Manchester United’s manager Jose Mourinho is master at mind games

Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is like Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to mind games. He will argue, correctly, that he never mentioned Antonio Conte by name in relation to “clowning” on the touchline or match-fixing. But the inference was certainly there. For most of Friday evening’s post-match press conference following Manchester United’s FA Cup win over Derby, he berated the media for putting the comments he had made the previous day about clowns to Conte as if had aimed them specifically at the Chelsea boss.

Then, right at the end of his tirade, he mentioned that while he could be accused of many things, he had never been involved in match-fixing. When asked if he was aware that Conte had been charged with failing to report match-fixing in Italy, Mourinho pleaded innocence by saying: “Did he? Not me.” It was classic Mourinho tactics. After sympathising with Conte’s outburst towards him – bang, he threw in an incendiary bomb with four simple words. The ‘clown’ remark of the previous day was made in defence of why he doesn’t look as animated or passionate as he used to do on the touchline. But, again, given that Conte, along with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, are renowned for their animated touchline antics, he knew the remark would hit a raw nerve with one of them. And it certainly has with Conte.

Mourinho has a Machiavellian streak that he can’t or won’t suppress. Even when he claims he is not winding up rivals he manages to do just that. And when it comes to mind games, he is rivalling his predecessor at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson famously provoked Kevin Keegan into his “I’ll love it” rant by hoping that a relegation-threatened Leeds team would play as well against Keegan’s Newcastle as they had done against his side in the championship run-in to the 1995-96 season. No mention of Keegan – but it did the trick. Keegan lost the plot and his team lost the title.

Ferguson did it again with Rafa Benitez, who responded with his infamous “facts” rant. Mourinho, like Ferguson, is a past master at diverting attention away from the failings of his team by creating another agenda – whether it is referees fixture-scheduling or former players. He knows Manchester City will not be caught in the title race so he is now focusing on United’s rivals for second place – his old club Chelsea. It has irked him greatly that Conte has beaten him three times out of four in the last 18 months and is already setting the tone for their battle at Old Trafford at the end of February – a game that could go a long way to settling who finishes runners-up. As Guardiola once said at the height of their rivalry in Spain, Mourinho may not always win the battle on the pitch but he’s the “champion” of the press conferences.

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