All in the mind?
APRIL 14 — The title races in England and Spain remain hotly contested following recent setbacks for the previously runaway leaders.
In England, Manchester United saw their eight-game winning run come to a surprise end with a 1-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night.
Manchester City’s simultaneous 4-0 victory over West Brom restored some much-needed positive vibes at the Etihad Stadium and reduced the gap to United to five points, giving City fans reason to believe that their title dreams are still alive.
And in Spain, reigning champions Barcelona have pulled themselves back to within four points of top-placed Real Madrid thanks to the latter’s goalless draw with Valencia last weekend.
In fact, for 24 hours earlier this week the gap was just one point as Barca recorded a straight-forward 4-0 home win over Getafe on Tuesday night, including a typically brilliant strike from the unstoppable Lionel Messi.
That victory put big pressure on Jose Mourinho’s league leaders as they prepared for the trip to Atletico for the following night’s Madrid derby. On paper, it looked like a very tough task for Real, who had been held to frustrating draws in three of their previous six league games.
But in typically stubborn Mourinho style, they responded emphatically as Cristiano Ronaldo again inspired his team by smashing a hat-trick — his sixth of the season — en route to a 4-1 victory that puts the momentum back in Real’s favour.
There are still plenty of points to be won and lost, but you’d never know that from the comments of the two managers of the chasing clubs. City’s Roberto Mancini and Barca’s Pep Guardiola are both adopting decidedly defeatist tones in their public assessment of their team’s situation.
Guardiola was the instigator, declaring: “Este Liga no la vamos a ganar,” (we will not win this league) after his team fell 12 points behind Real with a 3-2 defeat at Osasuna in February.
Even though the distance between the top two has been steadily eroded in the last couple of months, Guardiola has maintained his downbeat demeanour, repeatedly insisting that Real will ultimately claim the title.
And now, perhaps taking his inspiration directly from Guardiola, City boss Mancini is doing the same thing. Even after United’s loss at Wigan in midweek, he asserted: “United are a fantastic team and I don’t think they can lose five points. I think five points is too much.”
But do Guardiola and Mancini truly believe that their hopes are dead? Of course not. Their outward defeatism is simply a blatant psychological ploy, designed to take the pressure off their own teams whilst piling the full weight of expectation onto the league leaders.
Indulging in “mind games” is a long-established strategy of managers and players – using the media to communicate the messages that you want your opponents to hear, rather than what you truly believe.
Famously, nobody has perfected the art to a greater degree than Sir Alex Ferguson, who takes enormous pleasure from throwing together a handful of explosive ingredients, gently stirring the pot and then sitting back with a big smile on his face as the ensuing hysteria unfolds.
So surely it’s highly unlikely that Ferguson or his players will fall victim to Mancini’s transparent attempts to talk United into slack complacency?
Can you really imagine veteran canny campaigners such as Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes — whose exalted status within the dressing room allows their attitude to set the tone for the rest of the squad to follow — sitting back and musing: “It’s alright lads, even Mancini thinks we’ll win the league! We can take it easy now!” Hardly.
But the mental aspect of sport is a strange and unfathomable beast. Despite all the resources that have been pumped into sports psychologists and performance analysts, still nobody really knows precisely what makes a group of talented but psychologically different personalities click — or fail.
Maybe — just maybe — United’s players really were sub-consciously affected by Mancini’s defeatist rhetoric. Did United lose at Wigan because Mancini had verbally handed them the title? No; it can’t be that simple. But complacency may well have been one of the contributory factors that created a surprisingly limp and ineffective performance.
You could argue that is has happened in Spain, after all. Ever since Guardiola gave up the ghost, Mourinho has grown increasingly intense and his team has looked increasingly vulnerable.
Again, the connection between the mind games and results on the pitch can only be a loose one, at best. Real failed to beat Malaga and Villareal because they conceded late equalisers to well-struck free-kicks; likewise they were held at home by Valencia because their opponents are a very good team — not because Guardiola once uttered: “Este Liga no la vamos a ganar.”
But the subtleties that create shifting degrees of pressure and varying weights of expectation are intuitively grasped by all managers, so expect the mind games to continue as they attempt to manipulate those powerful but unknowable forces.
One thing is for certain: to have any chance of winning their respective leagues, Barcelona and Manchester City must keep on winning.
This weekend they both face tough away trips: City travel to Norwich on Saturday lunchtime, while Barca face Levante a few hours later. And you can be sure that Mancini and Guardiola will be sending out their teams with every intention of keeping their title dreams alive — whatever they might say in public.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.