Jose Mourinho and his art of ‘Siege-Mentality’ at Manchester United

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It is no great secret that José Mourinho is fond of mind games. Throughout his two spells in charge of Chelsea, whenever things have been going against him – and even when things have been going well – Mourinho has proven himself to be a master manipulator; carefully choosing his words in every post-match interview or press conference in an attempt to influence referees, cast doubts over opposition managers or to shape the media agenda to suit his own narrative.

In participating in these psychological games, Mourinho has deployed a variety of different methods depending on the requirements of the situation. However, during his title-winning campaign at Chelsea a couple of years back, there was one tactic in the Mourinho toy box that he found himself turning to with increasing frequency; one idea that arguably underpins the mindset and culture that he seeks to establish at his club and in his media relations – the concept of siege mentality.

Siege mentality is ‘a shared feeling of victimization and defensiveness – a term derived from the actual experience of military defences of real sieges’, according to everyone’s favourite user-edited online encyclopedia. The principle is simple – it presents an outside force as a hostile threat in order to foster a collective feeling of being oppressed or attacked, which will hopefully lead to a sense of cohesion within a group. The ‘us versus them’ mentality this creates is useful in football as the perception of a hostile outside environment can engender a stronger sense of fellowship amongst players and a greater commitment to achieving a collective goal, if they feel they are under threat of persecution.

It is by no means an original concept, but it’s one that Mourinho wields masterfully. While the creation of a siege mentality has characterized the manager’s career, it seemed as though he was taking the notion and pushing it to its logical limits at times last season, stretching the idea like a rubber band until it’s at the point of snapping. On occasion, it appeared that there were enemies everywhere and attacks from every side.

Siege Mentality at Chelsea

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During his Chelsea tenure, Jamie Redknapp drew attention to a stamp by Costa on Emre Can in a Capital One Cup semi-final and Sky ran the footage with a caption calling the actions of the Chelsea striker ‘crimes’, Mourinho came out swinging: 

“I’m going to use the word that put me in trouble but I think this time I cannot be punished to say that there is a ‘campaign’ on the television, with a certain pundit that is saying ‘Diego Costa crimes’. This guy must be nuts.”

The ‘word that put [him] in trouble’ was, of course, ‘campaign’; Chelsea had drawn with Southampton shortly before and Mourinho has used his post-match interview on that occasion to suggest that the media were running a ‘campaign’ to undermine his side that had influenced the performance of the referee. After that suggestion, the FA played right into the Chelsea boss’s hands, issuing him a £25,000 fine and giving him yet another external enemy conspiring against him and his team.

Match officials, the broadcast media, individual pundits, and footballing authorities – there were campaigns at every turn, monsters lurking in every shadow. Undoubtedly it has contributed to his success and has been vital as a motivational tool for getting the most out of his players, especially those who thrive on confrontation such as Diego Costa, John Terry and Branislav Ivanović.

The Sporting Mind’s Andy Barton, a mental performance coach, told Press Association Sport said :

“Whether it’s consciously calculated, which is a strong possibility, or whether it’s an emotional response, which is also a strong possibility, Mourinho has, time and time again, shown a siege mentality with his teams, by creating common enemies.If you make yourself out to be a victim in a situation, if you’ve got loyalty in your team, which he does, it just creates a stronger bond. If you create a common enemy you have something to rally your team around and so they’re supporting a particular cause. You create a purpose in your team.”

Here the common enemy was  : Media,  19 teams and referees

But there were times when it seemed that Jose was one bad result away from locking himself in the Stamford Bridge changing rooms, sitting in the corner of the shower, gently rocking back and forth with a tinfoil hat on as his psychological game playing threatened to spiral into full-blown paranoia.

