Jose Mourinho and his Heart Problem

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In his post match conference after Manchester United’s goalless draw against Crystal Palace, Mourinho mentioned that his players played without heart.

Of course, heart is important to winning a game, but even more important is skill and talent. More important than heart is the actual ability to play the game. SHOCKER! You will never beat Lebron in a dunk contest regardless of how much heart you have. More heart could help Kevin DeBruyne play better than Luka Modric in a game but all the heart in the world will never turn Mousa Sissoko into Lionel Messi. 

No Talent?

When you consider all the teams in the premier league top 10, you will not find a team with less cohesion than Manchester United. When you have a striker whose first touch is so abysmal that he sometimes trips on it, or a right back who cannot cross to save his life, or a centre back who is literally terrified when it’s time to make a forward pass, or a bunch of midfielders that consistently ignore runs by forwards. All these flaws compound and demanding more heart will never fix them. 

This might look like a support for Mr. Mourinho but it is far from it. The manager says that the player’s are not good enough and the board will not let him get the players that he needs. He complains that the financial game has changed so much that it is impossible to get quality players. All of these complaints are mere excuses. They indict him more than they help his cause.

The players do not select themselves. It is ultimately up to the manager to select the players on the pitch and Mourinho has done a terrible job of doing this. His major flaw has been buying and selecting players based on secondary traits. Traits that are not fundamental to actually playing the game. 

Fellaini is tall and causes problems in the box but the manager ignores his positional awkwardness, lack of dynamism and inability to play a simple through ball.

Ashley Young is vocal and knows what Manchester United is all about but the manager ignores the fact that he has completely lost his basic footballing ability and should be playing in Australia.

Lukaku is very intelligent, speaks 6 languages, plays his heart out and puts in a shift for the team but the manager ignores his inability to control a moving ball, low energy to make runs in behind, and zero sense of proactivity as a forward.

Matic is extremely loyal to the manager and a leader in the dressing room but the manager ignores the fact that he has made only 183 forward passes compared to 291 and 418 made by Fernandinho and Jorginho respectively. Even Etienne Capoue of Watford and Idrissa Gueye of Everton, who play very similar roles, have made more forward passes than Matic.

The Problem with Secondary Traits

…if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid

Albert Einstein

The common thread here is that these are all first names on the team sheet and Mourinho picks them. He picks all these players and complains that they lack heart when they fail to break down the opposition. 

The first measure of a player’s quality shouldn’t be how tall he is, how fast he can run, how passionately he screams, how much blood he would shed for the badge, or how many languages he can speak. 

Can you control a moving ball? Can you hold it up? Can you make a forward pass? Can you do a quick one-two? 

These are better questions and unless the players have satisfied these basic concepts as Pochettino calls them, it is useless to talk about heart, desire, attitude, passion and all the other similar intangible qualities. Intangible qualities have to rest on a foundation of measurable ones.

When you select based on secondary traits, you end up with one dimensional men with  nothing else to offer. You end up with a team that has zero cohesiveness. You end up with fishes trying to climb trees (that’s exactly how Manchester United looked against Man City). You might as well go out to pick the 11 loudest fans from the stands and ask them to play because they have heart.

…if you buy players and pick lineups based on secondary traits, they will look stupid trying to string two passes together and you will look stupid too

Scrappio Africanus

Forgive me, Professor Einstein.

Bereft of ideas?

Maybe Mourinho is all heart now and no ideas. For three consecutive years, the Mourinho of old schooled the Premier League on the art of game management. He went to the La Liga and built a counter attacking machine that scored 121 goals in a season. He even taught the Italians, famous for their Catenaccio, how to defend.

Yes! There were slides down the touchline, eye pokes, taunting of rival fans, loads of fines, and tons of heart but all of these passionate expressions were built on the successful execution of great ideas on the pitch.

Today’s Mourinho is empty. He is lost. Yes! We love the occasional bottle smashing, and ear cupping but that is all there is now. Heart and passion without substance.  He’s hired a young and modern coach in McKenna. He’s played some daring attacking formations at Manchester  United. He’s even had some stellar team performances. But it all looks like clutching at straws. He looks caught in an interstitium between sticking to his old ideas that don’t work as well and embracing modern ideas that he has not completely internalized.

Look at Liverpool to see what running into the half spaces look like. Look at Chelsea to see what verticality looks like. Look at Manchester City to see what overloading the flanks and switching play looks like. Look at Arsenal and Spurs to see what pressing looks like. Look at Liverpool and Manchester City to see what counter pressing looks like. 

Don’t look at Manchester United. Don’t look at Manchester United unless you want to see what confusion looks like. 

Manchester United’s problem is not heart. It is the lack of quality in the players and the lack of ideas in the man that manages them.

