When Antonio Conte turned up at the Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley wearing a tracksuit, his side’s struggles suddenly came to be discussed in the context of his choice of garments. Failure to beat the Gunners – albeit on penalties – and then a subsequent defeat at home to Burnley, where his side went 3-0 down before half time, made the Chelsea boss’s clothing a genuine discussion point.
Some scoffed at the idea that this could actually matter. Others went too far in attributing cause to the effect. But there certainly is a school of thought which says that, although a manager can wear whatever he wants, changing his style so abruptly is perhaps too strong a message.
It’s telling that we live in the footballing era of mind games when we start to give credence to the idea that sartorial choices by men not directly involved in the action on the pitch could have a genuine effect on play. Sending a ‘message’ to the players does sound overly mind-gamey, and in fairness not everything a top manager does is an attempt at some sort of megalomaniacal Jedi mind trick.
Sure, when we talk about managers’ clothing, we usually press our tongues firmly against our cheeks. You can make too much of these things when you start to impart actual seriousness. And yet, we often forget to look at things from the point of view of the footballers themselves: unsurprisingly, given that footballers are foreign beings to most of us, with their celebrity status and millionaire pay cheques. There’s a mental aspect we forget, and that’s why this is important.
But perhaps what’s more interesting is that whilst Conte bore the brunt of this conversation, he’s not the only manager who could be called out for the same tricks. Indeed, the most obvious mind-gamer in the Premier League is the one manager for whom this trick may well have had a positive effect.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United didn’t have the horror start to the season that Chelsea did. Their first 45 minutes was altogether more comfortable. But like Conte, the Manchester United manager arrived at his first sort-of competitive fixture in much more laid-back attire, the European equivalent of the Charity Shield, the Super Cup.
Since that game, Mourinho has, like Conte, switched to the suit on the touchline, and United’s start to the season has been fabulous, blowing almost every opposition away. There’s an element of ‘this is business’ to seeing your manager’s demeanour change on the day the season kicks off, and perhaps that’s what Mourinho and Conte were aiming for – the Italian coach perhaps aiming for it after the first game for various ‘message to the board’ reasons, maybe.
There are, of course, other reasons why United have been so good so far this season, and there’s plenty of analysis to bear it out. But Mourinho seems to have actually bought heavily into the idea that he can lift his team by his own behaviour on the touchline. So much so that this looks like an actual planned move. Because not only has he switched to a suit, but he’s been wearing the same suit every game – or at least every game he considers a big one. And not just a Manchester United tie (in fact, no tie at all) or club-issue suit, but a very defined black suit and white shirt combo.
On Wednesday night against Burton Albion, Mourinho got rid of the suit and wore the tracksuit again, but this weekend when the Premier League comes back, you can bet the black suit will be out again.
Is this a piece of Mourinho-led Pavlovian conditioning designed to subliminally remind the players when it’s a game when they need to focus or conversely when it’s a game where a bit of self-expression is possible? In the bigger Premier League fixtures, clearly focus is called for, but against weaker opposition is the opposite true? Is Mourinho telling his players to relax and let the result come?
Business-like attire in order to elicit a business-like performance sounds fairly standard. And indeed, United’s performances have been very business-like this season. Mentally they have been switched on, and perhaps some small part of that comes from the attitude of their manager on the sidelines.