On Friday, Jose Mourinho called Arsene Wenger a specialist in failure. This is definitely not the first time the Portuguese manager has said something controversial about the three-time Premier League winner. Who could forget the “voyeur” comment from 2005? The two-time Champions League winner came back to England very respectful and appreciative of Wenger and his accomplishments, but now that the Gunners are a serious title contender, Mourinho is back to his disrespectful ways. Since Sir Alex Ferguson has retired, the Chelsea manager is the only monarch of the mind games in the Premier League and he continues looking for competitors to psychologically break down for his side to get an advantage.
The mind game was not invented in the Premier League era. For starters, you can look back to see the disputes the legendary Brian Clough and Don Revie used to have in the 1970s. Ferguson perfected the craft in the spring of 1996 against then Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan. Their squads were battling for the title and Ferguson made comments regarding the fixtures ending the season that favored Newcastle. Keegan went on national television and ranted about Ferguson and said “I’ll tell you, you can tell him now – he’ll be watching this – we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and, I’ll tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!” Unfortunately for Keegan, the Red Devils won the league the following week.
Fergie continued with his banter battles with Wenger because during the span from 1996-2004, either Manchester United or Arsenal were the victors of the league. When Arsenal won the league in 2002, Sir Alex still claimed that his team was better and Wenger responded with “Everybody thinks he has the prettiest wife.” In 2004, Rafa Benitez and Mourinho joined the mind games when they took over Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. In a sort of unspoken truce, the 13-time Premier League champion and the two-time Premier League champion never went against each other and instead joined up to get mental advantages over Benitez and Wenger. Once the Gunners were no longer a threat to Manchester United, the tense relationship between Ferguson and the four-time FA Cup winner cooled off and calmed down. Even when Mourinho left England, he continued to employ mind games against Benitez when he accused him of gaining trophies at Inter only because the 2010 FIFA World Coach of the Year built the side and put them in the tournaments he won the previous season.
When viewing the landscape of the Premier League, one wonders who will step up and be an adversary to Mourinho. For a manager to successfully play mind games, they need the charisma to convey their message and have to be in charge of a contender. With all due respect, I don’t think any manager would be afraid if Rene Meulensteen tried to intimidate them through the media. Wenger rarely starts the mind game but he always responds with a sly comment to get his opposition riled up. David Moyes needs to put together a better team before he can join the battle. There’s a reason why Mourinho did not mind Juan Mata joining the Red Devils in the January transfer window. Meanwhile, Brendan Rodgers won’t demean Mourinho and vice versa because of their relationship.
This leaves Manuel Pellegrini as the best candidate. Their conflict began in 2010 when the 51-year-old replaced Pellegrini at Real Madrid. Mourinho fired shots back then by saying “Second place is just the first loser. If Madrid were to fire me, I wouldn’t go to Málaga. I’d go to a top-level team in Italy or England.” On several occasions after matches, they would not shake hands. Currently, they seem to be in charge of the best teams in England. This confrontation has a lot of potential to increase as the season gets closer to the finish line and both will look to any form of advantage by gaining help from the press to give them fresh narratives made to distract players and the managers themselves. Despite all this, Jose Mourinho still has the better command of the English language and has the British press wrapped around his finger, while Pellegrini’s broken English and lack of one-liners still means that Mourinho has the upper hand.