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 last season, 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 victimisation and defensiveness – a term derived from the actual experience of military defences of real sieges’, according to everyone’s favourite user-edited online encyclopaedia. 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 characterised 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.
After 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. 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.
There’s a case to be made that Chelsea’s implosion this season has been the natural result of prolonged existence under a siege mentality. 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.
Given the military origin of the term, it’s worth considering what has historically happened during prolonged military sieges. Even a cursory glance at the history of siege warfare reveals something deeply troubling that Mourinho seems to have failed to account for – when people are exposed to siege conditions for extended periods of time they begin to starve and they resort to desperate, sometimes inhumane, measures.
The Siege of Leningrad, in particular, provides some especially haunting accounts of citizens resorting to eating household pets and sawdust before devolving into cannibalism in order to survive the German siege of the city.
While any comparison with the situation at Chelsea is going to seem melodramatic, as well as going some way to highlight the inherent absurdity in using the terminology of war to describe competitive football, it’s interesting to consider what happens to people psychologically when they’re subjected to an environment where they constantly feel under attack.
Much has been made of Mourinho’s supposed ‘Third Season Syndrome’ perhaps slightly unfairly, as although his spells at Porto and Internazionale lasted fewer than three seasons, he left having accomplished his goals and on broadly good terms. However, his third season during his first spell at Chelsea saw an acrimonious fall-out with owner Roman Abramovich – with the signing of Andriy Shevchenko said to be the inciting incident – that ultimately led to his departure. Similarly, it was during his third season at Real Madrid that Mourinho saw his relationships with the Spanish press, senior players like Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, and club executives deteriorate beyond repair and resulted in him leaving Spain.
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.
Another facet of such an environment that is worth considering is that it only works if the besieged believe wholeheartedly in the cause of their leader and believe that they offer a compelling alternative to their perceived attackers. If Mourinho fails to halt his team’s disastrous start and he pays with his job for it, he may well look back at his handling of the Eva Carneiro debacle as his biggest mistake.
Aside from being deeply unprofessional, calling club medics Carneiro and Jon Fearn “impulsive and naïve” represents something of a tactical error – by scapegoating members of his own staff, the perceived conspiratorial forces are no longer external but internal, undermining the collective mentality he strove to establish. The implications of this were significant as his media manipulation ceased to be diversionary and instead undermined his own authority.
Carneiro and Fearn were reportedly popular figures at Chelsea and seeing them thrown under the bus by the manager can only have diminished the morale of the players – if their colleagues are suddenly expendable, then who else is? These fears seem to have been justified as Mourinho has repeatedly held his own players responsible for the team’s shortcomings. His captain and one his staunchest allies, an ever present in his title-winning seasons last year, was hauled off unceremoniously at half-time against Manchester City and forced to spend a number of games on the sidelines.
In a bizarre move that came across as slightly vindictive, in a game against Southampton, Nemanja Matić was brought on at half time only to be substituted shortly thereafter. Diego Costa was dropped and the public spat that occurred as a result of that decision came to boiling point as the striker petulantly tossed his fluorescent pink warm-up bib at his manager when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to be substituted on.
Of course, leaving players out and making difficult substitutions are part and parcel of being a manager at an elite level, and it could be argued that these choices were justified to some degree. However, the manner of these decisions makes it seem as though the Chelsea manager is punishing his players and making examples of them, especially when it comes to the Matić substitution. All of which would be fine, and potentially an effective method of inspiring a reaction from some under-performing players, if it didn’t run contrary to the culture he had established around the club. It’s difficult to maintain that ‘us versus them’ mindset when the ‘us’ portion of that equation suddenly becomes fractured.
The internal conflict at Chelsea this season can be seen as a product of the sustained level of conflict that comes from the pressure of being besieged, as well as potentially spelling the end of its effectiveness as a tactic. By switching the focus of attention from external threats to scapegoating his own players and staff, Mourinho has eroded the trust of his players, as well as the illusion of control required for the adoption of siege mentality to be effective.
Losing key dressing room leaders and long-time ‘Mourinho players’ Petr Čech and Didier Drogba this summer will not have helped his cause. Clearly there is something not quite right at Stamford Bridge and it seems as though history is repeating itself when it comes to the turmoil faced by the manager in his third season. Without a major strategic rethink, José Mourinho could be in danger of cannibalising himself once again.
By Tom Mason. Follow @Mase159