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About Lisa O'Halloran
Doctoral Researcher in Sport Psychology at LJMU. Specialising in critical moments and identity in Premier League Academy Football.
It has been an interesting start to this year’s Premier League. Most notably, Chelsea have had their worst start to the season in 17 years. As a Liverpool fan, it’s always nice to see the reigning champions get off to a shaky start especially given our recent history against the club. However, the realist in me knows that it is still the earliest of days and tables can drastically turn in a matter of weeks – literally and figuratively. In other words, these five ‘dropped’ points should not be as far to the forefront of my mind as they have been. My over-awareness of Chelsea’s failure to win their first two games, from both a football fan and a professional standpoint, is undoubtedly due to Mourinho’s actions on the sideline and comments whilst speaking to the media. Yes, some may argue that this is another one of his clever tactics, after all Mourinho is renowned for drawing attention away from his side when they are underperforming through his headline snatching, controversial post-match remarks – but in my opinion his recent actions have served to do the opposite. His public altercation with his medical staff (most notably Eva Carneiro who has since been demoted and subjected to some tasteless and sexist articles and comments over social media) and his very public critique of his underperforming players is, in my opinion, a step too far.
Elite Premier League football is not just a sport, it is a multi-faceted business. Behind the squad of players and the weekend match-day spectacle, is a multi-billion pound empire which is driven by results. If one looks at football through this business lens, then each player is ultimately a commodity. A commodity who is needed for selection by their manager on a weekly basis, a manager who needs results week in and week out. Results mean progression in competitions, which means increased business revenue which ultimately leads to financial gain. With this in mind, one can begin to imagine the pressure a Premier League manager is under. One can also begin to see the reason why the medical staff are so important to a Premiership club. Injuries are unavoidable in football and the role of the medical staff is to get the injured (or ill) players fit for selection as soon as possible.
Internal conflict amongst medical staff and managers is something that has been widely documented in elite footballing environments. Due to the results driven focus of the sport, it is not uncommon for managers to put pressure on the medical staff to pass a player as fit for selection before crucial games, or to cut off players who are injured resulting in the players themselves putting undue pressure on the medical staff to return to training earlier than initially stated. Although an understanding of this aspect of the culture is crucial to a practitioner’s survival, the well-being and safety of the player must remain paramount for the medical staff. However, despite this duty of care which all medical professionals are bound to, Mourinho publicly accused Carneiro and first-team physiotherapist Jon Fearn of failing to “understand the game” when they ran on to treat Eden Hazard with Chelsea down to 10 men and holding out for a draw at home to Swansea City. The fallout of this public criticism has been huge for Carneiro in particular and one would argue that as a result irreparable damage has been done to their professional relationship. That is not to say that Mourinho can’t challenge the work of any employee behind the scenes – he can. He is a senior member of staff at Chelsea and as mentioned already, strong discussions and disagreements happen between managers and medical departments at football clubs behind closed doors all the time. That is the crucial point here. The internal politics of a multi-million pound club like Chelsea FC should never be aired in a public forum.
Given the scrutiny each club is placed under by the media and supporters each week based on performance alone, a manager’s philosophy should include ‘protecting’ the staff and players from unnecessary dissection, pressure or attention and this includes ensuring that any grievances amongst employees at the club are handled privately. The importance for a club of Chelsea’s calibre and stature to put on a unified front as a squad of players and staff even if the team is underperforming, for me is crucial in holding the psychological edge they naturally have over the opponent, especially on their home turf. Arsene Wenger recognises the power of maintaining face, as he once said “If you are asking me if I have lied to the press to protect a player, the honest answer is yes. I didn’t do it and feel comfortable afterwards. But if it’s for one of my players, it’s a good cause.”
I think it is fair to say that the best football managers nowadays are not just tactically astute but they can manage a squad of individuals and get them to come together as team. In my opinion, Pep Guardiola is a master at achieving this. Although in a Head Coach role at the time, the way he approached his first day at Barcelona was extraordinary. He walked into the changing room, a room filled with the best players in the world and he told them his philosophy. “We’re here to help each other and make sure there is spiritual peace so that the players don’t feel tension or division. We are one. We are not little groups because in all teams this is what ends up killing team spirit. The players in this room are very good, if we can’t get them to win anything, it will be our fault. Let’s stick together when times are hard. Make sure that nothing gets leaked to the press. I don’t want anybody to fight a battle on his own.”
Individual differences is a whole field of research and practice in the psychology domain. As one already knows, every single person is different. This includes; personality, motivation, intelligence, ability, IQ, interests, values, cultural beliefs/norms, self-concept, self-efficacy, self-esteem, to name just a few. When one looks at it this way, getting a squad of grown men in the high pressure, high performance, highly volatile and deeply subjective world of Premiership football, to come together as a team takes a lot more than just a tactical genius. It takes an ability to empathise, to protect, to manage expectations, a philosophy that the players and staff alike believe in, a feeling of being valued, a manager who can handle egos, the willingness to give players a level of autonomy, appropriate delegation of praise and feedback, the ability to relax players – the majority can motivate themselves, trust, the ability to improve the talent and clever recruitment.
It is because of this that I am of the opinion that the worst thing a manager can do for his players, is to publicly criticise his players. Again, that is not to say that this conversation should not happen – of course it should. But it should take place behind closed doors. In fact, only last year Athletics Australia’s Head Coach was suspended after publicly criticising one of his athletes. For some of the mentioned players, hearing their name may act as a motivator to pick up their performance and to push forward. However, as mentioned already, every person is different and there is always the danger that a public hiding will lead to feelings of embarrassment, betrayal, loss of confidence, feelings of resentment and distrust towards the manager, a feeling of being undervalued and also anxiety about their place in the squad – especially for the more senior players like John Terry who Mourinho substituted for the first time ever in the second game of the season. None of this is conducive to performance. I truly believe that every player has four words written across his forehead when it comes to their interactions with their manager ‘Make. Me. Feel. Important.’ This week Mourinho has succeeded in doing the opposite.
As I finish off this article, I see that Chelsea have won their third game of the season with John Terry being sent off. As mentioned at the beginning, Chelsea getting up and running was always going to happen – however, Mourinho’s challenge remains the same. Rebuilding potentially damaged bridges and keeping the players on-side. The season awaits.