On Jose Mourinho and his 'mind games'

Clive Brunskill

Project MKUltra was a top-secret CIA operation that ran for two decades at the beginning of the Cold War, focusing on way to alter human behaviour. Nothing was off limits -- drugs, sexual abuse, brainwashing, hypnosis, physical torture -- every you might imagine (and a lot more besides) was tried, and not all on knowing volunteers, all in response to the notion that the USSR and China were conducting their own tests on the subject. It was the mental equivalent to the space race; a dark, twisted search to find the keys to the human brain.

When you read up on what went on back then, the media's designation of certain quotes as 'mind games' is more than a little bit amusing.

* * *

The modern fan's appetite for football news is both enormous and indiscriminate. From transfer rumours to tactical analysis to managerial quotes, millions upon millions of words are shovelled into the angry, gaping, bottomless maw of the internet every day. That leads to a climate in which every motion on the field and every word that comes out of a manager's mouth is dissected until the point at which any possible meaning has evaporated.

Jose Mourinho tends to be the media's best friend in this regard. Such is his reputation for manipulating press conferences (damn you, mind games!) that even when he's being serene everyone starts wondering what he's trying to accomplish. And recently, he's been far from serene. On Friday, he had a deeply amusing go at Arsene Wenger, which isn't exactly an unusual habit, and he's also been amusing himself by riding what I imagine is an extended joke about My Little Pony so far into the ground that it'll probably pop up somewhere in China.

When Mourinho speaks, people listen, and then they respond. That's exactly what he wants, of course -- the Wenger spat was the result of the Arsenal manager getting fed up of being asked about little horsies and setting himself up for a good old kick to the nuts by insinuating that Mourinho was running scared. If his feud-mate raises the stakes, it's not a big deal, because Mourinho will just escalate ad infinitum (the opposition usually chickens out before the eye-poking stage).

The thing about arguing with Mourinho is that it's impossible to win. You can't 'hit back', because he doesn't actually care what you have to say, and he'll just retaliate with another scathing putdown, controlling the story until you give up. He says things not because he thinks they're true or because he has some grand point to make. He says them to get people riled up. When he's in argumentative mode during press conferences, Jose Mourinho is essentially a professional troll.

The amusing thing is that it works. When people are talking about Mourinho's lack of class, they're not discussing the fact that Ramires is playing like his talent was physically beaten out of him over the past week and a half. Or about how David Luiz is having his worst season since arriving in Europe. Or even about our strikers. When Chelsea played poorly at the Etihad this weekend, it was Mourinho whom the home fans chose to mock rather than the individual players. All of the pressure is on the manager, and it doesn't seem to bother him at all.

Remember that this isn't about, say, annoying Wenger, although that's a pleasant enough side effect. It's about controlling the narrative around the team. Mourinho gets to choose what gets talked about and what gets written about, so far as Chelsea are concerned, and the more controversial he gets, the more he can ensure that the story is about him.

Play for Mourinho and he'll protect you. Don't? He'll try to get you talking about everything except his charges. It's really pretty simple, but nobody seems to be able to keep themselves from rising to the bait. Compared to what the CIA was doing last century, Mourinho's 'mind games' are like clubbing people in the head with rocks. But sometimes hitting people in the head with rocks works just fine.

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