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The art of the mind game in football

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With the use of mind games in football back in the headlines thanks to recent comments made by Chelsea manager José Mourinho, Alex Bonner takes a closer use at their usage.

Mourinho is perhaps the most notable practitioner of mind games in football today. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Mourinho is perhaps the most notable practitioner of mind games in football today. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mind games have recently come to dominate managerial psychology in football, the practise of which has now been mastered by a select few managers who have frequently found themselves embroiled in a heated war of words with their counterparts.

Chelsea manager José Mourinho’s most recent exchanges with Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger have certainly attracted significant media attention,  with Mourinho recently referring to Wenger as a “specialist in failure.” This claim is the latest in a war of words between the two managers, whose respective sides are both in the hunt for the Premier League title this season.

This contretemps between the two managers has certainly brought the concept of mind games into perspective. Mourinho’s tactics have been labelled as “bullying” by Arsenal legend Bob Wilson, so it will be interesting to see how Mourinho reacts to this claim in subsequent weeks.

Mourinho, dubbed the ‘Special One’ by media and fans alike, has been involved in psychological warfare since his first arrival in England and is currently regarded as having the firmest understanding of what a successful mind game entails.

Mourinho would appear to have succeeded partially in unsettling one of his chief rivals, with Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini showing visible signs of frustration when reacting to the Portuguese’s claim that Chelsea are the “little horse” of the title race – pointing out the London club’s history of big spending in pursuit of victory.

There have been some prominent proponents of mind games throughout the history of the Premier League. Here, I look at the some of the most prominent managers that have chosen to employ mind games as a tactic to unsettle their opposing managers.

Sir Alex Ferguson 

Sir Alex Ferguson's use of mind games will ensure their continued use in football. Photo: jaguda.com
Ferguson’s use of mind games will ensure their continued use in football. Photo: jaguda.com

Ferguson’s use of the mind game is legendary, with the Scot throughout his tenure as Manchester United manager finding himself consistently embroiled in verbal disputes with fellow managers. Ferguson’s troubled relationship with Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez certainly stemmed from the fallouts caused by the use of mind games.

Ferguson, having been involved in management for such a considerable period, had ample opportunity to practise and master the mind game and will forever be remembered for his contributions to their use. His legacy means that mind games will continue to have a significant impact on the footballing world.

Roberto Mancini

Mancini’s arrival as Manchester City’s manager in 2009 certainly caused a storm amongst his fellow Premier League managers. The Italian had plenty of opportunities to hone his ability in using mind games during his time as Inter Milan manager, a tactic he deployed throughout his tenure as City manager, most notably when his team challenged for the Premier League title in 2012.

City were eight points behind United at the beginning of April following a defeat to Arsenal, the Italian manager publicly declaring the title race to be over. However, maximum points from their remaining games allowed City to overturn the deficit, after which Mancini stated that he never stopped believing that his side could do it. Mancini, who had a history of psychological warfare with Alex Ferguson, certainly outwitted his rival on this occasion.

Rafael Benitez

Benitez arrived on English shores in 2004 as the new coach of Liverpool, later developing a contentious relationship with Alex Ferguson. The mind games employed between these managers dominated the headlines in English football at the time, defining Benitez’s reign as Liverpool manager.

Benitez’s most famous outburst against Ferguson came in 2009, when the Spaniard claimed Ferguson was “the only manager who would not be punished” for outspoken attacks on referees. This outburst appeared to have little impact on Ferguson’s United side however, who took that season’s title by four points from Liverpool.

Mourinho’s comments of late, with regards to Chelsea’s title chances, have certainly succeeded in re-igniting attention towards the practice of mind games within the footballing scene. There have been examples where mind games have worked, an example being Ferguson’s comments directed towards Liverpool when Benitez was manager.

With such a history of managers using mind games, the practice will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Such focus and emphasis on mind games certainly highlights the significance of psychology within modern day footballing management.

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