Jose Mourinho’s mind-games and press conference performances have been one of the hallmarks of the 2013/14 Premier League season.
When the Portuguese returned to Stamford Bridge last summer his inaugural proclaim was that he should now be referred to as ‘the happy one’, as if he had somehow become softened and subdued by four years spent under the Madridian sun.
But it wasn’t long before the Chelsea manager was back to his old tricks. Some of his more imaginative quips form this season, intended to pressurise his managerial rivals, include dubbing his Chelsea side the ‘little horse’ in the title race, comparing Manchester City to an expensive jaguar and describing Arsene Wenger as a ‘specialist in failure’, not to mention the self admission that everything he says is in fact a mind game.
But has the Special One’s ability to blur the line between psychological bantering and genuine offence actually paid off this year? Although Mourinho had written of his side’s title chances as early as last summer, finishing the term just four points behind eventual winners Manchester City, Chelsea could have taken this season’s Premier League crown. With that in mind, is it time for the master of the dark arts to forget focusing on mind games and start concentrating on results next season?
Of course, the ultimate aim of Mourinho’s ever-controversial media-fodder is to create a smokescreen and some distance between the press and the players. The Chelsea gaffer is hardly the first to apply this trick – much of Sir Alex Ferguson’s career was spent baiting referees, ball-boys, journalists and opposing managers specifically for the sake of taking the pressure off his players and moving it onto someone else – but throughout Premier League history, the Portuguese been its most proficient user.
You certainly can’t argue with the intrinsic advantage the approach provides or the results that back it up. Mourinho won two consecutive Premier League titles smoke-screening at every opportunity during his first Chelsea tenure and it also made Sir Alex Ferguson the most successful manager in English football history. But there is such a thing as overkill – the vast attention on Mourinho means he often earns the plaudits his players deserve, and in the modern era of multicoloured football boots and mollycoddled ultra-egos, that can be a very dangerous thing.
One mind-game that certainly back-fired this year was the Portuguese’s continual reluctance to back his own side’s title chances. Once again, Mourinho is hardly alone in following this line, in fact the only manager to actively suggest his club are genuine title challenges this season was Arsene Wenger. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the other option – the Arsenal gaffer’s approach – as Kevin Keegan found out at Newcastle all those years ago, invites too much pressure.
But at Stamford Bridge, the prophecy that the Blues would eventually fall short became self-fulfilling. Upon criticising the quality of his strike-force in public, apparently inadvertently via a deep-throat recording from a French journalist, both Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres quickly began to run out of steam. Likewise, Chelsea became complacent against the Premier League’s more rank-and-file sides, recording surprise defeats to Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Aston Villa during the campaign’s final run-in. Had Mourinho placed more emphasis on the title, then perhaps this wouldn’t be the case – it’s not as if his Chelsea side have developed a habit of buckling under pressure, rather they’ve always tended to thrive on it.
Furthermore, although Arsene Wenger remains incapable of not being riled by his ancient rival, Mourinho’s mind-games left Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini unfazed. The City boss has made a point of refusing to comment on Mourinho’s regular playground mockeries this season and Brendan Rodgers, despite his limits of experience, remained remarkably cool and collected when asked to retort on any jibe the Chelsea gaffer had thrown at him. The Portuguese’s ‘little horse’ analogy was met with the Ulsterman’s own ‘little Chihuahua’ comparison of Liverpool.
Perhaps, as Wenger should also, they’ve come to realise that despite the unsavoury shroud of disrespect surrounding them, Mourinho’s comments are sourced from fear. He prepares for the weaknesses of his opponents down to every detail, and that includes what he says in press conferences. Counter-intuitively, the Portuguese shows a greater respect for the opposition than any of his peers – if Mourinho didn’t act so crudely, it would be because he doesn’t feel threatened.
In many ways, arguing that Mourinho should quit the mind-games is a fairly moot exercise – it’s part of his nature, he thrives on the art of public performance and can’t resist causing reactions in others. After all, that is the essence of motivation. Furthermore, for all my negativity at certain points in this article, the Chelsea gaffer’s psychological tactics have certainly had the desired effect against the West London outfit’s closest rivals – they marched their way to a Champions League semi-final and took 16 points from a possible 18 off Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal this season.
But should the Blues boss tone it down next season? If he adds the quality expected to his Stamford Bridge roster this summer, namely £32million striker Diego Costa, then perhaps Mourinho will be more prepared to let the football and results do the talking. Then again, in often controversial and always outspoken Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal, the Portuguese may have found himself a new psychological sparring partner.