Paul Pogba was a metronomic presence in the French national team as they won the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The successful summer suggested a similar fruitful 2018-19 campaign for the Frenchman with his club Manchester United. However, not many would have predicted the struggle that the season turned out for Pogba as well as the Red Devils. After scoring twice in his first two Premier League games, starting August, Pogba’s form dipped sharply and he was struggling to find a place in manager Jose Mourinho’s match day squads.
Mourinho had brought Pogba back to Old Trafford from Juventus in 2016 for the then world record £89.3 million transfer fee. However, the relationship between the manager and his prized asset soured after two years. Through the course of the ongoing season the discord between the two often came out in the open. It led to Mourinho taking away the club vice-captaincy from the 25-year-old, although the manager made an unconvincing attempt to hide reports of a breakdown in relationship with the Frenchman. “I’m the manager; I can make these decisions. No fall out at all, no problems at all…just a decision I do not have to explain," he said in September.
Subsequently, a training ground video showed the manager lashing out at Pogba, laying bare the breakdown in the duo’s relationship. The Frenchman’s poor form on the pitch contributed greatly to United’s steep drop down the league standings and ultimately, led to the dismissal of Mourinho. He was replaced with club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in December.
The change in managerial landscape transformed Pogba’s as well as the club’s fortunes as they have gone on to comfortably win all five of their league matches. In those games, the Frenchman has scored four goals, one more than the tally he managed in 14 league appearances under Mourinho, this season. So how did Pogba’s form magically transform after the sacking of the club manager?
Nikhil Sharma, founder and CEO of zlait Sports Management Pvt. Ltd, a sports advisory, feels that the team environment under Mourinho was not conducive to getting the best out of his personnel. “Perhaps, Pogba felt that the coach didn’t trust him or he was asked to do things which were not his strengths," says Sharma.
There is a lesson in this for HR teams in the workplace: If a star performer’s work dips suddenly it’s time to check if all is well between the manager and their employee.
Millennial employees have different work ethics. It can be tricky for non-millennial managers to grasp these changes and adapt their management style accordingly. Pogba, apart from his football, is known for a flashy lifestyle, dressing in high-fashion attire and flaunting eye-catching hairstyles. He is fairly regular in broadcasting his personal life to close to 32 million Instagram followers. An untimely live broadcast—following a Manchester United defeat—on the platform is rumoured to have triggered the aforementioned training ground lashing from Mourinho.
However, Sharma believes that it’s important for managers to evolve in their outlook with time. “From the outside it looked like Mourinho didn’t have a lot of faith in Pogba. Modern athletes and especially, those like Pogba, want to enjoy their job as much as the fans, and the lifestyle their success brings. Mourinho is a champion coach but maybe his way of working hasn’t evolved over a period of time," he adds.
Not just Pogba, but several players that were signed by Mourinho failed to perform to their potential; Alexis Sanchez and Fred are two other examples of expensive failures under the Portuguese manager. Sharma feels a bad manager can severely undermine his team’s output, “If the leader isn’t moving in the right direction the whole team becomes ineffective. And when players can lose faith in the manager, things can get very bad," he says.
When the results go downhill with no sign of an improvement and the team morale is low, it is better to look for fresh leadership. In terms of finding a suitable replacement manager after Mourinho’s dismissal, Sharma believes United have made the right choice by bringing in a former player who is well versed with the traditions of the institution. The upsurge in United’s performance in the recent weeks has been dramatic; where they struggled to beat even the weakest of teams under Mourinho, with Solskjaer at the helm, there is a palpable verve in their approach. “There is an improvement when a new manager comes in, usually results also see an upturn," says Sharma. But he warns, “Ultimately things do return to normalcy and then it’s upon the new manager to figure out how he goes around bringing about positive changes in the team."
Fielding Leadership is a series that draws lessons from sporting events for managers