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Football’s elite and the tactics of talent management

Published 18 December 2022 in Magazine • 9 min read

Successful managers at the top level need a wide range of skills to lead teams both on and off the field. Renowned football writer Simon Kuper presents his best XI tips (plus a substitute) for thinking like a champion. 

Like leadership jobs in regular businesses, the football manager’s role has grown more complex over time. Tenures have shortened, staffing levels have mushroomed, and footballers, like younger employees everywhere, have gained power. Over the decades I’ve interviewed many football managers, read extensively about them, and tried to understand how the best ones handle these constraints. Here, I’ve distilled some of those leadership lessons.  

Hire the best specialists and delegate 

Until early this century, especially in Britain, the typical football manager was a solo leader. But since then he has lost power. Today, a manager might oversee dozens of staffers ranging from defensive coaches to physiotherapists to data analysts. Often a transfer committee handles recruitment. More and more, the manager’s job is to marshal a staff of specialists.  

Perhaps the supreme delegator is Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. The German isn’t one of those managers who goes around sulking about not having total control. Instead, he “deliberately chose to surround himself with people who knew far more than him in their chosen fields,” writes Rory Smith in his new book Expected Goals

(to the right) Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp

Klopp listens to Liverpool’s data analysts even when he doesn’t fully understand them. He hired and empowered the nutritionist Mona Wemmer. And in his early years at Liverpool, he outsourced much (perhaps most) of training and match tactics to his Bosnian assistant, Željko Buvac. A club executive who worked closely with Klopp and Buvac said they were practically a single person. Klopp’s role, said this executive, is as a marketing genius. He’s the ideal face of any club. Yet Klopp deserves credit for his staff’s work because he is big enough to delegate to them.  

“That’s what leadership is,” Klopp has said. “Having strong people around you, with better knowledge than you in different departments … being ready to admit: ‘I have no clue at the moment.’”  

Don’t seek to dominate your players 

Authoritarian rule has faded out even faster in football than in most high-skilled workplaces. Since the mid-1990s, new regulations have made it easier for footballers to change clubs. This has shifted power from managers to players. In fact, player power is the standard lament at pre-match meals between directors of opposing clubs. 

“That’s what leadership is … having strong people around you, with better knowledge than you in different departments, being ready to admit: ‘I have no clue at the moment.”
- Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool

An astute manager will accept player power, giving his leading players co-responsibility for decisions. For instance, when Lionel Messi indicated to Barcelona in 2009 that he didn’t like playing with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Barça’s coach Pep Guardiola benched and soon sold the expensive Swede. Granting Messi his wish put the onus on him to prove the decision right. The player “owned” future results. By contrast, if Guardiola had ignored him, Messi would have had an excuse to shrug and say, “I only work here.” 

Create a high-performance environment  

People who have reached the top of their profession are almost by definition able to motivate themselves.  

When I asked Arsène Wenger, who managed Arsenal for 22 years, how much of the job was motivation, he replied: “It is overrated. If you have every week to motivate the players to be performing on Saturday, forget it. At that level, players want to achieve something, they want to be a star, and you are more there to help them. If they don’t like it, they don’t want it, leave them at home, you’ll waste your time.” 

Real Madrid’s manager Carlo Ancelotti concurs: “Our job is not to motivate the players. Our job is not to demotivate them by not providing the challenges and goals that their talents need.” If a player senses that his club’s management is second rate, he may decide to take his motivation elsewhere. 

Improve your best players 

In football, as in most businesses, much of management time is spent on the worst employees.  

Think of a manager sitting up all night to rewrite an incompetent report. A good employee tends to get taken for granted, regarded as someone the manager doesn’t have to think about. But shrewd managers spend time improving their best performers, who are generally the ones who learn fastest.  

One day, early in Jose Mourinho’s first spell as Chelsea manager in 2004, midfielder Frank Lampard emerged naked from the showers after training. Suddenly Mourinho popped up and looked him meaningfully in the eye.  

“All right, boss?” asked Lampard. 

 

“You are the best player in the world,” replied Mourinho.
 
The naked footballer didn’t know what to say.  

 

“You,” continued Mourinho, “are the best player in the world. But now you need to prove it and win trophies. You understand?” 

 

He was signaling to Lampard that they were starting a program of individual improvement — in business jargon: a project to go from good to great. It worked. 

Seek productivity, not loyalty 

Almost no top-class footballer plays for the manager or the club. He typically has an ego-driven project: he wants to succeed for himself, his vocation, and his career. It’s often assumed that ego is damaging to a team, and sometimes it is. But the egotistical drive of top-class players also helps them to succeed.  

The most egotistical players tend to be the best. Iran’s manager at 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, said: “These top, top players have a profound awareness of their specialness, of their unique talent, that goes beyond arrogance – that just is.”