 Problem with the Mentality

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Chelsea’s collective failure last season is a curious case and though there are many theories behind it but no one knows what was the actual reason. Most pundits said it was the mentality of being in siege which curbed Chelsea’s progress.  In the short term, instilling this sort of mentality can be an effective way of negating the dangers of complacency and provide a way to keep motivation high. However, it’s not a sustainable or healthy mindset to adopt in the long term and can be detrimental – it’s mentally fatiguing to be constantly waging a war of attrition against faceless threats. Similarly, if everyone is out to get you, it is easy to shirk responsibility for bad performances and write things off as being out of your hands.

Clearly there is some merit in the argument that something vital changes after a few seasons of being managed by Mourinho. There is something about the way he operates that is unsustainable and is combustible, and the siege mentality that he utilises to motivate his players seems a likely cause of some of the problems that present themselves – after two seasons, it ceases to be an effective method of motivating players and combating complacency and instead the mental strain put on players to constantly be fighting against external influences causes relationships within the club to fray.

Mentality at Manchester United

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Mourinho had said his team would “probably lose” because their current fixture congestion would lead to fatigue. But even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera, they still managed to win 3-1 with goals from Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia against Boros.

Winning Europa League or finishing in top 4 either ways Manchester United is desperate to get back into Champions league. The siege mentality might just be the only way United can regain their spot at the top of the Premier League and at the summit of Europe. One of his predecessors, Sir Alex Ferguson, once claimed in an address to a European Ryder Cup team that the key to getting the best out of elite sportsmen was making them feel ‘comfortable’. Mourinho’s career to date, his entire modus operandi, has been a refutation of that. The willingness to play on the back foot, the public dressing-downs, the intense personal relationships, healthy and unhealthy. He forces his players onto the same knife-edge that he lives on.

Juan Mata said in December that Mourinho’s siege mentality is rubbing off and its only matter of time when the results will be seen. Right now Juan Mata is injured but this is surely working for Manchester United. Juan Mata had said :

“Yeah, we need to help each other. We need to be stronger and look stronger as a team. I think we’re doing that. We have good personalities in the dressing room here. We have players with experience and so many young players with the dream to play for this club. We try to cheer ourselves up. When a player doesn’t play and has less football, the other players have to help him, especially with the mentality, as we all know the qualities we have.Mentally, you can be higher or lower and it can affect your game a lot, so what we try to do is always be in a balanced situation so we can express ourselves in the best way.”

It seems like success is judged not only on what you win, but how you win, especially when your team is a worldwide brand worth over $6 billion dollars like Manchester United. Yes, he’s a toxic character, but does that honestly diminish his success on the pitch? In the eyes of some, it appears that winning just isn’t enough. Mourinho would probably just laugh and point to his CV.

Bad Times Don’t last : But Jose’s tactics do

It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.

United’s dramatic victory potentially opens up the title race, with Tottenham Hotspur now just four points behind Chelsea. More importantly for United, victory leaves the Reds in touch with the top four as the season’s denouement approaches. If Mourinho’s team wins games held in hand over Manchester City and Liverpool the gap will be down to one and zero points. All to play for with just seven games to go.

United impressed by destroying Chelsea’s ability to play, highlighted by the visitors taking just three shots over the match and getting none on target. This is a Chelsea team that averages more than 14 shots per game over the Premier League season and has scored 65 goals.

But this wasn’t Mourinho’s anti-football at play, at least not as many understand it in the context of the manager’s career. On Sunday United enjoyed 47 per cent possession at Old Trafford, only dropping below 50 per cent in the second half when Mourinho sacrificed Jesse Lingard’s pace and endeavour for Michael Carrick’s greater defensive nous.

United also took more shots than Chelsea and played more passes in the attacking third. This was a vibrant, attacking United, even if the team was set up to destroy the visitors from the inside out.

Nor did United kick Chelsea off-the-park as Conte suggested was Mourinho’s strategy during the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. On this occasion it was the visitors who committed more fouls, even though Mourinho’s team attempted, and succeeded with, more tackles.

