This weekend, the Premier League’s two best clubs face off in a match that will likely set The Narrative for the next couple of months. A win for Chelsea makes it champion-in-waiting, while a victory for Manchester City will lead to “Wait a minute, we’ve got a real race here!” headlines. Guiding each team is a former Real Madrid manager who has won the Premier League before, but although Manuel Pellegrini and José Mourinho are both highly respected coaches with clear ideas of how they want their teams to play, their personalities — their levels of assholery — are very different.
When it comes to likability, there is not much competition between the two. Pellegrini’s public persona is that of a dignified, admirably restrained man who is passionate about what he does, but who still has the ability to keep the game in perspective. Mourinho, on the other hand, is as likely to enthrall an audience with his wit as he is to offend it with his audacity. Pellegrini is the kind of man with whom you’d happily set your mom up after your parents’ divorce. If Mourinho were to pop up on her doorstep, though, you’d chase him down the driveway with a bat.
Mourinho is keenly intelligent, charismatic, and undeniably one of the greatest managers of his generation, if not of all time. He’s also a cocky, egotistical son of a bitch. If Pellegrini’s sharp mind and mild mannerisms are a throwback to vintage Arsène Wenger, then Mourinho’s bottomless self-assurance and affinity for confrontation make the Portuguese man the heir apparent to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Where Ferguson’s ego expanded as his success and legend grew, Mourinho’s ego seemed to arrive on England’s shores fully formed – all brash arrogance and bravado from day one. The fact that Mourinho went on to achieve such success only validated what he seemed to know all along.
Arguably the most important trait that Mourinho shares with Ferguson is the ability to motivate players with whom he has already tasted success. Ferguson’s entire United career was a masterclass in not just getting the absolute maximum out of his players but in keeping those same players just as motivated year after year. Like Fergie, one of Mourinho’s favorite tricks is to drum up imaginary conflict to create a siege mentality. It’s an asshole tactic, but it’s effective. Accuse your rivals of getting preferential treatment from the league and from referees, pick unnecessary fights with fellow managers, slyly hint about there being a “conspiracy” against your club – it’s all shameless bullshit, but it works.
Well, maybe it works. Or maybe managers like Ferguson and Mourinho get away with it because they win things. For all his aggravating ways, Mourinho guarantees success. Give the man two years, and he will give you silverware. The soccer may not always be fun, he may antagonize the local media along the way, he may fall out with an executive in his own club, and — hell — he may even alienate a few of his own players. But he will win. And winning puts everything into a different light. The difference between an “insufferable prick” and a “difficult genius” is whether or not that man is holding a trophy aloft at season’s end.
As the manager of the defending champion, Pellegrini is no stranger to winning himself. It is easy to forget that before Mourinho finally broke Barcelona’s hegemony in 2012, Pellegrini took Real Madrid to within a hair of winning La Liga, setting a points total record along the way. (Barcelona also just happened to break the record in the same year.) Manchester City’s title may have been Pellegrini’s first in Europe, but he has enjoyed title-winning campaigns with a handful of clubs in South America.
In David Silva, Pellegrini even has something resembling a representative on the field. Like his manager, Silva is quietly excellent: technically brilliant, a proven winner, and generally quite likable. But like his manager, Silva maybe lacks that little something extra, that edge, that makes you think, “I’d want that fucker on my side no matter what.” Mourinho is very much that kind of fucker. His style of leadership is epitomized by Diego Costa. The Brazilian-cum-Spaniard is a snide, nasty bastard who occasionally goes too far when trying to gain a competitive advantage. He’s also unquestionably world class at his job.
Pellegrini, Silva, and Co. are nice to watch and good at what they do. So are Mourinho and Diego Costa, for the most part. But when Mourinho’s teams aren’t nice to watch, they win anyway. Because winning is all that matters to them. As a result, they will do anything it takes to get there. That may mean exhilarating attacking and robust defending. But it may also mean eye-poking and leg-stamping, media-ranting and colleague-undermining.
Saying that nice guys always finish last (or second, in this case) is reductive, and simply untrue. But there’s no denying that many of the most decorated athletes and managers in the sport have a bit of needle to them. Maybe that’s a byproduct of the same relentless, competitive drive that spurs them to success. Or maybe being kind of a dickhead is a prerequisite for sustaining one’s place at the top.
For most of us, it would be nice if the most successful characters in soccer were also the most admirable — men you could look up to, men like Manuel Pellegrini. But ultimately, when push comes to shove, we roll with the winners. Even if they’re assholes.