Confrontational leadership, Jose Mourinho called it. He described it as a strategy. “When you are ready to provoke your players, to try and create some conflict, with the intention to bring out the best from them,” he said in 2015.
He seemed to spend much of his reign as Manchester United manager putting his theory to the test. At times, he was taking it to extremes, provoking Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. But often Paul Pogba.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer defined himself in two ways as United manager: as the playing great steeped in the club’s traditions and as the anti-Mourinho. Solskjaer’s ethos may be less controversial and less quotable, but it can revolve around unconfrontational leadership. His likeability was a factor in his initial success, which in turn was propelled by Pogba.
It has brought further vindication in the last 10 days. Pogba has produced twin winners to twice send United top, first at Burnley and then at Fulham. Each has been the sort of goal relatively few players could score, each the deserved reward for a terrific performance.
Pogba has been in his best run of form this season; along with a spurt in summer, it has been his finest spell of performances since Solskjaer ceased to be caretaker manager. He has been adaptable enough to play deep in midfield, wide on the left and even on the right, which is perhaps his fourth best position. There has been scant evidence of dissent when he has been benched. He has looked content, fit and focused.
And yet it is less than two months since the build-up to United’s decisive Champions League game against RB Leipzig was disrupted by Mino Raiola’s claims his client was “unhappy” at Old Trafford and needed a move. Indeed, the troublesome super-agent has provided some of the soundtrack for Solskjaer’s entire reign.
And, for much of it, the Norwegian has ignored it. His brand of unconfrontational leadership can sometimes make him seem a delusional optimist, forever insisting his is a happy camp as Raiola touts his record buy around and criticises the club.
But there may be an essential wisdom to it. Firstly because Pogba is not Raiola and, tedious as the soap opera that surrounds him invariably is, has often been a popular figure within the club, rather than an insurrectionist in the ranks. Estranging him could unsettle others. Mourinho’s experience suggests it hardly spurs the Frenchman on to greater heights.
Secondly because if confrontation and criticism was designed to galvanise, it could alienate. Driving a player to the exit when there is no actual destination can serve little practical benefit. An exiled, omitted Pogba would mean United make a still greater loss in the transfer market when he eventually goes. An integrated, involved Pogba may be the difference between fifth and fourth; maybe even between second and first. As the last three games show, he has a rare skill-set and, if Bruno Fernandes has emerged as the catalyst and constant the World Cup winner was supposed to be, Pogba can still be a match-winner. He may dream of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Juventus, whereas Solskjaer believes in the primacy of United, but his talent means their interests can align in the short term.
It is Solskjaer’s default position to suggest everything is rosy at United. It entails ignoring the odd inconvenient truth. And while Pogba’s union with United can feel a marriage of inconvenience at times, their surge to the top of the table offers the prospect of an unexpectedly happy ending. All of which would be a triumph for a different school of management: not confrontational leadership, but conciliatory leadership.
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