Jose Mourinho’s press conference performances have been one of the hallmarks of the 2013/14 Premier League season. From dubbing his Chelsea side the title race’s ‘little horse’ to branding Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger a ‘specialist in failure’, the Special One has left no stone unturned in his bid to psychologically debase his closest divisional rivals.
Mourinho’s public swipes can often come across as bullying, purely for the fact that no one else seems particularly prepared to join in. Wenger may be left riled and flustered, Manuel Pellegrini may show signs of losing his notorious cool for a couple of seconds and Brendan Rodgers may feel compelled to laugh off any footballing slur Mourinho throws at him, but in truth, none have dared to openly duel with the Chelsea manager.
Then again, why would you want to play the Premier League’s leading master of the dark arts at his own game – a man who spitefully referred to a fellow colleague as a ‘Voyeur’ during his first spell at Stamford Bridge; a man who has shown he has no moral or professional limits in his mission to psychologically assert over his managerial counterparts. Surely it can only end in failure for any manager who tries to lock horns with the Portuguese.
Like an uncontested bully in the playground, although Chelsea’s season ended without silverware, there’s no question over which Premier League manager dominates in the public eye.
But is that unrivalled dominance of the Premier League’s mind-games about to be brought to an abrupt end by incoming Manchester United manager and former Mourinho mentor Louis van Gaal? Has the Chelsea manager finally met his match in the Dutchman?
No doubt, the two enjoy an amicable relationship having worked together as assistant and gaffer at Barcelona. Van Gaal claims he knew Mourinho was ‘special’ the moment the Portuguese erupted into raucous protest when Barca board revealed Bobby Robson would get the axe in favour of the Dutchman. The 62 year-old has even revealed that Mourinho was the first to congratulate him after getting the Manchester United job.
But both men are natural-born winners. Like two rival Mafia dons lording over New York, they’d never let personal allegiances stand in the way of business.
Likewise, van Gaal is a different breed to the likes of Rodgers, Pellegrini and Wenger. Often outspoken, always controversial, some of the Netherlands manager’s more public incidents include recently calling a reporter ‘stupid’ and walking off the set of a Dutch football show, live on air, after it was revealed that he hadn’t been invited back to continue his punditry work the following week. Then there’s the infamous trouser-dropping team-talk anecdote and a glorious alumni of players van Gaal has fallen out with throughout his management career, such as Rivaldo, Luis Figo, Lucio, Frank Ribery and Luca Toni. The long and short of it is quite simply – van Gaal is a madman.
Both Mourinho and van Gaal are ruthless and never prepared to hold their tongues. But there are notable differences between the two. Mourinho’s outbursts are cold and calculated; everything is staged and designed for specific effect – to paraphrase the Chelsea manager himself, everything he does is a mind-game. On the other hand, van Gaal’s regular public explosions are sourced more from an almost nihilistic egotism. Echoing his illustrious predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson, the 62-year-old demands respect and autonomy at all costs. He is King Louis, and questioning his authority is tacit treason.
But one psychological tactic both managers share is the constant billing of their own sides as the underdog. Van Gaal has already downplayed the Netherlands as a major contender at the coming World Cup, even admitting he enjoys the odds-against tag. Likewise, the last time he and Mourinho met competitively – the 2010 Champions League final – he spoke against Bayern Munich’s chances of winning the accolade, before losing to Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
Similarly, never has a Premier League manager written of his side’s title credentials so repetitively and consistently than the Chelsea boss this season. Even as early as last summer, he was warning Blues fans not to get too excited about their ‘transition campaign’, and resultantly used every public interaction possible, often using bizarre animal-based analogies, to suggest there was no way the West Londoners could compete with the quality and finance of Manchester City.
That approach may not wash too well at Manchester United – the Old Trafford faithful have suffered enough from the determined, spirited underdog identity under David Moyes. But one thing is for certain – just as Mourinho has done endlessly at Chelsea this year, and during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, van Gaal will use his own antics and enigmatic personality to divert attention away from his players as much as possible.
What could resultantly ensue is perhaps the most garish, abrasive, controversial management soap opera the Premier League has ever seen. The Special One adores public attention, the art of public performance, and King Louis, through his own arrogance, can never get away from it. It will be a competition for air time, column inches, outspokenness and outrage, and of course, results. But most importantly of all, it will be a contest of psychological dominance, and the ultimate theatre will be the press conferences.