At last, a Premier League football manager has gone public and given voice to a dark suspicion that thousands of us fans have harboured for a long time now. Roberto Mancini, may his name be blessed, says that teams facing the Mighty Manchester United are infected with a fatal lack of belief which amounts a lot of the time to actual fear. This, says Mancini, explains a large proportion of the Red Devils’ domestic dominance. It’s not that they’re that good, he argues; rather it’s that a lot of the opposition simply fail to mount a robust challenge and end up meekly relinquishing league points that nobody really expects them to gain.
Predictably, Man U’s long-serving manager Alex Ferguson is having none of this, accusing the Italian coach of Manchester City of seeking “self-sympathy” – whatever that might be. But the Mancini case is quite persuasive, particularly for anyone whose second-favourite team is whoever the Champions-elect happen to be playing on any given occasion. For those people (and I am proud to count myself among their number) the ongoing spectacle is one of a succession of teams turning up to face Ferguson’s side, and doing very little apart from that – spineless capitulations being the industry standard or so it seems. Very unedifying for those with Manchester United’s worst interests at heart but also, I would strongly suggest, pretty bad for the game as a whole.
So what is the evidence for this alleged collective lack of bottle and professional application? And if it’s true, where does the fear come from? Whence, the lack of self-belief?
Let’s initially get down to cases. As I mentioned earlier, I am a steadfast watcher of the televised games of Manchester United (of which, courtesy of Mr Murdoch, a man who knows his markets, there are many.) I don’t watch with any real expectation of enjoyment; that outcome will only come about if Man U slips to an unexpected defeat or, rarely and joyfully, a real hammering. Much more often though, I sit there in an increasingly foul frame of mind as the latest feeble challengers to the Mighty Reds roll over to have their bellies tickled prior to succumbing politely, without much of a fight at all. All too often this process is aided by the dodgy decisions which famously tend to fall the way of Mr Ferguson’s men, or maybe by copious amounts of what has become known as “Fergie Time”, the perceived need for which varies according to whether his charges are winning or losing. However it happens, it’s all the more depressing because of this pitiful lack of resistance displayed by all too many opponents. You feel frustrated – on your own behalf because you want “Them” to lose – but also on behalf of all those who switch on just hoping to see a good competitive game, with both sides giving their all. That just doesn’t happen often enough, and you sit there and wonder why.
A big factor at play here could well be the psychological gap hinted at by Mancini. What exactly are teams up against Man Utd facing? Not merely eleven chaps clad in red, or whichever of their numerous other kits they might be sporting. In professional competition, especially at the very top level, at least half the battle is in the head; that’s well-established fact. Do these opposing players believe they can win, or do they enter the arena as lambs to the slaughter? Do they feel any real pressure to win from their fans, or do they suspect those fans will quite understand and accept a defeat? Not very much of this type of thinking is required to take that psychological edge off performance.
The particularly annoying thing is that this Man Utd team really aren’t all that good. They got found out twice in Europe last season, latterly by Atletico Bilbao, a team who finished well out of the running in La Liga, but who gave the Mancs the most terrible seeing-to in both legs of an extremely one-sided tie. They’ve been beaten by Chelsea – a side who are themselves in transition – in both domestic Cups this season, and chucked out of Europe this time around by a Real Madrid side who hardly let them have the ball at all.
The European element is of particular interest as it may well be significant that, outside of this country, opposing players aren’t subjected to the constant drip, drip, drip of Man U media adulation that is visited upon domestic foes. Everywhere a player might turn in this country, there’s another article or broadcast or pundit, invariably churning out copious praise of “United”, with emetic results for those of us who don’t buy into the popular legend. What is the cumulative effect of all this? Another dulling of that psychological edge, that’s what.
The media love to talk about Ferguson’s “mind games”, but they’ve never really been anything other than the ramblings of an ever older gentleman, notorious for his inability to see more than one point of view – his own. Greater and wiser exponents of psychological warfare exist in Mourinho, Wenger and Mancini himself – all continental chaps, significantly enough. The edge given to Man U in the battle of wits and wills tends to be provided by a complaisant media and that, I believe, is precisely what the astute Mancini is getting at.
Maybe this is why Ferguson felt the need to come out with such an immediate if not altogether fluent rebuttal. Other clubs have caught up with and perhaps surpassed his own in terms of talent on the field and punch in the transfer market. Ferguson is not likely to want to see any narrowing of the psychological advantage afforded to him by his yes-men in the Fourth Estate. If the Premier League were to be transformed – by such a relieving of the mental barrage – into a level playing field with some willingness on the part of current also-rans to compete and believe, then the current gulf at the top would be a heck of a lot smaller. And then, perhaps, we’d see Champions on merit; not merely winners by default as we will get this season, who have had almost literally nothing to beat for a large portion of the time.
Now that’s the kind of Premier League I’d like to see. Well said, Signor Mancini. Keep the pressure on.