United won because, much as in that FA Cup tie, Mourinho targeted both Chelsea’s main attacking threat and principle defensive fulcrum. Once again Ander Herrera was charged with shepherding Eden Hazard, while Paul Pogba’s incessant ability to drive forward occupied N’Golo Kante, mentally and physically.

More than Herrera and Pogba, United can thank Mourinho’s decision to impose a high press for what might be only the second time this season, after the team played with similar intensity at Anfield. Chelsea simply couldn’t cope with it.

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Little wonder Mourinho found room to crow in the aftermath, celebrating not only United’s victory on Sunday, but the opportunity lost in the Cup, when Herrera’s controversial dismissal cost the Reds.

Jose Mourinho Said 

“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with same tactics and the game was totally controlled when we played with 11 players,” 

Only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half, plus some minutes in the first half, gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant, but we knew that if we played this way then it would be very difficult for them. I think everyone did what they had to do.

I am really happy with the team and the results, because the Manchester City and Liverpool results left us in the position of needing to win. Not even a draw would be a good result for us, so I am really happy for the boys and for us because we keep two windows open to try to play Champions League football.”

 

Mourinho’s team selection also paid off in spectacular fashion. The Portuguese manager rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in league football, seemingly suggesting from the off that he had decided to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League match with Anderlecht.

Far from it. As the match played out, with United punishing Chelsea on the break, it became clear that Mourinho has worked out that brilliant though Ibrahimovic is, the Swede has a certain inhibiting influence on United’s pace. Not so Rashford and his strike partner Jesse Lingard. “Maybe we didn’t rest,” noted the manager. “Maybe we just chose the team that we thought was the best team.”

With two in attack, Rashford and Lingard continually isolated David Luiz, with the Brazilian exposed once before the young England striker burst past the defender to score United’s opener.

The manager’s decision to switch to a back three was also vindicated, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young full of endeavour at wing-back, restricting the space normally enjoyed by Remi Moses and, on this occasion, César Azpilicueta. The system also offered Pogba the freedom of Old Trafford, with the £89 million midfielder, protected by Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, finally imposing himself on countryman Kante.

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It was also a day on which Herrera excelled in a destructive role. The Spaniard was sent off at Stamford Bridge for two innocuous fouls on Hazard, one probably not an infringement at all. Now came retribution, with Herrera shadowing Hazard to such good effect for more than 70 minutes that the Belgian took no shots, created just one chance, and completed just 78 per cent of his passes, with only 15 in attacking areas. One of the players of the season, reduced to a passenger.

Ander Herrera said : 

“It was almost perfect, Defensively it was perfect; they’re top of the table but didn’t have any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them but we played football as well; we controlled the game. I think we can be very happy.”

Herrera, of course, was much more pivotal than solely being the hosts’ defensive shield, with the Spaniard playing the perfectly weighted pass from which Marcus Rashford score the opener. The former Athletic Bilbao player then smashed home the second in joyous fashion.

This, of course, was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine; the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It is this ability that has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.

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The challenge now for the manager is to parse Sunday’s victory into seven more than will guarantee Champions League football next season. While the Reds have suffered most when facing middled-ranked teams at Old Trafford, the manner of United’s win over this season’s probable champions may provide a lesson learned. There are, after all, pivotal away games at City, Arsenal and Spurs yet to come. United will probably need to win them all.

Jose Mourinho said in the aftermath

“I cannot yet give up the Premier League, We have to try and if one day we are in the Europa League and in the Premier League the distance is too big, then we have to prioritize and nobody can criticise us if in the last matches of the league we do it in a different way. But while it is mathematically possible, we have to go with everything we have.”

In his first season at United Mourinho has already shown a willingness to adapt and evolve. Squad rotation might be his latest adjustment, but one made from compulsion and not choice. The silver lining among many ominous clouds is that Mourinho’s side still has control over the season’s outcome. If United does well in the games against others in the top six, the Reds should end up in the Champions League places despite sub-par home form.