Mourinho, Madrid and Mind Games

Mind games, like it or not have become part and partial to the makeup of the modern football manager.

Some are seasoned pros, some are young pretenders, others show as much poise and grace with their delivery as a pissed-up uncle at a wedding.

Still, every manager cannot go through their career with out coming across mind games in some form, even if it isn’t natural behaviour to the man in question.

Although present through every league in the world, mind games are particularly prevalent at the top level, most recently displayed among Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola ahead of their Champions League semi-final encounter.

With Mourinho holding the upper hand, with a Copa Del Rey success over the Catalans to point to, and his team now being considered favorites for the European Cup, Guardiola stands as a prime target for his expert mind games.

So far during Guardiola’s management of Barcelona, he has come across little he was unable to overcome easily in terms of mind games by letting his team do the talking on the pitch.

The Real Madrid team Mourinho has moulded now pose a threat to that, a team that can disrupt Barcelona’s attacking fluidity, stifling their creativity and in turn frustrating the players.

Real Madrid of course aren’t short on uber-talented players themselves, but crucially, are more capable of playing a stop-start game than Barcelona.

This style was perfectly displayed not only by a battling victory at the Mestalla in the Copa Del Rey final but also in Inter Milan’s Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona last season when Mourinho was also manager.

Despite Mourinho’s obvious tactical nous his mind games often receive more attention and possibly more credit than they necessarily deserve.

Ahead of the Champion’s League semi-final first leg, Mourinho sneakily said Guardiola was a new breed of coach who criticised correct decisions by referees.

A small piece of bait, dangling, luring Guardiola take a nibble on.

The usually ice-cool Guardiola did just that; he sarcastically said:

“In this room (press room), he’s the fucking chief, the fucking man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don’t want to compete with him at all.

“It’s a type of game I’m not going to play because I don’t know how.

“I won’t justify my words. I congratulated Madrid for the cup that they won deservedly on the pitch and against a team that I represent and of which I feel very proud.”

He added: “Off the pitch, he has already won, as he has done all year.

“On the pitch, we’ll see what happens.”

Although the mind-games may been triggered by Guardiola himself when he suggested Mourinho would be “super happy” if Portuguese Pedro Proenca were chosen as the referee for the first leg.

In fact, experienced German official Wolfgang Stark was given the task but that did not stop Mourinho pouncing on his counterpart’s words.

“Besides the naming of the referee and the pressure that they exerted that it was not Proenca, the most important thing is that we are in new cycle,” he said.

“Up to now we have had two types of coaches. A very small group of coaches who never speak to the referees.

“After that, there is a bigger group, of whom I am one, who criticise the referees when they make huge errors. But it is also a group who are happy to highlight the good work of the referee.

“And now, with the declaration of Pep the other day, we are entering a new era with a third group, which for the moment includes only him, who criticise the correct decision of the referee. (referring to a goal by Barcelona’s Pedro correctly disallowed for offside in Copa Del Rey final)

“I am not asking the referee to help my team. If the referee is good everyone will be happy – except Guardiola. He wants them to get it wrong.”

“This is something I have never seen in the world of football.”

This piles on unnecessary pressure for Guardiola’s team to succeed on the pitch, for his players to justify his comments and therefore lifts pressure off Real Madrid.

Pressure. That is the key word when it comes games of this magnitude and mind games only add to the spice, magnifying the levels of pressure.

Pressure to succeed, pressure to make no mistakes, pressure to squeeze that last ounce of energy from your physically and mentally drained, battered body.

Pressure is a game changer, taking an example from the world of golf, Northern Ireland’s Roy Mcllroy fluffed his lines when the pressure and weight of expectation came piling down on his head at this year’s Masters at Agusta.

Matthew Syed, author of ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’ has detailed through psychology how pressure can get to sportsmen and women and why so many ‘choke’ at the final hurdle.

“For years the paradox of choking seemed incomprehensible to psychologists and sportsmen alike,” he says. “It is only in recent years that neuroscientists have glimpsed the answers, and they are both intriguing and revelatory.

“Consider what happens when you are learning a task, say driving a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently to move the gearstick while shifting the steering wheel and pushing the clutch. Indeed, at the beginning these tasks are so difficult to execute that the instructor starts you off in a car park.

“But now consider what happens after hundreds of hours of practice. Now, you can perform these skills effortlessly, without any conscious control, so that you are able to arrive at your destination without even being aware of how you got there.

“In effect, experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory, and they perform almost without thinking about it.

“This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, wield the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task.

“But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find himself using the “wrong” system. It wouldn’t matter how good he was because he would now be at the mercy of the explicit system.

“The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of his brain would count for nothing. He would find himself striving for victory using neural pathways he last used as a novice.

“This is the neurophysiology of choking. It is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically.

“That is why McIlroy’s technique was so stilted – explicit monitoring was vying with implicit execution. The problem was not insufficient focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the subconscious. He was, in a literal sense, a novice again.

“This is why choking is so dramatic: it triggers a psychological metamorphosis. And this is why those slated to taken penalties in the semi-finals will be working as hard on their mental as their physical games.”

Regardless of how the first semi-final encounter between Real Madrid and Barcelona since 2001 goes, mind games are here to stay and this fixture will only be another example of how important they can be in edging the tight margins between epic failure and glorious success.

Author Details

Brian Irvine

Brian is a journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Focusing mainly on Liverpool FC, La Liga and football culture.

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