Business Analogies applied to Football

Like many middle-aged men I was brought up on sport, particularly football. As an ex-HR Director I’ve sat in many workshops listening to sporting metaphors and wondered what has business management got to do with elite sport?

More recently I’ve started to wonder whether the business model we, at Complete, use for Team Development applies in sport. This model, designed to be used in the workplace, and aimed at management teams, has proven a great way to help teams improve their performance. It describes nine levels of team development, illustrated below.

Increasingly I find myself mentally referencing this model when I’m watching team sport.

I watch rather a lot of team sport. I’m a season ticket holder at Spurs, and an avid TV follower of Cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League, and NFL and GAA. In fact, I’ll watch any sport, any time as much as I can.

So now, as we prepare for the new football season, I thought I’d share what I’ll be looking out for when I analyse teams performance this season, particularly Spurs.

Level 1: Talented Individuals

I take it as read that any professional soccer team has 11 talented individuals. They know how to play the game but there are often one or two weaker links in the team. This is as fatal in a team sport as it is in business.

If your team has players who are simply not at the right level, or who their teammates perceive not to be at the right level, forget about high performance. The priority is simply to limit the damage.

Generally, all English Premier League are already beyond this level most of the time. Nevertheless I’ll be watching Spurs’ new signings nervously to see if they fit in? Will their new teammates have confidence in them to avoid the team being dragged back down to level 1? If they don’t will the manager act decisively enough and soon enough, within 5- 6 games- or by end October?

Level 2: Battling Experts

Most football supporters can see, with their own eyes, the tell-tale signs of a team that isn’t really a team. All the players can play. But some don’t talk to each other. One English Premier League team, a season or so ago, contained two players who even avoided passing to each other. 

You see players gesticulating at each other, playing to the crowd, openly showing anger to the manager. The referee is often a constant focus of dissent.

Occasionally acts of individual brilliance will get the team through games.

But often, such teams will blame tactics for their shortcomings; or the Ref; or each other or the Crowd. Famously a manager did once blame the crowd. Ball boys have even been picked on by a team operating at level 2.

What are the signs to looks out for if you team is operating at level 2. Players are moaning, gesticulating and their body language slumps when possession is lost. Such teams don’t run for each other. They often publicly argue with each other? The manager makes excuses, repeatedly.

Level 2 teams lack basic coherence, identity, and discipline. They don’t want to be a team. Players are looking after their own interests only, with an eye on the next transfer window.

In an infamous press conference, Antonio Conte, Spurs’ manager last season, called his players ‘selfish’. As a loyal supporter I didn’t agree with him. As a matter of principle, I never attack or boo our own players, and neither should our manager.

Perhaps Conte meant that, at that time, Spurs were operating at Level 2 – at the ‘Battling experts’ stage ‘of team development? If Conte had put it in that way, it wouldn’t have been such an explosive news story!

Most football teams, below elite levels, operate at Level 2. As do most management teams in most organisations. Building high performing teams is not easy and never has been.

Most teams need a plan for how to win – some basic tactics. To win, key players must ‘turn up’ on the day and deliver their best performance. Up until the 1970s most elite level football operated on this basis. Teams depended on their star players to show up and as for the rest they were simply instructed to “go out and enjoy yourselves lads”. This message worked, if everyone turned up.

But in the 1970s teams such as Revie’s Leeds, Clough’s Forest and then the great Liverpool teams of the 1980s gradually changed this norm. Driving football at the elite levels in England to a much higher level.

Level 3: Dependent Experts

Today, all premier league managers are expected to operate at level 3. New managers often talk about “getting the players fit again”. This is often code for getting the team to the higher level 3 performance.

At Spurs, this year, the new manager has re-introduced some basics such as handshakes at the start of the day. These small rituals make a difference. They are the tiny foundations of building a team.

At level 3 the fundamental question to ask “do you really want or need to be a team to achieve what you each want and need?”

If the players answer “yes”, then new rituals and new habits must be installed to build team capability.

When Spurs made it to the Champions league in the 2021/2 season, they were operating at this level. The Manager, Antonio Conte, had given each player clear instruction. The team followed them. I watched every other week as Conte shouted precise instructions to every player from the touch line for the whole game. It was exhausting just to watch him. It worked. The team was a team.

But alas, last season they regressed rather than consolidated or moved to a higher level. 

Level 3 teams have a clear plan & identity. They have a team concept. It’s called a ‘philosophy’ by the football management community. Every team member knows their role. They work effectively as a unit. The equivalent in business are the teams with clear vision, focus and alignment.

But Level 3 teams are reliant on the manager. When things go wrong, such as injuries or poor refereeing decisions, ‘fluke’ goals by inferior opposition; players look to the manager for instruction rather than look to their collective selves.

If the manager is distracted, absent or rigid – then the team easily regresses back to level 2.

This is what I believe happened to Spurs season last year. We failed to consolidate or develop to a higher-level team. We fell back. I wonder if Conte has ever developed a team beyond level 3?

It is possible to win the Premier League as a level 3 team. If you have the funds to buy the best players, and the best manager. In fact, level 3 teams have won most league titles in the last 20 years or so. But success, often doesn’t sustain beyond a season.

Arsenal came close last year as a level 3 team. Brighton, Newcastle, Villa, Brentford, Man Utd. all performed last season at level 3. Consistent level 3 performance should result in top half finishes.

We can only guess how many of these teams will develop as we start the new season? Which managers know how to develop their teams to a higher level? Will most simply aim to consolidate at level 3?

The Brentford manager, Thomas Frank can consolidate teams at level 3 and avoid regressing. His track record proves this. Eddie Howe also has a good track record for developing teams to level 3 and consolidating. The big question is whether, with new backing, can he move beyond level 3 to level 4?

