If there’s one thing that Jose Mourinho excels at above tactical preparation and instilling discipline in a squad it is in his mind games. He is a skilled communicator, something he was trained in even before becoming a football coach, and his ability to get at his opponents has added to his mystique and helped build his success.
He is a veteran at media manipulation and deflecting any negative criticism of his team on to himself. However, his more overt ‘mind games’ tactics have been used to destabilise other clubs and referees for his own gain. The famous incidents with Barcelona over the years, ruffling Rafa Benitez’s feathers in an exchange which made the Spaniard so unpopular and winding up Martin O’Neill before the Porto Celtic UEFA Cup final all resulted in positive results for his teams. But the other thing he never really did, was engage the master of the mind games, Sir Alex Ferguson. But now that he has left Manchester United, Mourinho has immediately begun the games with his successor David Moyes.
Chelsea will know that Manchester United won’t sell them Wayne Rooney, but that’s no reason for them to not bid for him. In the age of Twitter, newspapers and 24 hour news looking for ‘stories’ at all costs Jose Mourinho has fed them a tidbit which they have feasted on.
In an instant, all the focus was taken off his return to Chelsea and focused squarely on David Moyes and new executive vice chairman Ed Woodward. If Man United had signed a Cesc Fabregas or Gareth Bale, Chelsea might not have gotten involved in this, but the timing is very indicative of exactly what Mourinho is up to.
Wayne Rooney expressed his desire to leave Man United to Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of last season and Chelsea have done nothing about it. You could say that this was because they were apparently involved in trying to get Cavani, but according to Mourinho, and take this with a pinch of salt, they only want Rooney at Chelsea. He’s said he’s very happy with his squad and sees Rooney as a bonus. But, he only chose to say that when Moyes was going through a little sticky patch in the press and with some less patient United fans.
Having missed out on presumed long term target Thiago Alcantara to Barcelona United responded with something very unusual; they openly acknowledged that they had bid for Cesc Fabregas. Since when do United do their business in public? Whether or not the club actually were trying to sign Bale, Thiago or even Cristiano Ronaldo, they evidently felt that they had protect David Moyes by leaking the news.
The agenda immediately switched from missing Thiago to getting United fans dreaming of seeing Fabregas in a Barcelona shirt. That they had no chance of signing him was basically irrelevant, because it did the job. They ironed out the bump in the road.
But Jose Mourinho fancied a little bit of a play. After David Moyes’ slightly unguarded words on Rooney’s role at the club, perhaps to try and exert his authority in the wake of missing out on Thiago and the odd murmur about his legitimacy. His strong words had the intended effect, in that it made him look like the boss, but it made Rooney ‘confused and angry’ according to his agent. Far be it from Jose Mourinho to resist such low hanging fruit.
Sure enough, Chelsea immediately put in a bid they knew wouldn’t be accepted and leaked the news to the media as they were pressing send on the fax to United. For some reason someone associated to Man United spun it that Chelsea had offered them Juan Mata or David Luiz and £10m but that they’d rejected it.
Now, this clearly wasn’t true and it just became a competition of ‘which team is more stupid’ Chelsea for the offer or United for turning it down? It was a bizarre response but they obviously saw that Mourinho was starting up the mind games and playfully poking at the new man to see what he’s made of.
It’s telling that Chelsea haven’t followed up with another bid, but have instead stood back and watched whilst the media frenzy surrounds United. Will they sell Rooney? Can they sign a star man? Would Sir Alex have done it differently? All the while, Chelsea are gliding along in flat waters as the absurdity of the Mata/Luiz offer was exposed and becalmed immediately.
One Mourinho comment that went un-picked up by most media was his unsubtle hints that Rooney needed to move to get World Cup football. He couldn’t get it from United’s bench. Never mind the fact that an in form Rooney is England’s only quality striker, but it ignores the fact that signing him immediately relegates Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea’s own bench in World Cup year.
Whether or not Chelsea really expect that they can sign Rooney is irrelevant. Jose Mourinho is 1-0 up in the mind games war with David Moyes having rocked around the boat and then retreated to a safe distance to leave United’s new management duo to deal with the fallout. Moyes has plenty of time to fire back in due course, and probably missed a chance to point out the double sided nature of Mourinho’s words but this is one that will drag on for some time yet.