For anyone interested in watching footy in America, the Christmas season is unparalleled. Many teams in Barclays Premier League play an absurd three matches in a week, eschewing all reasonable expectations for the human body to maintain itself. Luckily, teams like Arsenal have already gone through their yearly pandemic of injuries, so hopefully the Gunners are now in the clear, especially after persevering to a relatively successful holiday slate.
The highlight of this Christmas season was Tuesday’s match between Premiership contenders Leceister City and Manchester City, in second and third place, respectively. It was a fascinating, albeit scoreless contest, as English football’s pre-eminent economic powerhouse, Manchester City, battled the upstart Leceister City. Leceister rode in on an unlikely wave of brilliance from a trio of unheralded players in Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante. The teams were surprisingly even, as City’s big guns couldn’t find any fluid combinations. Their best chances came by way of Raheem Sterling and his highly-overrated jet boosters; on the other side, each of the aforementioned troika had various opportunities borne of Leceister’s high pressure.
Yet the most buzzy match was clearly Monday’s supposed clash of titans, Manchester United and Chelsea. Each team has experienced its own brand of turmoil of late, with both managers being raked over the coals by the petulant English media. Whereas Jose Mourinho was the architect of his own demise as Chelsea’s season collapsed, Louis Van Gaal has had to navigate a morass of impulsive criticism about a fairly bad, but not disastrous run of form.
Van Gaal’s problem has stemmed from the appearance that his team is bereft of creativity; similarly, many of the transfers under Van Gaal have not panned out fully (Darmian, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin) or fizzled out terribly (Depay, Di Maria). It was clear, however, that on Monday, Manchester United was a team that simply was having hard luck. Absurdly inconsistent officiating, two shots off the woodwork, and near-misses all contributed to an ineffectual afternoon. But the performance was dominant in possession and they generated far more chances than did Chelsea. Anthony Martial, arguably Van Gaal’s best signing, continues to look like the next Thierry Henry; the 19 year-old may not be there yet, but he’s special. Juan Mata similarly buzzed around the pitch. Even Ander Herrera, another holdover from the David Moyes era of acquisitions, looked like a heady contributor.
On the opposite side, Chelsea looked like a team that was utterly psychologically broken. Their play was so disjointed that it seemed more a collection of talented athletes who may or may not have had any experience at all playing soccer. This is the indelible mark of Jose Mourinho, the Special One, the coach with a personality (disorder) that is inexorably stamped on all of his teams. The lovely problem Jose brings to bear is that his team has been so stamped with his personality that they are now flattened into oblivion. It’s almost as if, with every basic pass misfired, every buffoonish first touch, the voice of Jose remains in the heads of these players, undermining and second-guessing every decision.
Last year the Telegraph published an article about sports psychology in football, describing “positive self-talk,” a key strategy used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The idea is that the more positive things you tell yourself, the more positive influence that has on neuro-psychological functioning:
“Negativity and criticism is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively. Positive, energized language releases dopamine, which is linked to certainty and confidence, as well as noradrenaline and DHEA which enable your prefrontal lobe to fire more effectively.”
Jose’s lingering ghost serves an opposite function; after all, he’s the manager whose work is “betrayed” by players. A manager who berates team doctors. Jose has a flair for maddening opponents with the perfect cutting remark. Imagine the cumulative effect this type of personality has on the players; no wonder Jose flames out of every job after a few years.
This is why Monday’s listless, scoreless draw in which Manchester dominated and Chelsea looked a disaster was such pleasurable schadenfreude. The rumor mill churns, and the folks at Old Trafford are considering bringing old Jose on to replace the venerable Van Gaal, as if no manager is ever afforded the benefit of the doubt amid a run of bad luck. It’s a dangerous game to look past the picket fence and long for greener grass; there is little guarantee that anything will improve. Even with one of football’s most accomplished managers in Mourinho, the coaching carousel can be a treacherous ride. Judging from Monday’s Chelsea performance, Manchester United’s faithful may want to consider staying on their current horse for the time being.