While Jose Mourinho was at Inter, he was visited by four university students. They were seeking to understand his methods with a view to writing a thesis about them. He was happy to oblige. “People have a general idea of what I do,” Mourinho said, “and it’s insufficient.”
The insights he gave over the course of an interview were fascinating particularly because so much of it was centred around unlocking the mind’s potential.
Mourinho discussed the subconscious and procedural memory. That’s the memory of the performance of particular types of action. Take driving, for instance.
Initially, when you start to learn, you’re concentrated on what gear you’re in, how fast you’re going and when to check your mirrors, to signal and maneuver.
With time, however, this all becomes second nature. You drive without making a conscious effort. Adjustments are made more or less automatically, whatever road you’re on, so you can focus on other things and make other decisions.
This is what Mourinho sets out to achieve in training. But how exactly?
Every exercise is done with the ball. Most if not all sessions last 90 minutes, the duration of a game, or a maximum of 120 minutes, like one that goes into extra time.
Each one is devised with the aim of reproducing moments of a match, specific situations so that once they come in a competitive context the players know exactly what to do and where to be on the pitch, how to defend and how to attack in whatever formation they’re in or up against and according to the circumstances they find themselves in too, be they a goal up or a goal down, a man up or down to 10 men.
With time, these movements are made without conscious effort because they’ve been logged to procedural memory. In theory, the mental strain on a player is reduced. You’re more in control. You’re more lucid. You’re more able to anticipate things, read the play and not only make better decisions but vary them too.
This is important. Because Mourinho doesn’t want to create robots or automatons. They’re predictable and he doesn’t want his teams to be that way.
“When I set about studying opponents and attempt to identify their behaviour, their tactics,” he explained. “I often realize that the development of their playing dynamic is more a mechanical automatism than a true playing dynamic.”
Mourinho’s method, as defined by Corriere della Sera columnist Sandro Modeo, is instead structured but open, robust but plastic.
“The objective,” he said, “is that the players understand the playing system and trust it, that they take some initiative because they’re convinced that it’s the best thing to do and not because someone else says: ‘Do it that way’.
“I know where it is I want us to get to, but instead of telling them: ‘Go that way,’ I want them to find their own way there.”
Psychologically it’s much more satisfying and validating to find the solution to a problem yourself than have someone else solve it for you. Mourinho understands this. He calls it ‘guided discovery’.
I mention all this because I think it’s what we’re seeing at Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas.
Various assumptions have been made about Mourinho’s former assistant during his time in England. One is that he’s a tactics obsessive and a lot of that is down to the anecdotes we’ve been told about him.
For instance, there’s the now famous one about how one day after finishing school, he plucked up the courage to knock on the door of Sir Bobby Robson, who just happened to live in the same apartment block while he was manager of Porto, to ask why he persisted in playing Sergei Yuran up front, a striker who wasn’t prolific, when he had Domingos Paciencia, a centre-forward with a track record of scoring goals, on the bench. Robson encouraged his curiosity and legend has it he soon had Villas-Boas writing scouting reports that he’d post through the letterbox for him to read.
There would be many more. One of them, written while Villas-Boas was part of Jose Mourinho’s staff at Chelsea ahead of a game against Newcastle United on November 19, 2005, was leaked soon after he got the manager’s position at Stamford Bridge in 2011. That and an interview he granted at the Cafe Maiorca to a University of Porto student, Daniel Sousa, who at the time was writing a thesis on football and is now his Head of Opposition Scouting at Tottenham, were used to reinforce this idea that his principal preoccupation was with tactics. “Bullshit that can baffle brains,” Harry Redknapp said, although not overtly in reference to his successor at White Hart Lane, to say nothing of all its modern accoutrements.
So, as you can imagine, there was some surprise when he revealed prior to Tottenham’s visit to West Ham 10 days ago: “I have never used Prozone. I don’t use it because I don’t believe [in it].” It wasn’t a complete myth-buster but showed how the general perception of Villas-Boas and what his management entails is narrow.
“Tactics will always be a part of the manager’s job,” Villas-Boas told France Football earlier this year. “But before you get to that, there’s the attitude of the player: his concentration, his motivation, his desire to win. And this is more a job for a human being than a coach.”
Which brings us back to Villas-Boas’ apparent repudiation of Prozone. “The mind and how the player feels,” he said, “is much more important for us, rather than statistical data.”
He elaborated further on this in France Football when asked to give an insight into what his average working day is like.
“In general, I work a lot on the philosophy and the way of expressing potential during matches, physically and psychologically,” Villas-Boas explained. “We therefore simulate all the situations that players could encounter during matches so that they might automatically adapt, so they know how to adjust mentally, make the right decision…
“We work a lot on instant decision-making for the good of the team. You can teach them things individually but the decision on the pitch belongs to them. And sometimes it’s not exactly what the manager has taught. Instinct is so vital because everything changes very quickly in game situations. Of course you want to see the team play attractive attacking football. But with great freedom of decision. The players take more pleasure in it. You teach them how to manage an experience, they take the decision.”
An example of this might be how Tottenham have managed to stop conceding late goals like they had done earlier in the season.
Asked how he had achieved this following a 1-0 win at home to Swansea in December, Villas Boas said: “We address it between us as a group in training. You know by stimulating concentration in the last part of training. It’s very difficult because you can’t recreate the stress of a game and the environment of a game but we had a go. As I said it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved but the players have a conscience that we have conceded in the past and we want to get it right.
Prompted to expand further on that and in particular how you devise an exercise to specifically stop conceding late goals, Villas-Boas smiled: “By increasing complexity in terms of the exercises that you do. So that the more complex the exercise the more concentrated you have to be to do it. [And] by the tasks that they have to do in the exercise, you have to be very very creative.
When seen in this light, Mourinho and Villas-Boas’ work is all the more fascinating precisely because they seek to train body and mind simultaneously.
“We [at Tottenham] want to promote decision-making by developing the instinct of the players, a job which leads to what a human being is truly about,” Villas-Boas explained.
So for those of you wondering what exactly his contribution has been to Gareth Bale’s best ever season and the consolidation of his reputation as maybe one of the world’s top players in his position, perhaps there’s your answer. Villas-Boas has further developed his instinct.
Modern day coaching, it seems, is about mind-games after all. Just not as we first thought.