Mental Strength

As we face Man Utd today, here’s a piece about mind games I did for The Gooner issue 155 way back in 2005. Fergie was the king of mind games then and he still is. Wenger’s own mental strength is not on the same level as it used to be, I fear.

I’ve got to take issue with Stuart Preston’s article in Gooner 154 about mind games. They “do not win, lose or even influence the title race,” says Stuart. They have “no effect,” he claims. I disagree entirely. But there’s one thing I do agree on – Arsène should know better than to respond to Fergie’s cheap jibes.


But the fact he does respond is surely an indication that the mind games do work. If Wenger gets rattled, his players see it. Maybe they don’t consciously think, “Uh-oh, the boss is worried – perhaps Man U will beat us,” but subconsciously they take it in. A seed of doubt is sown. Managers, by the nature of the job, have to exude confidence in the face of any odds. “Yes, we’re 15 points adrift, but we’re definitely staying up,” they say. Because they know if they even hint that it’s all over, then it will be. There are some limits of course, like the story of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool taking on Man Utd in the sixties: after he’d slagged off eight of United’s team, one of his own players piped up, “Boss, what about Law, Best and Charlton?” “If you can’t beat three men, you shouldn’t be bloody playing,” was the alleged reply. Man U apparently won that game 4-0 – three world-class players were clearly enough if even Shankly had no answer to them.

Professional sport in modern times has margins so fine you can sometimes barely slip a Rizla between the best and the rest. The most extreme example is the 100 metres: if you’re not on absolutely 100 per cent top form mentally as well as physically you won’t win. That’s why the runners spend all their time before races in deep contemplation, visualising the whole race in their minds, seeing themselves powering towards the line ahead of their rivals. It’s all mind games, and if it didn’t work, why would they do it? Ah, but these aren’t the same sort of mind games played by Fergie and Wenger, you say (or at least Stuart probably does). Except they are. Anything that affects the subconscious – yours or your opponent’s – is a mind game.

Given how closely matched the Premiership’s top three are, one of them only has to improve a couple of per cent to have a distinct advantage over a season. That improvement is more likely to be effective if it’s mental rather than physical. Is it a coincidence that Chelsea couldn’t win the league with nice-guy Ranieri saying things like, “Well, we will do our best,” while under the arrogant Mourinho they are well clear at the top? Mourinho is already a winner. He’s managed a team from one of the weaker European leagues to be Champions of Europe, and that fact alone makes his players believe that he will continue to be a success. No doubt he continually tells his current squad that they’re much better than Porto, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t win the Champions League too. Mind games? Yes. Are they working? They are so far.

Arsène was ridiculed in the press a couple of years ago for suggesting that his team might go a whole season unbeaten. This was really just an answer to a journalist’s question rather than something Wenger felt compelled to tell the world, but even so he came out of it looking slightly naïve if nothing else. As I write, the newspaper talk is that the quadruple is still on for Chelsea. Mourinho has backed away from saying it can happen and is now stating that he’s only interested in the Premiership. This in itself is a mind game – he’s decided to take pressure off his players by reducing expectations. Earlier in the season he was saying, “We can win everything, why not?” and he’s created a public persona for himself that seemed to be allowing him to get away with it. The papers had decided that his cool arrogance was justified (with a bit of help from Roman’s billions, of course). Ironically, having seen Arsenal go a season unbeaten might have helped persuade the world that such fantastic feats do occur: the quadruple? Well, why not?

Let’s go back a few years to what happened when Keegan’s Newcastle blew it in spectacular style. Stuart Preston claims the “I would love it” outburst came only because the 12-point lead had disappeared. The important question is not what caused the outburst, but what caused the lead to disappear. We’ll probably never know the full story, but I suspect that Keegan started thinking it was too good to be true, and his manner and demeanour would have demonstrated that to his players even if he didn’t actually say it. As they hadn’t been in that position before they would have tried to analyse what got them there and couldn’t work it out. “Are we really this good?” they thought. With Fergie publicly telling them every week that they weren’t, and that his experienced side were still the best, Newcastle’s players probably felt a bit out of their comfort zone. Suddenly they lose one game, then another, and then even with a six-point lead their confidence is shot. Fergie wins again.

Sven is a big believer in the power of the mind and the benefits of positive thinking. Before the last World Cup finals he got several of the senior players in his squad to help persuade the others of the benefits of self-belief and visualisation techniques. All right they lost, but only to the eventual winners by a fluke goal catching an ageing keeper out of position. Sven does his best to give off a quiet confidence, and it’s noticeable that even when England go a goal down he doesn’t leap off the bench and start bellowing orders. When players look over for guidance he makes calming signs to show them he trusts them. Of course his problem is that England’s players are mostly nowhere near world-class – and know it – and don’t have a great team ethic either. Compare that with Greece in Euro 2004 – a triumph of mind over matter if ever there was one.

The number of times that underdogs come out on top should amply demonstrate that the mind is as much in control as the body. Will to win is as important as talent, and only teams that have both will be successful for any length of time. And if the mind is in control, then affecting the mind affects the result. Fergie, whatever his level of IQ compared to Wenger, knows that better than anyone. I’m sure Wenger knows it too, but he’s let himself be rattled and is finding it hard to regain control.

A bit of a trend has developed lately in the Premiership: the pre-kick-off huddle. Arsenal were the first team I noticed doing it, but now they’re all at it. Refs are even starting to get irritated by the length of time this goes on, as teams try and outdo each other in the “Look at us, we’re so together” competition. The message is, “You can’t beat us, we are as one.” Mind games? Oh yes, just as much as the All Blacks’ haka or Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest.” Note it was always “I am the greatest,” not “I will be the greatest” – he had to believe it to become it. Pretty soon his opponents believed it too, and that was the little bit extra he needed.

One of my favourite football quotes is from Partick Thistle manager John Lambie. When told that his concussed striker didn’t know who he was, Lambie replied, “That’s great, tell him he’s Pelé and get him back on.” I’m not saying it’s that simple, but anyone who says mind games don’t have an effect – well, they’re only fooling one person, and you don’t need to be Le Professeur to work out who.




One thought on “Mental Strength

  1. The John Lambie quote when he was told one of his strikers was concussed and didn’t know who he was and Lambie replied tell him he’s Pele and send him back on is probably the best quote I’ve ever heard when I heard it I just couldn’t stop laughing absolute classic.

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