How important are mind games in football?
In the world of top-flight football, the pressure upon players and managers is immense. The human mind is a fickle friend. It can stay sane for long periods of time, but can snap without a second’s notice. Mind games have now become an integral part of the game as breaking the spirit of the opponent off the field has become as important as beating the opponent on the field. An idea planted in a mind grows like a seed and will not stop growing until it has spread to full penetration of the human psyche. By this time, the normal scheme of events will have been altered to suit the man with the stronger will.
Sir Alex Ferguson has always been the pioneer of mind games in the world of football. He has successfully broken down formidable foes off the field before tearing them apart on the field on many occasions. In the 2008-09 season, Liverpool were at the top of their game with the duo of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres tearing opposition teams apart under the watchful gaze of Rafa Benitez. Liverpool had taken a 5 point lead at the top of the Premier League table over Manchester United. That was when Sir Alex dove into his jar of tricks and pulled out a masterstroke approach that would mess with his arch-rivals’ minds. The Gaffer called press conferences on almost a daily basis moaning about kick-off timings, fixture lists and refereeing decisions. Poor old Rafa Benitez took the bait that Sir Alex had so expertly laid down. The Liverpool manager, tired of Sir Alex’s constant tirade, called a press conference and read out a list of ‘facts’ from a piece of paper. What Benitez didn’t realize was that his ‘facts’ were no match for Sir Alex’s carefully plotted tricks. This incident proved to be Liverpool’s undoing as United went on to win the league and was probably the one of the most prominent examples of the successful use of mind games.
“I think he was an angry man. He must have been disturbed for some reason. I think you have got to cut through the venom of it and hopefully he’ll reflect and understand what he said was absolutely ridiculous.” - Sir Alex Ferguson on Rafa Benitez’s rant.
In the 2011-12 season, Roberto Mancini took a leaf out of his arch-rivals book. With around a dozen games to go, he announced that Manchester City had no chance in the title race and that the club had given up. The statement enabled Manchester United to lay their guard down while reducing pressure on the backs of the City players. It had it’s desired effect as the hunter became the hunted. United began to drop points as City grew stronger. The ploy worked perfectly as City went on to win the Premier League on the last day of the season, with the last kick of the season, on goal difference. The day became famous as the day the ‘Blue Moon Rose’ over Manchester, as the ‘Noisy Neighbors’ stole the Mancunian thunder from right under the noses of their domineering crosstown rivals.
Sir Alex immediately retaliated by bringing in the services of the in-form Robin van Persie from Arsenal for the 2012-13 season. The transfer turned out to be one of the best of the season as the ‘Flying Dutchman’ has scored 19 league goals so far for United. The move also places Sir Alex’s team on the top of the Premier League table with a 12 point lead over the reigning champions and a positive goal difference.
While most managers are pacing up and down the touchline zone, Alex Ferguson sits on his throne till his team is in dire need of his ‘antics’. As soon as United go a goal down, or have a refereeing decision given against them, you see Sir Alex Ferguson spring out of his throne, charge down the stairs and prowl the technical area while breathing down the neck of the fourth official. Sir Alex on the prowl is a terrifying sight and you do not want to be on the wrong side of the Gaffer’s rage. Almost immediately, United start to perform better. The crowd gets behind their team chanting, “United! United United!”, as the pressure on the opponents increase. United go on to win the match after coming from behind in the most dramatic fashion. A satisfied Sir Alex walks into the post-match press conference smiling, as if it was just another day at the office.
Jose Mourinho, rumoured to be Sir Alex’s successor at United, is also extremely adept at playing mind games. The two ties between Manchester United and Real Madrid were littered with examples of the aforementioned mind games. The first leg began with Sir Alex’s strange team selection. As the tie progressed, Sir Alex’s ability to pick the perfect team was glorified. Meanwhile at the touchline, Jose Mourinho paced up and down the technical area throughout, occasionally joined by his Mancunian counterpart as the two exchanged a friendly word or two. To those who haven’t watched a lot of football, the little comment here and there may have seemed harmless. But to the experienced, the occasional snide remark was a ploy to break the spirit of the opposition. Across the two legs, Jose Mourinho was the unstoppable force that had met the immovable object in the form of Sir Alex’s Manchester United.
Prior to the second leg, Mourinho turned down the services offered by Sir Alex and Old Trafford and chose to set up shop at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium. Again, a seemingly harmless gesture to the football uneducated, but a glaring ploy – on the part of both Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini – to the experienced. As the second leg progressed, the two charismatic managers exchanged earth-shattering psychological blows in an attempt to gain the upper hand. Sir Alex seemed destined to win the battle of the wits, but a certain trigger-happy Turkish referee caused it all to fall apart for the Red Devils. Sir Alex won the strategic battle, but Jose Mourinho won the war.
In retaliation to Roberto Mancini offering the Etihad’s services to Real Madrid, Sir Alex offered the lavish amenities of Carrington Training Ground to Barnsley prior to the latter’s FA Cup clash with Manchester City. The ploy didn’t exactly work as City thrashed Barnsley 5-0, but it was well worth a try and is yet another example of the increasing importance of mind games.
It is now more important than ever before to be mentally tough as a player and a manager with the crowd and the media on your tail and scrutinizing your every move. From all this, one thing is clear. Football is not just about who plays better on the field or who has the stronger team; it is also about being able to keep your head under pressure and working towards your goal without being disturbed or distracted by your opponents’ efforts to mentally dislodge you. The rise of media and technology has also contributed to the rise of off-field antics. The importance of performing under extreme pressure is now being glorified as we move into an era where the battle of the wits is just as important as putting the ball into the back of your opponents’ net. Therefore, there are no doubts that we are now entering a phase where the human mind can be your best friend or your most formidable enemy; where mind games will be a team’s fourth substitution on the field of play; where championships can be won or lost before the matches have even begun.
“The human mind is our fundamental resource” – John F. Kennedy, former American President.