Ken Early: Klopp and Mourinho display mastery of the blame game
The managers showed how to avoid blaming the players while blaming the players
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp: “I really don’t want to blame players, and Dejan to be honest was not worse than others.” Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
The worst part of a coach’s job is that moment after a heavy defeat when you have to go in front of the cameras and the journalists and explain how you managed to get it all so horribly wrong.
It’s a difficult situation, particularly for the coach of a big Premier League team, because in the aftermath of a bad defeat there is a lot of blame and somebody has to get it. If you’re not careful, that person might be you: are you sure you can take it? How coaches try to direct the blame tells us a lot about them.
There are a few time-honoured strategies. The most obvious solution is to blame the referee, but you can also blame injuries, or weather conditions, or the “anti-football” way the other side set up. On occasion Alex Ferguson would appear to blame the interviewer, intimidating them from asking further irritating questions; these tense exchanges were the shadow side of the “well done, Geoff” with which Ferguson sometimes rounded off more amiable interviews.
Most people agree that it is not a good idea to blame your players. They are as sensitive to criticism as you are, and while they have less of a public voice, they can do plenty of talking behind your back. Dressing-room whispers have a way of turning into very damaging back-page headlines, and then the blame you tried to divert towards the players has boomeranged back in your face.
And yet there are times in the life of every manager when the urge to blame the players becomes overwhelming. Jürgen Klopp and José Mourinho faced similar situations this weekend, seeing their best-laid plans scuppered by basic defensive errors.
The most diverting aspect of the last half-hour at Wembley, as Spurs coasted to a 4-1 win over Liverpool, was wondering how Klopp would explain a shambolic rout where each of the four goals his side conceded stemmed from a basic error.
Klopp had taken Dejan Lovren off after 31 minutes, but in the press conference, his voice ragged from screaming at his players, he resisted the temptation to criticise the Croatian defender further. “I really don’t want to blame players, and Dejan to be honest was not worse than others. We had to change something, we had to make sure we were a little more stable.”
Klopp nevertheless skirted close to one of the worst gaffes a manager can make: announcing that he, a middle-aged man, could have done better himself. Among the outstanding instances over the years were Harry Redknapp suggesting his wife, Sandra, would have scored a chance his striker Darren Bent had missed, and Roy Keane getting the goalie gloves on in Sunderland training to show his keeper Craig Gordon how a real man could save free kicks.
“These goals today, I said it, the first goal would not happen if I am on the pitch. It would not happen if I’m in the middle, in trainers. Harry cannot get the ball,” Klopp said. His point, however, was not to single out an individual, but to complain that Liverpool had so many players surrounding the ball before Spurs worked it to Kane that it was inexcusable that none of them had managed to boot it clear.
Klopp rejected a suggestion that the defeat was down to his players’ poor attitude, and admitted that his own solutions – such as moving Emre Can to right-back to help cover Joe Gomez – “did not work too well either”. If you have to criticise, make sure it is for what they do, not what they are, and when you are talking about a bad performance, for the love of God say “we”: that way it sounds like you’re accepting your share of the blame.
These are not rules every manager observes. “I know that you like the individualisation of the mistake and the defeat,” Mourinho told reporters after United’s 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield. He wasn’t going to give the press the headlines they craved. Instead, he would make all the players share the blame collectively.
The problem, he said, was the attitude of his players. “When you lose a game because of attitude, then that’s really bad. I heard that Ander Herrera is in the flash interviews and is saying the attitude and desire was poor. Oh my God, when a player feels that, they should all go to the press conference and explain why because I can’t explain why.”
“The players had a bad attitude” is a convenient way to explain how you lost to a much weaker team, if the fans are satisfied with the explanation. If the players’ attitude is to blame, fans are less likely to ask questions like: why could we muster only three shots on target after having 78 per cent of possession – might there be one or two issues with how we are set up creatively?
By blaming the defeat on the players’ attitudes, and moreover suggesting that he had no idea where this bad attitude had come from, Mourinho implied that he did not deserve any of the blame. “If I was a Manchester United fan I would be very disappointed,” he said, but it was evident enough that fans should be disappointed in the players, rather than the manager. Like them, all he could do was hope that it would be a long time before the players would spring another such nasty surprise.
Next week, Tottenham go to Old Trafford for a match that will determine which side is seen as Manchester City’s chief rival for the 2018 title. Hopefully Mourinho’s players will have shaken off their attitude problem by then, or there will be a fresh truckload of blame to go round.