The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, Habituation, and Mourinho

MouMourinho is an interesting character, to say the least. On paper, he is an amazing and talented coach, renowned for his ability to read the game and above all to motivate his players. At the same time, he has a tendency to generate unneeded controversy — often prejudicial to his team’s interests — and to commit acts of true immaturity as when he stuck is finger in Tito Vilanova’s eye during a Real Madrid vs. Barca match.

That said, egged on by the press, it is quite unique how Barca players (and even coaching staff and officials) constantly comment on Mou’s shortcomings every chance they get. So why does Piqué have to criticize Mourinho whenever he has a chance? It seems equally infantile.

But back to my story. Since joining Real Madrid over two seasons ago, Mourinho has consistently made the following two claims:

  1. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid has accomplished the great feat of ending F.C. Barcelona’s hegemony in the Liga (and arguably Europe). That vast chasm between the two teams has now been erased and Real Madrid is now on par with if not better than Barca.
  2. Historically, his teams perform much better the second year than the first year.  One must assume that this justifies the fact that Real Madrid came in second during the first year, winning only the Copa del Rey which really no one cares about if they’ve won the Liga or the Champions League.

On the first point, this grand achievement is based on the fact the Real Madrid won the 2011-12 Liga  and in the last few encounters defeated Barca once and tied Barca once. If that doesn’t sound so impressive, would the fact the Real Madrid is now 18 points behind Barca indicate that Real Madrid has actually failed at this miserably?This is the biggest divide between the two teams in recent memory, even if Real Madrid is no longer being humiliated by Barca on the pitch. Furthermore, if Barca continues on the same path, it is set to break Real Madrid’s record points from last season, making last year’s triumph over Barca look more like a fluke rather than a durable success.

On the second point — where I am really getting at — is that even though Mourinho’s second year at Real Madrid was very successful, for some reason, his third year has been horrendous. And when you look at his performance at other clubs like Porto, Chelsea or Inter, I think there is sufficient evidence to say that Mourinho has never proven that his talent is durable over the long run. For example, at Porto and Inter, he left after just two years, without testing whether his motivational skills were still effective over time. At Chelsea, meanwhile, Mourinho was pushed out after less than stellar third season.  And as mentioned, this third season at Real Madrid has been a total disaster.

My sense is that this is a simple case study in what economics calls the “Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns”, where over time even the best productive process loses steam over time and ends up producing lower returns. In other words, Mourinho’s magic that produces highly motivated players loses its effectiveness over time. Even Pavlov’s dogs once trained to salivate at the sound of a bell are eventually habituated to the sound of that bell.

My guess is that Mourinho’s problem is thus one of habituation where after two seasons of intense motivational tactics and stimuli, his players become desensitized. The tactics eventually lose their effect and may even become counter productive. Case in point, the teams plays more like its annoyed by Mourinho than inspired by him.

So what does this all mean? Is the Special One not so special after all? His first season was about as good as Pelligrini’s. In his second season the team won the Liga with record points, but it’s hard to argue that Real Madrid didn’t choke against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi’s. And you can’t ignore the fact that it took Mou two seasons to accomplish the numbers that Tito — who Mou once couldn’t remember his name — is about to shatter in his first go at coaching Barca .

And this year, his third season? Mourinho has achieved what probably no other Real Madrid coach has ever accomplished: to be 18 points (and counting) out of first place and keep his job.

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Filed under Football/Soccer, Living la vida española

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