Yesterday, I was hypnotized by a woman who hypnotizes footballers down by Craven Cottage. I realize saying it like that implies she’s a mad old hag in a head scarf who wanders round the outside of the ground convincing unexpecting players they’re a chicken, or that they have to murder the President of Paraguay when they hear the words “zonal marking”, but it’s nothing like that. She lives in a perfectly normal house round the corner in Fulham.
She told me she once hypnotized a then non Premiership team to help their motivation and confidence whilst chasing for promotion, and she mentioned a couple of other players she’d ‘helped’ but whom I’d probably get sued for mentioning, so I’m saving that for a News of the World dossier I’m compiling incase I ever get brought up on some of the more libelous things I say in these articles.
This encouraged me to ponder the power of the mind over the body and the mental attributes of top-level sportsmen (and women) and the influence confidence has on footballers in particular. Confidence is possibly the most important attribute after natural ability in my view. A player full of confidence is far more likely to score that 30 yard chip than the one plagued by a niggling doubt about his abilities. That player is prone to wondering whether such an audacious move will come off after that bad miss against Bolton that was laughed at by Adrian Chiles’ pet beard on 2 Good 2 Bad. His mind might wander to whether he may have left the gas on or whether his hair looks ridiculous in the rain – and his success will suffer as a result. The confident player will be plagued by just one thought, one a wise old philosopher once coined during a noble quest for catchy advertising – “Just do It”. (I toyed with the idea of saying it was Friedrich Nike but I thought that was just 2 Bad 2 be Good)
One man who certainly isn’t bothered what his hair looks like in the rain – because he hasn’t got any – is Wayne Rooney. And as he flicked the ball up with his back to goal just before half time against West Ham, spun and then aimed an audacious van Basten like volley into the far corner, just missing by the width of a whisker or the measurable amount of integrity Ashley Cole still has left, it was clear that he is currently enjoying one of those lovely Just Do It honeymoon periods.
Someone who could do with one of them, but who’s probably been obsessing over how fat his ankles are lately is Michael Owen, who I tore myself away from the engrossingly mental Olympic Women’s Ski Cross finals just in time to see score a lovely third in a 3-0 victory for Manchester United. That’ll do his confidence the world of good, and with the Carling Cup final on Sunday it’s possible he might just be being groomed for an appearance, with the Champions League resuming for the big boy table on the following Wednesday. Dimitar Berbatov – another man who often seems out of sorts on occasion at United and really does seem like a player who’s worrying about the state of his hair – also put in a good performance. The problem with these little sporadic appearances though is that they rarely count towards consistency. Nani enjoyed his best run in a United shirt so far (an epic sequence of 4 games) by virtue of being in the team for successive weeks while United’s recent shambolic defensive performances have been mostly the product of an inconsistent back four line up.
It’ll be interesting to see how Ferguson lines his team up against Milan next week, because at the moment he seems to think – as I do – that his best line up is a 4-5-1, also acting as a 4-3-3 formation, with Rooney up top and two inside wing forwards bringing up the flanks behind him. This is how United have set up for most of the last 3 years in the bigger games, ever since Saha left and 4-4-2 stopped working as dynamically. But there’s no guarantee he will set up like that. And the point of this little ramble is the idea that changing your team week in week out, whilst trying to give certain players the confidence boost they need, is a tricky tight rope to walk because not only might it damage it further to leave a newly confident player out again suddenly, but other players, and possibly the team as a whole, could lose their confidence as a result.
Rarely has there been a great European Cup winning side who’s preferred starting line up and formation you couldn’t name easily. Take the last two – United’s 2008 final side was their best at the time, with the Rooney, Ronaldo Tevez trio all present and Barcelona’s winning side last year was similarly the side most would have assumed, even with a few notable injuries. So for Ferguson to be fiddling with in the idea that he’ll play 4-4-2 one week, 4-5-1 the next, and shuffle the pack frequently to try and get the best out of his individuals whenever it becomes an issue is either a bold breakthrough in rotation or a bit of a hotch potch that might not help the team in the long run.
Clearly it’s been working so far – to a degree. Manchester United have done brilliantly with the loss of key players they suffered in the summer, the loss of key players in defense through injury throughout the season and the shifting make up of the team from week to week. It’s a marvelous achievement to sit in the situation they do now. The problem however is that eventually they’ll switch back to 4-5-1, and most likely for a big game, and Berbatov and Owen are going to have to sit back on the bench no doubt picking over all those old conversations they had with Ferguson and wondering if they’d accidentally said something stupid they can’t remember. “Is it cos I said his coat was a bit trampy? Oh god why did I say that?? You Idiot!!”
While Owen was clearly bought to warm the bench (though it’s now as far from a sensible definition of a bench as it could possibly be nowadays with those ludicrously oversized pimp my ride racing car seats), Berbatov wasn’t, and as complacent as he may be to simply wait it out and hope for a chance, the more big games he misses out on, the less inclined he’ll be to ‘Just Do It’ when he is given one. It’s a vicious circle and one that may well apply to Owen too. Confidence is powerful tool and one the truly talented need to get the best out of themselves. Without being in the side, or even fitting in the best one, maybe messes Berba and Owen could seek other ways of sustaining their confidence and lengthening their stay in the side. Maybe they should take a jaunt down to Craven Cottage on their days off?
And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t go to boost my confidence, I went to try and stop my bad habits. And it’s been a complete success so far – I haven’t smoked all evening, and that bottle of whisky went down much smoother because of it.