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Jose Mourinho’s Psychology

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Poets don’t win titles

Mourinho: …there are lots of poets in football but poets’ don’t win many titles…

 Like most of Mourinho’s famous aphorisms, it is sharp, witty, and insightful. Mr Mourinho has such a way with words that it is not surprising he began his career as a translator. It is not surprising that he spoke almost fluent English without ever living in England for an extended period of time until his Chelsea move. It is not surprising that he speaks at least 6 languages fluently.

He knows the power of language and he does not fail to use it to his advantage.  He makes every press conference or post match interview worth paying attention to. His words or lack thereof – when he loses with nussin’ to say – always keep the journalists coming back. If he decides to go that route, Mourinho will have just as great of a punditry career as he has had in management.

If you don’t believe me, check out his World Cup commentary for RT

Sharp tongue + sharp mind

A coach with good command of the spoken word is great but not that uncommon. Maybe not as suave and as fluent as Mourinho, but Guardiola has formidable language skills. Also very smart. Sir Alex Ferguson was also very word-smart and famous for phrases like squeaky bum time and Football Eh? Bloody Hell!.

But combine Mourinho’s linguistic skill with his great understanding of human psychology, and you get a dangerous combination. Referring to his philosophy professor, Manuel Sergio, Mourinho once said 

“A coach must be everything. A tactician, motivator, leader, methodologist, psychologist. A teacher at university told me that a coach that knows only about football is not a top one. Every coach knows about football, the difference is made in the other areas. He was a teacher of philosophy. I got the message.”

Jose Mourinho

 For Mourinho, when you face an equally matched opponent, it is not the football you both know but the psychology your opponent does not know that will give you the upper hand. 

You know who else has these qualities? This combination of linguistic skill and an understanding of human psychology? Preachers, prophets, and politicians. Going back to my previous point, this kind of talent is so dangerous that Mr Mourinho would have been successful in virtually any other field outside of football that involved dealing with people.

The common thread in these people influencers is their ability to create powerful, compelling narratives. 

The power of the narrative

A narrative is an interpretation of the truth with the intention to influence a particular action or reaction.The power of a narrative lies in its incompleteness. The narrative is potent because it is true, but only to a point. It is an inexact interpretation of reality. An imperfect translation of truth. Of course, the once charming, baby faced translator, Mr Mourinho understands this fully. In fact, he completely internalizes it and uses it to devastating effect. 

How do you lower expectations for yourself and your team despite consistently being in the top spenders list? You craft the narrative of the underdog.

How do you create a siege mentality of warriors within your team? You use the narrative of the enemy. You preach that the media has you on a manhunt and that the FA has you on their most wanted list. You accuse rival managers of being voyeurs. You allude that computer generated fixture schedules are biased against your team and other teams have “friends in the right places”.

Does this actually work? Here is an article based on real psychological research that shows how effective creating an invisible enemy is to achieving one’s goals.

What happens when some people do not buy into this mentality? You create factions by constantly praising the loyalists and ostracizing the deviants. Perez vs Casillas. Ivanovic/Matic vs Costa/Hazard. Lukaku vs Shaw. Neville vs Souness. JoseFC vs MartialFC. Same song and dance. 

If you take out the football themes from the above paragraphs, they start to sound awfully religious. Factions, enemies, loyalists, deviants, manhunts, scapegoats, and fines. All too familiar the picture looks. The great man out to revolutionize the status quo.  Many love him; many hate him. His cause is just but the masses are too stupid to get it. He is a misunderstood genius.

Regardless of the specific shape they take, these stories almost always end in the same way. People finally come to their senses. The great man is soon cast away and loses all of his influence. The majority start to ask, “how did we let him deceive us for so long?” while a small minority suffer from from a mild version of Stockholm syndrome.

Narratives at Manchester United

Some common narratives during his time at Manchester United:

  • Anthony Martial is not good enough but his recent upturn in form is a result of his improved defensive game.

  • Luke Shaw is a terrible player with no brains who’s enjoying good form now because he listened to and accepted Mourinho’s criticism.

  • 2nd place achieved last season was his greatest managerial achievement.

  • The Europa League win in his first season was as big as any of the other titles he had previously won.

  • Man United does not have good enough players to challenge for the Premier League.

  • A centre back was the one summer signing that United needed to challenge for the title.


In a future post, I will go through each one of these narratives and show that while they have some truth in them, they remain partial truths. Though convincing, they remain incomplete and hence misleading.

Herein lies the irony, for someone as results focused, as realistic, as pragmatic, as anti-bullshit, as anti-poetry and anti-philosophy a la LVG, as Mourinho is, his greatest feat is his use of narratives to convince a good number of fans, players, and pundits to ignore reality even when it stares them in the face.

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