Only “almost” because Hughes does not exist at the very top of the game. At the actual summit, a clear dichotomy exists between the values espoused by Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. The former isn’t quite as cuddly as his All Or Nothing caricature, he’s actually a rather awkward figure with the press, but he is still the game’s anointed methodologist. Guardiola is always thinking and tweaking, even identifying and curing defects which nobody other than he himself is aware of. Whether that’s an idealised perspective or not, it’s a perception which buttresses his position as modern football’s towering ideologue.
Conversely, Mourinho’s pre-occupation with the news cycle and, more broadly, with being the architect of his own reputation has made him as a man out of time. It’s to his great detriment. The noise which surrounds Mourinho has obfuscated the coaching merits that he definitely still retains. Behind Carrington’s closed doors, he may well spend his hours trying to decipher the riddle of Manchester United’s defensive problems. He probably also tosses and turns at night, locked in turmoil over the twin conundrums of Paul Pogba’s most productive position and Alexis Sanchez’s material worth.
But that is not how he is seen. Moreover, that is not how he is seen because of the way he behaves. The irony of his great outburst following the recent 3-0 loss to Tottenham – his rant about respect – was that he was essentially raging against a distortion which he himself had created. Mourinho will be remembered as one of European football’s great problem solvers and, rightly, as someone capable of levelling even the most slanted playing field. Unfortunately though, this preoccupation with dictating his own terms and carving his own legacy has muddied those waters.
He’s now seen as weak, tediously adversarial and, in some quarters, outmoded. Guardiola, his great rival, is the present and the future. Mourinho, with his trivotes, his low-blocks, and his preoccupation with the PGMOL is the past. Whether that’s fair is beside the point: if you make your own Spitting Image puppet, don’t be surprised if it gets used to belittle you.
But Mourinho’s career provides a single case study; there are plenty of others. Neil Warnock, you suspect, will be Colin for eternity, rather than a capable coach who has overseen a pair of highly unlikely promotions to the Premier League. Harry Redknapp’s “bare bones” routine has created an asterisk within a career which ought to be associated with its staggering longevity. For Mourinho’s “respect” outburst, see Redknapp’s famous “wheeler dealer” volley with a Sky reporter: really, both men were throwing haymakers at their own reflection.
Even sunny side up personalities such as Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers have been belittled for their attempts to gloss over poor performances with baseless positivity. Rodgers is probably one of the sharper minds in British football, but the public can only hear a listless defeat described in glowing terms so many times before they feel that their intelligence is being insulted. The era in which the manager always knew best and was beyond reproach has been over for a long time; these men no longer have the privilege of dictating their surrounding realities.
Some understand this, some don’t. Increasingly, phantom grievances are a supporter’s domain. That’s their luxury and it’s a facet of tribalism which will never disappear. For a head-coach, though, practical, well-reasoned honesty has never been more important. Crucially, anything other than that has never been more corrosive to credibility.