“Our job is not to motivate the players. Our job is not to demotivate them by not providing the challenges and goals that their talents need.”
- Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid

A manager must accept that his players are in it for themselves. Whether he likes it or not, their sense of group membership is weak, and like most young employees nowadays, they will probably eventually move on.  

The manager should also accept that they regard teammates as both partners and rivals. Guardiola always assumes the substitutes want the team to lose, because then they might be picked. He once remarked, “People who say, ‘We’re all fighting together!’, well, it looks good on a photo but in a changing room nobody believes it.” 

Address players individually 

Guardiola has learned this. Before the Barcelona–Manchester United Champions League final in 2009 in his first season as coach, he played his team a Gladiator-style motivational video of their biggest moments. He was then still addressing them as a collective. But later he tried to understand each of his players’ individual communication needs.  

At Bayern Munich, his winger Franck Ribéry wasn’t cerebral enough to take in long explanations. By contrast, Bastian Schweinsteiger loved talking football detail at enormous length, while Philipp Lahm would grasp any instruction in an instant.   

Don’t claim credit for success 

I once discussed Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal with a group of Dutch players who had played under both managers at Ajax Amsterdam. They said both men were brilliant, both wanted things done their way, and both would argue dissenters into the ground.  

Where the two differed, the players said, was in how they handled victory. Van Gaal – now coaching the Netherlands at the World Cup – would tell the post-match press conference that the team had won largely thanks to his leadership. Cruyff, by contrast, melted away the moment the trophy was won. He was happy to let his players take the credit. No prizes for guessing which approach the players preferred.  

Moreover, Cruyff knew that in victory he would be given credit anyway. And if you don’t push your way to the front when credit is being handed out, others won’t push you to the front when it’s time for dishing the blame.   

Take political concerns seriously 

Footballers are members of their generation, and today’s players are the most educated and activist ever. When English footballers began “taking the knee” in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, England’s manager Gareth Southgate, a middle-aged white guy, did his best to understand their worldview.  

When some fans and politicians attacked the players for taking the knee, Southgate stood by his men. Before last year’s delayed Euro 2020 tournament, he said, “You have to put yourself in the shoes of an England player about to represent his country … some of the experiences they have been through in their lives. Some people decide to boo. I think those people should put themselves in the shoes of those young players and how that must feel… How would they feel about their kids being in that sort of situation? The most important thing for our players is to know we are totally united on it.” His players will have remembered that. 

Criticize in private, not in public 

Give your people total trust and backing, and they will give it back to you. Behind closed doors, you can scream at them, but in public you must always “protect them from outside judgments”, however accurate, wrote Manchester United’s longtime manager Alex Ferguson in his 2013 autobiography. This, he said, was “the one constant principle of my time as a manager”. The case study was his public defense of Eric Cantona after the Frenchman karate-kicked a fan in 1995.

“People who say, ‘We’re all fighting together’, well, it looks good on a photo but in a changing room nobody believes it.”
- Pep Guardiola, Manchester City

If you only want to manage obedient soldiers, and get rid of anyone who breaks your rules, you will make your life simpler but you will have to forego difficult talents like Cantona. That’s why Wenger says: “If you want an easy week [in training with the players] then expect a hard weekend [in the game]. If you want an easy weekend, then prepare for a hard week.” 

Gather information everywhere and from everyone 

Ferguson used to spend much of his working day on the phone to other managers, hoovering up information: What do you think of that player? That club? That physio?  Years after players left Manchester United, they would still get calls from Ferguson. He cultivated his contacts unto death: it was said that perhaps nobody in football attended more funerals. 

Whereas Ferguson was usually seeking information, Guardiola describes himself as an “ideas thief”, explains Martí Perarnau in his insider’s account, Pep Confidential. Guardiola will stop and listen to a random person on the street if that person has an interesting thought about football. 

Always remain unsatisfied 

“The sweetest moment for me,” Ferguson often told interviewers, “is the last minute of a victory. After that it drains away quickly. The memory’s gone in half an hour. It’s like a drug, really. I need to reenact it again and again to get that last-minute feeling, when you’re shouting at the referee, ‘Blow that bloody whistle.’”  

Ferguson knew that satisfaction was fatal. Every triumph was just a notch towards a target he never wanted to meet.

Work with difficult people if they are gifted 

Gifted employees know that they can break rules that bind ordinary mortals. For instance, if the most brilliant designer in the company suddenly disappears on holiday without warning, she probably won’t be sacked.  

Gifted footballers are the same. And gifted managers can work with even the most difficult people. Perhaps Ferguson’s biggest achievement in his 27 years managing Manchester United was keeping Cantona on board and performing from 1992 through 1997. Before the Frenchman joined United, he had left most of his first seven clubs in bad odor. 

Author

Simon Kuper

Financial Times columnist

His books include Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, The Barcelona Complex, Soccernomics (with Stefan Szymanski) and Football Against the Enemy. Born in Kampala, Uganda in 1969, a British-French dual citizen, he lives in Paris with his family. 

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