Arsenal’s Arteta is still a young manager. We are still guessing whether he is a developmental leader or a controller. Consolidation at a level 3 for Arteta this year would be a success.

At Aston Villa Emery looks to be a superb level 3 specialist. But is there any evidence he can go beyond?  

De Zerbi at Brighton has a bit of the Conte about him. Is it all just too intense? Brighton risk a regression to Level 2 this year.

Ten Haag at Man Utd- seems to be a level 3 manager not more.

Level 3 performance is the norm for top half teams and has been for the last 20 or 30 years. It’s apparent that with the right new signings you can stay at level 3 year after year. This was Alex Ferguson’s trick at Man Utd. But you must freshen the squad, year in year out to stay at level 3. Failure to do so, risks regression.

Level 4: Independent Achievers

It is only in the last 5 years we’ve seen the emergence of a new level 4 performance.

Level 4 teams are called Independent Achievers. These teams have built up self-reliance, resilience, the ability to make the ‘calls’ themselves on the field of play.

They run for each other, care for each other, will play each other’s positions. They can cope with a complexity in their tactics and can adapt quickly. They speak for each other to the media and speak as one as a team. The Manager is a developer and catalyst, not a controller. The players take responsibility. The small team leadership groups manage a lot on behalf of the manager and coaching staff.

There have been levels 4 teams in history. In soccer the great Spurs double team of 1961 were a level 4. Manchester United’s triple winning team were Level 4. Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’- Level 4.  Klopp’s Liverpool at their best – Level 4. Manchester City today, Level 4. Pochettino’s Spurs of 2016-2017, Level 4. Note here no big spending. We should have won the league two seasons on the trot in 2016/ 2017.

Beyond football I think the current England Test cricket team playing Baz ball – level 4. The New Zealand rugby teams described so well in the book Legacy by James Kerr. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers- level 4. You can simply see it, hear it, and feel it. The togetherness, the clarity, the confidence, the creativity. These are the sporting teams who touch greatness.  

Level 4 performance is still not yet the norm, it is still the exception. In sport as well as in business.

Who is consistently level 4 in the English Premier League? Only Manchester City.

They have the advantage of course of being funded by a nation state. But Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly a level 4 leader. Read about his time at Barcelona for a leadership lesson. He has his city team playing with a sophistication and complexity of thought unseen to date.

Alan Watkins and I watched Real Madrid v Man City at the Bernabeau last season. We were awestruck not only by the atmosphere and energy in the stadium that evening, but also at the sight of John Stones playing in the opposition half for most of the game! Inverted full backs, inverted centre backs, goalkeepers as playmakers. Players swapping positions. Total, total football beyond what even the great Johan Cruyff imagined. Cruyff was Pep’s mentor at Barcelona

Can a team, such as Spurs, jump from being level 2 to being level 4 in one season? Dream on!

In business as in sport you can’t jump a level. You must climb the ladder, level by level. Look how long it has taken Pep to get there – with all the support he has had.

The challenge now for City is to maintain Level 4 – not to regress.   Will one of last year’s Level 3 teams rise to level 4 this year? Can Klopp elevate Liverpool again? Will Arteta mature quickly? Will ten Haag prove me wrong? Or a good bet- will Pochettino move Chelsea on. (I think he must get them from Level 2 to Level 3 first – so top 4 this season and a push on the next is most likely?)

Yet, you may think, in team development terms, this is only level 4 out of 8 or 9 possible levels.  We ain’t seen nothing yet! Perhaps Pep can get to being a Level 5 team this year?

The Complete model calls level 5 teamsInterdependent achievers. I haven’t seen many of them – in sport or business to be honest. Never mind Level 6- Diverse pluralists or level 7 integrated pluralists.

So, what do level 5 plus teams look and feel like?

One sign is how much they integrate learning from many sports and wider thinking into creating new tactics- revolutionising the game. Taking things to a completely new level.

Then even beyond that, we see higher level teams acting as one organic whole.

There have been fleeting examples-

The Dutch national team of 1974 (until they regressed badly due to individual fall outs). Herbert Chapmans Arsenal team who re-invented tactics after the introduction of the off- side rule.  (But I never saw them play – so cannot know really! – and its Arsenal so I do not like praising them either. Maybe then a better example here is the Spurs push and run team of the 1950s).

Teams at higher levels almost mind read. They anticipate the future- it is mesmerising. Barcelona of a few years ago, could sometime do this. I watched them score against Spurs at Wembley and the move was literally mesmerising – I couldn’t keep track of the ball and the players movements- it was like a mind- meld from out of a movie.

The Chicago Bulls in their pomp.

Brazil in the 1970 world cup final – who can forget that 4th goal – and the famous yellow jersey, blue shorts, and the TV commentary as if broadcast from another planet?

This higher Level is only fleeting achieved – we see flashes of our potential in the few today – as if visions for all our futures.

I think the players and coaches who will evolve performance to these higher levels – are not yet prominent, maybe they are just starting their coaching badges now and their players are in the youth academies.

 I believe though, we are on the verge of achieving this next level of collective endeavour, in sport, in business, in politics and in society.  That is the calling for the next generation of players, managers, coaches as well as politicians, civil society, and businesses.

Anyway, on a more mundane level – my predictions for the season:

Champions league – Real Madrid (Ancelotti – archetypal Level 4 coach)

Premier league – Manchester City (how can you bet against them)

Champions League – Liverpool, Chelsea, Newcastle, Arsenal, (if there is a fifth place)

FA cup – Spurs (it is the hope that kills you)

League Cup – Brentford. (Yes, I rate Thomas Frank)

Sorry Alan, I think Wolves will struggle this year – and my ‘left field’ prediction is that Bournemouth may surprise us all- one-way or another !

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