Imagine the following scenario.
After last year’s Super Bowl win the New England Patriots enter the 2015-16 season as strong contenders to repeat. However, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, they come out of the gate slowly, losing a series of games they’d be expected to win. As the middle of the season approaches, things have grown dire. The Pats are 1-6, rumors swirl that Bill Belichick has lost the locker room, and nobody except the weakside linebacker is playing worth a damn. Linemen can’t block, all-pro receivers have forgotten how to catch and Tom Brady has thrown 20 interceptions against zero touchdown passes.
Bob Kraft finally throws in the towel and fires Belichick. In the next game, with the secondary coach acting as interim head coach, the Patriots look like their old selves as they roll Cleveland 35-3.
Insane, huh? But that’s more or less exactly what has happened with English Premier League Champions Chelsea FC this season. On Thursday, the West London side finally parted ways with manager José Mourinho, a man many regard as the best manager alive and one of the greatest ever. At the time, the Blues had won only four times in 16 leagues matches. They managed to win their Champions League qualifying group, true, but they crashed out early in the League Cup, and pretty much nobody saw reason to expect improvement.
Over the past couple of days everyone with access to an Internet connection has weighed in with an analysis of what went wrong, why it had to happen, why it shouldn’t have happened, what comes next, etc. As you’d expect, the signal-to-noise ratio has been about one part coherent thought to ten parts static. A couple of these pieces in particular, though, have struck me.
Miguel Delaney pointed up Mourinho’s failure to connect with a new generation of footballers, writing:
A number of people close to Chelsea say that one reason Mourinho never formed the unbreakable bond with the current players that he did with the 2005 generation of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard was because he was never as attuned to the millennials, those born from 1990 on and who came up through modern youth academies. He wanted angry aggression from players never suited to angry aggression, even though he had forensically restructured the squad.
Iain Macintosh concurred, and expanded on the theme.
There were also suggestions that Mourinho found himself unable to deal with the new generation of footballer, the cosseted millennials. The likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard were the last of their era, players who had to pay their dues cleaning the boots of senior professionals, fetching them drinks or, in Terry’s case, warming the toilet seat for Dennis Wise. Mourinho liked players like that; players who had to prove themselves as he had proved himself.
Young players now are protected from such things and cultivated from a tender age in expensive academies. They often have agents and sports cars before they have made senior appearances. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had to adapt his style toward the end of his career, acknowledging that he could no longer shout at players, for fear that he’d make them cry. Mourinho simply cast them off. Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Andre Schurrle and dozens of others on loan.
None of us have been at Cobham to personally watch Mourinho as he worked with the team, and as a result assigning blame is a tricky thing. That said, nobody is arguing that he was successful at cultivating lasting and productive results with younger players. The list of Millennial talents he cast off (or that he never promoted into the first team in the first place) is telling. Lukaku lacked the will to be a top striker with a top club and was good riddance, but selling de Bruyne and Schurrle feels like a bad mistake. Further, removing Mourinho now may have been necessary to salvage looming issues with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a youngster with what promises to be world-class ability, but who has clearly not been happy with his lack of opportunity.
And so, for better or worse, Mourinho is gone.
As the headline suggests, I feel a certain empathy with José. He built his legend working with a particular generation of players, but all of a sudden the wheels have flown off not because he changed or forgot how football works, but because the players changed.
Once upon a time I was a college-level educator. I taught while a student at the MA and PhD levels, I served as a visiting lecturer and adjunct professor at a number of universities, and concluded it all with a year as a tenure-track associate prof. I earned my PhD with the intention of being a professor. That was my dream, my calling, the thing in life I was born to do.
As I believe most of my students up through 1997 would tell you, I was a very good teacher. I connected, I clicked, I made them think, and when they left my classroom their brains worked in ways they hadn’t before. I am proud of those years and of the students I had to opportunity to work with.
I then left the academy for a few years, working in the corporate world until 2004. At that point I accepted the aforementioned professorship and re-entered the classroom happily, knowing I was finally home at last. Except I wasn’t. During those seven years I was away something happened. In 1997 my students were tail-end Generation Xers. By 2004 we had crossed a threshold and now all my students were Millennials. And Mills are a very different proposition than Xers.
If you don’t know about these sorts of generational dynamics but would like to, I strongly recommend you seek out the work of Howe & Strauss, especially Generations, 13th Gen and Millennials Rising. The short version is that in most ways Millennials are the opposite of Xers. This is why I react so strongly against the misguided term “Gen Y.” That makes it sound like they’re a continuation of X, when in fact they’re a rebellion against it.
These are broad generalizations, but there is truth in them taken in the aggregate. On average, Xers are ferociously independent critical thinkers while Millennials have been raised to acquiesce to authority. Xers are feral, while Mills are instinctively good in teams. Xers were the “abandoned generation” children of “Me Generation” parents who left them to their own devices, while Mills grew up cherished by their parents. And so on.
None of this is to suggest that Millennials are bad. They aren’t. In many ways they’re wonderful people – for instance, they have the highest volunteerism rates of any cohort in history. And none of the things that are wrong with them are their fault. Even if we think they’re entitled, helicoptered-to-death non-thinkers, that’s on their parents. At worst, they’re doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt.
However, teaching a room full of Millennials is a different thing from teaching Xers. All the techniques that had proven so explosively successful for me with Gen X students in the 1990s all of a sudden weren’t working. At all. Teaching Millennials required more structure, more openness to team activities, more awareness of how they were driven by point-to-point learning and an understanding of how they’re motivated by short-term rewards that they can chart a straight path toward.
Slowly, but surely I came to a horrible conclusion: I was not a great teacher. I was only a great teacher of Generation Xers. Where Millennials were concerned I was a terrible teacher. Worse still, even if I felt I could adapt to their collective character, I simply didn’t want to. The joy I took from teaching aligned exactly with the approach I employed in the ’90s, and this new style of teaching that would be required of me seemed rote and soulless, like teaching in a straitjacket.
So I resigned and walked away, and despite all my training and all those years of passion for education, there is now pretty much no chance at all that I will ever return to the classroom.
I wonder if this is how José Mourinho feels this morning. He has always known that when it came to managing football he was “the Special One,” “the Chosen One,” and in a spasm of doomed optimism a couple of years ago, “the Happy One.” Is it possible that he is not the greatest manager alive, but is instead merely the greatest manager of a generation that has now passed him by?
Can he adapt? Can he, like a number of my talented colleagues from my university days, sit back, take stock and make the changes needed to succeed with charges who are utterly alien to his comfort zone?
Or is he like me? Is he a man who can’t adapt to the new breed, or worse, doesn’t want to?
We’ll know in time. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here this morning feeling an unanticipated kinship to a Chelsea legend. I wish him the best, as do we all.