Our new signing from inside the game enjoys the mind games being played by the managers of the Premier League’s top teams as much as the games on the field...
When I played football, I liked the little mind games. If I was getting a rough time from a younger player (or even if I wasn’t), I liked to walk off behind him at half-time and slowly pronounce the name on the back of his shirt as if it was an exotic item on a menu that I’d never heard of.
“Am I saying that right? New one on me. Where you from? You up on loan or did you win some sort of competition?”
Sometimes, it all went wrong. Vidic, at United, once swapped jerseys with me and I looked at it and looked back at him and said, ‘Yeah, thanks, I was planning on washing the car this weekend’. He looked at my shirt and said, ‘I have many cars. Somebody else washes them’.
He jogged off. If I ever see him again, I’ll have worked out a comeback.
Anyway, as a keen student of playground psychology, I have enjoyed watching the larger-than-life characters who now manage the Premier League top teams giving us a drama that is almost independent of football. It’s Desperate Housewives if it had gone on for one series too many.
I imagine Arsene Wenger has regular spats with the scriptwriters, regarding what they have done to his character.
Introduced years ago as a slice of posh to be played off against Alex Ferguson’s bit of rough, Wenger has devolved into a figure of fun — and not just for us Spurs fans. When Mourinho bitchily branded him a specialist in failure, a few years back, it was the beginning of the end.
As a player, I had a few Alexis Sanchez-like moments of my own: ‘Worldy’ tantrums, not ‘worldy’ goals (though I have never actually heard anybody say ‘worldy’ at a football club). I felt like every teammate would be a better player if he just concentrated on giving me the ball, early and often. I could be insufferable. One day, a left back looked me in the eye and just said: “Why don’t you just fuck off somewhere else.”
Until that day, I had always thought that they couldn’t live without me. I got the message and it hurt.
Arsene Wenger needs to say something like that to Alexis Sanchez, but he can’t.
As I understand it, the recent training ground strop from Sanchez wasn’t a one-off. Also, Wenger is said to have allowed Sanchez to say (or shout) his piece and to then just walk off.
That is unheard of in football. Footballers expect managers to manage these things.
What has followed has been comical. Dropping Sanchez for the Liverpool game was amusingly weak, but Wenger showed the cowardice of his convictions by then bringing the Chilean on when things went bad and by later giving some straight-faced post-match bluster about ‘tactics’. He played Sanchez against Bayern, football’s first instance of a man making a good show of shutting the stable door to give the impression that he has been flogging a dead horse.
The horse has bolted, Arsene. The horse was dreaming of sunnier pastures when he watched Barca on the telly the next night. The horse was amused when Wenger played him for 90 minutes against Lincoln City on Saturday, a manager trying to give the impression that he can wield both carrot and stick with the same shrewdness.
There is no way back for Wenger and not to write him out of the series soon would just be cruel.
Tonight’s installment, with Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, is far more interesting. Conte has married Mourinho’s ex and is better at everything than Jose was. Better at not losing the dressing room or the medical staff or the league title. All those little things that matter.
They are both thin-skinned men. Mourinho recently devoted a decent chunk of his press conference to discussing his new haircut. You could tell that he hadn’t looked in the mirror and decided that he would have to wear a beanie for a week. Quite the opposite.
Conte has the hair-trigger (not the right word?) sensitivity of any man who pays good money to get a hair weave, but this year he has pulled the greatest of manager psychological tricks: Indifference.
Conte has just got on with the job. He handled the autumn hammering to Arsenal with a surefooted tactical change.
He quietly and effectively dealt with Costa’s sudden interest in China. His selections have been consistent and effective, and if the millionaires sitting on the Chelsea bench week in and week out have any objections, they are keeping them to themselves.
For Mourinho, this has all been a bit confusing. He needs an enemy to make himself feel powerful. The sheer number of heads he needs to mess with this year, though, has made him impotent.
Why kick Wenger when the old man is kicking himself to death? The vanity behind Klopp’s ‘Genius? Me? Ich bin ein ordinary man’ routine has become increasingly obvious as his team runs out of steam and ideas.
Pep just needs to be left to his own bewilderment as to how so many superstars can add up to less than the sum of their price tags.
Who knew that England had a league in which even the teams he hasn’t heard of could turn City over from time to time?
Watching his team have one shot on target in the 0-0 midweek draw with Stoke, while the whole world tuned into Barca’s Lazarus act, must have been its own punishment.
Then, there is Pochettino, who is quite rightly untouchable, and Koeman, who fights at a lower weight class.
Mourinho is using up year one of his Manchester United tenure with fourth or fifth billing in an ensemble cast.
It’s not all about him and he has a team that is improving, but still unreliable. He knows himself well enough to know that even his most ardent relationships don’t last more than three years. He won’t be able to endure another year on the panto circuit that is the Europa League. He needs Champions League football and he needs United to improve faster than all the superpowers they compete with.
He needs an enemy fast. He needs a Cold War with some bad hombres. He doesn’t really need another Cup, but tonight he needs to beat Conte and advance to a semi-final round full of big-name managers who suddenly need a Wembley day out to take the bare look off their season.
Conte, with the league pretty much wrapped up, can’t really lose tonight. Jose is dying to give the Italian a bloody nose and to pull his fringe. As a Spurs fan, I never thought I’d say this, but all the best to Chelsea tonight.
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