You could always tell when Sir Alex Ferguson felt that another manager was, or wasn’t, likely to threaten the aspirations of his club. There have been periods over the years when he has been barely on speaking terms with Arsene Wenger for example, and others where they have almost appeared to be old friends. It was a ‘mind game’ ploy that almost defined the tactic. Identify your main rival and do whatever you can to destabilise him. It’s a trick that Jose Mourinho picked up and quickly made his own.
Ever since the ‘little horses’ in the blue shirts have emerged as genuine rivals to the supposed new hegemony of Manchester city, Mourinho has put his tactics into operation. Manuel Pellegrini has been around the management block a few times and has even experienced rivalry with the Portuguese in Spain, after he was dismissed from Real Madrid to open up the post for Mourinho. Over in Spain, the Chilean had a mantra that didn’t respond to Mourinho. With the differe4nt media aspects in this country, that’s not going to be so easy an approach to follow.
The Manchester city manager has already allowed himself to be drawn into the discussion over transfers provoked by Mourinho’s comments regarding the possible flouting of FFP regulations by City’s massive spending. Of course the finger can be pointed at Chelsea’s similar tactics, especially in the early days of the Abramovic era, but there were no such restrictions on those days. It’s also true that looking at nett spend in the last two transfer windows, City’s is higher, but that’s not really the point. The whole issue is that once you allow yourself to be drawn into the ‘mind games’ maze, you’re conceding the moral high ground, and if you’re not accustomed to the rules of the game, you’re hardly likely to win out.
Earlier in the season, when Arsenal were top of the league the Mourinho focus was on Arsene Wenger as the Chelsea manager bemoaned that Arsenal had longer breaks before big games than Chelsea. Wenger produced statistics to disprove it, but that wasn’t the point. The response showed that the taunt had hit its target. Being right doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win the argument. Think back to a couple of Ferguson classic moves. The provoking of Rafa Benitez over fixtures was just such an example. In a press conference, the Liverpool manager produced lists to show that he was correct and Ferguson was wrong, but it didn’t matter. When, at a press conference, Ferguson was asked about the Benitez response, he just smiled, as if to say “Job Done!” The Keegan rant on SkySports is another example. There’s nothing new in mind games, but still they have their effects.
The latest incident that Mourinho has pounced on is the admittedly strange decision by the FA not to retrospectively ban Yaya Toure for his alleged kick-out at a Norwich player in the game at Carrow Road. At yesterday’s press conference, when asked to comment, Mourinho declared that he now assumed it was acceptable to do anything so long as the referee doesn’t see it. Of course it’s not true, and of course he doesn’t believe it, but next time there’s a Chelsea player pinged for something vaguely similar, the chances of acquittal will be increased, and there’ll be a decreased chance of the next City layer being cleared.
Many people will think that all this has little to do with football and they’re absolutely right but, if the history of the Premier League is anything to go by, the evidence suggests that successful managers do this for a reason. If it gives just a 1% advantage over a close rival, they’re going to take it. On such small measures are campaigns decided. It may not be ideal, but it is probably true.
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