José Mourinho’s whole career has been marked by mind games. His press conferences have become an event in themselves and have largely been successful. From the moment Mourinho introduced himself to England by declaring himself “the Special One”, the former Porto boss has shown a near unparalleled aptitude to use the media to his advantage. Able to go toe to toe with the likes of Wenger, Benitez and even the master of the art Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho has frequently used mind games to get in the heads of his opponents and gain a competitive edge.
This season though Mourinho hasn’t had things his way, often his jibes haven’t quite had the desired effects. Criticism of Manchester City’s spending was met largely with bemusement, very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As was Mourinho’s attempts to paint Chelsea as underdogs even as they led the league, if it was meant to heap pressure upon Liverpool and Manchester City, this ploy missed the mark somewhat. Liverpool and City remained largely consistent, if anything the constant writing off of his own side’s chances seemed to play on the Chelsea players’ minds, leading to such slip ups as the disastrous loss to Sunderland last week.
Where before Mourinho has always appeared calculating and in control, getting under the skin of his opposition, this year he has been rankled. The petulant histrionics of Mourinho and his staff during and after the defeat to Sunderland was the pinnacle of this lack of control. His post-match comments, in which Mourinho sarcastically insinuated that Mike Dean and his referees had been an influence in the title race and the fact that Chelsea were trailing whiffed of desperation. It was the act of a spoilt child, tossing his toys out of the pram because he hadn’t gotten his way.
If Mourinho’s touch with mind games hasn’t been quite on the money this season, his tactics in crucial matches have. Away to an in form Atlético Madrid, Mourinho parked the proverbial bus, frustrating a side that are seriously threatening to upset Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly. It was a reminder of just how brilliant a tactician the former Inter and Real man is, but after the game Mourinho once again turned his hand to mind games. Upset at having to play Liverpool the Sunday before the Champions League semi-final return leg, Mourinho threatened to throw in the towel in the title race and field “the kids” against Liverpool.
No doubt a ploy to incite complacency within the Liverpool ranks, it was arguably the first of the season to pay off. Brendan Rodgers’ side had no answer to Chelsea’s banks of defenders, their passing lacked its usual crisp fluency, and they quite simply could not break through. Mourinho of course didn’t play the kids; Kalas was the only unfamiliar face and he is hardly an un-blooded amateur, having shone on loan in recent seasons. Chelsea’s line-up may have been second string, but it was a fresh second string. Liverpool on the other hand appeared jaded. Brendan Rodgers has operated with a small squad all season, relying on a light fixture list to keep his players fresh and acquiring a remarkable consistency.
The lack of rotation though appeared to finally take its toll, Gerrard’s heartbreakingly uncharacteristic mistake was the obvious example of this, but Suarez was another culprit. The Uruguayan has been immense all year, and fully deserves being awarded PFA Player of the Year. However, Suarez was woeful against Chelsea, constantly giving the ball away and ineffectual in attack. Liverpool’s poor day was epitomised by a late corner taken by Iago Aspas; the Reds desperately needed a good delivery, but the Spaniard instead gave the ball straight to the Blues.
In his post-match comments, Rodgers was keen to be critical of Mourinho’s negative tactics, but as he himself pointed out, “Jose’s happy to work that way, to play that way, and he’ll probably shove his CV in front of me and say it works.” Patently Mourinho’s way whilst not pretty or entertaining, it certainly does work, and has done at every club he has been at. Rodgers may want to consider his own tactics rather than his rival’s. Liverpool have quite effectively blown teams away all year, whether on the counter or through dominating possession. The Reds haven’t needed a Plan B for much of the season, against Chelsea, they did, and it simply wasn’t available.
It is hard to criticise Rodgers for the job he has done at Liverpool, but if there is one area in which they perhaps have been lacking and that is in adjusting the game plan when it’s not working. Watching the loss to Chelsea, one couldn’t help but ponder that Liverpool could do with a physical presence up front. You can’t pass through the middle of a wall, but you can knock it down, and that is what Andy Carroll specialises in. Rodgers sold the big Geordie because he didn’t suit the style of play which the former Swansea boss wanted to implement at Liverpool, but that perhaps should have been a reason to keep him. Even the best sides need another option, a backup for when things aren’t exactly going to plan. No one knows that better than Mourinho. Upon his return to Chelsea, the Portuguese mastermind sought to do things a little differently the second time around, buy young and play with flair, but when crunch time rolled around and form was low, Mourinho changed it up and ground out the results.
The title race looks set now to go down to the wire, and if Liverpool do miss out on the title, Rodgers may want to take notes from his former boss and mentor. Liverpool now need to learn how to win dirty, how to know when the time is to put aside the pretty football, roll up their sleeves and grind out a result. The Reds only needed a point against Chelsea, a draw, given their rivals having both dropped points against Sunderland would have put Liverpool in command; instead they lost gunning for the win. Admirable, but perhaps naïve.