Jose Mourinho has always been one of the Premier League’s mind-game masters, but the Chelsea manager’s most recent interaction with the British press could well be his greatest episode in psychological mischief to date.
Last week, Mourinho dubbed his Blues side the ‘little horse’ in this term’s title race, yet another snippet catch-phrase to add to the Portuguese’s ever-growing collection of almost poetic sound-bites, playing on Manchester City’s prolific overspending and Arsenal’s unparalleled stability under Arsene Wenger to divert attention from Chelsea’s 1-0 win at the Etihad last Monday night.
And as if Mourinho had been waiting for the question his entire managerial career, when a journalist quizzed the Stamford Bridge boss on whether his little horse interpretation was an honest analysis or a psychological bid to put pressure back on his title rivals, Mourinho replied in traditional nonchalance; “Everything I say and do are mind games. The only thing that is not mind games are the results.”
I’d certainly subscribe to that theory – last week I wrote an article analysing the psychological benefits from Mourinho’s perspective of being the man who granted Manchester United their saviour in Juan Mata.
And far from the self-entitled ‘happy one’ who arrived in West London in the summer, suggesting a battle of the minds was beyond an older, wiser, and less confrontational Mourinho, the Chelsea gaffer has been using any opportunity to criticise, pressurise and irritate Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger in recent weeks.
This has materialised in the Portuguese claiming ‘moaning is in Wenger’s nature’, and the instigation of a war of words with the Etihad boss, containing such hyperbolas metaphors as ‘You cannot put an ‘L’ plate on a Jaguar’ – the kind of public haranguing more in tune with Mourinho’s original tenure as Blues manager.
But now has come the jewel in the mind-game crown, the cherry on the psychological bakewell, the most intoxicating and distracting verbal smoke screen of all, served up to him by a journalist unknowing that the answer to his inquiry into Mourinho’s psychosomatic menacing could create a mythological, imagined legacy that will work to the Chelsea gaffer’s advantage as long as he’s able to keep up the visage.
Let’s consider those words again; “Everything I say and do are mind games”. Perhaps I should not be interpreting them so literally, but it is implausible to suggest Mourinho’s every word spoken and his subsequent actions are all geared towards getting inside the heads of his title nemeses. A lot of the hyperbole, rhetoric and catchphrase-ology perhaps, but not every moment of his living and breathing is dedicated towards a mental one-upmanship of his foes.
But it’s implausibility doesn’t really matter – what does matter is that we continue to buy into this great illusion Mourinho has slowly and skilfully built up through his management career as a man capable of getting into the minds of his opponents. The ‘everything is a mind game’ jibe is his biggest act of smoke and mirrors yet, but it’s hardly the first public statement the Chelsea boss has used to create his own enigma over the years.
If you need evidence of the powers of a monolithic managerial presence, just look at Sir Alex Ferguson. More than the ability to motivate or any significant tactical understanding, the Old Trafford legend’s fearsome and intimidating image as a manager almost ruthless in his own determination is what made Fergie such an effective boss, creating a veil of similar characteristics around his Manchester United side. Now without the retired Scot at the helm, the Red Devils are suddenly lost without the fear factor he always provided.
This particular instalment from Mourinho however comes with the biggest ultimate intention of mass confusion. The likes of Pellegrini and Wenger would prefer to think they pay it no mind, but even they will feel dangerously inclined to begin second-guessing what the Special One is really up to after his recent self-admission.
That’s why Mourinho’s mind-game comments serve as such a delicious and intricately placed smoke-screen; whilst he, and most importantly his Chelsea side, can continue to focus on results, Mourinho’s opponents are trying to work out the double-bluff, losing themselves in the war of the press conferences and forgetting about the real issues at hand.
At the same time, through the Chelsea manager’s egotistical charisma and ability to distract, the British media have fallen into the traditional trap of focusing on Mourinho himself rather than the Blues first team.
Since their season-defining 1-0 win at the Eithad, no tabloid or broadsheet has devoted anywhere near as much column inch attention to the performance of any particular player in comparison to the Chelsea manager’s tactical master-class and the ensuing public teasers about his side’s apparent lack of title credentials this season.
It’s an ancient trick that has been used on countless occasions by many a Premier League manager, but Mourinho has always been the master of deflecting the issues at hand, and ultimately the responsibility for them, away from the playing personnel, giving his players the benefit of avoiding the media limelight purely through the Portuguese’s monolithic character eternally commanding centre-stage.
This is nothing new; it was a repetitive feature of Mourinho’s original Chelsea spell. A return of back-to-back Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup in the space of three years speaks for itself in regards to the method’s proven successes.
Whether the Blues manager can replicate that achievement remains to be seen, but what we do know is that in terms of conditioning the media and messing with the heads of his closest opponents, Mourinho is still an unchanged animal.
He is attempting to bend the minds of Wenger and Pellegrini with the sheer ruthlessness of old, but his biggest double bluff, his most spectacular mental triumph to date, remains his ability to convince everyone that everything he does, lives, breathes, says and thinks is purely for psychological advantage. When you have that kind of preceding reputation, suddenly planning out a simple 1-0 win becomes very, very easy.