The Tactics to Succeed at Football

The management carousel is well underway in the Premier League this season with the sacking of Brendan Rogers, followed by Tim Sherwood, and may at the time of writing, improbably, soon claim the mightily successful José Mourinho. Leadership at professional football clubs is a curious thing. At its heart is the paradox that the manager is the single biggest factor in success, but rarely is the manager given a substantial length of time to demonstrate their worth. The opportunity to fail in the pursuit of success is not often tolerated and because of this stability, while highly valued, is rare. Currently, in the Premier League only five managers (Arsène Wenger, Eddie Howe José Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Martínez) have been with their team for more than two years. While 10 of the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year.

This short term approach in football is thrown into focus as I have started reading Winners and How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell and in his opening chapter he talks about how an approach to winning is encapsulated in three letters; OST.

  • O – Objective
  • S – Strategy
  • T – Tactics

To illustrate this in a football context Alastair used the example of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, with an objective of win everything, a strategy of play better football than anyone else and the tactics to achieve this included the five-second rule where players pressed to regain possession in tight areas within 5-seconds of losing it and when in possession they would try to create a ‘free-man’ in the area where a passage of play might start.

There were countless other examples of this OST approach from other sports, business and politics. But what really interested me is how many of the examples were long term and took years to enact. Whether it is the strategy devised in 1994 to help Labour win power in 1997 through to other sports where change has been a process measured in years as evidenced in the work of Sir David Brailsford through to Sir Clive Woodward. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson is a counter example from football but it is difficult to imagine a manager at a top club being given that length of time before success in the modern era.

So time to succeed simply does not exist for managers in football. Of course managerial changes are to a degree an inevitability, but this short time in situ for managers has two immediate consequences for clubs and football more widely. First, the development of players is less of a priority than the purchase of players equipped to perform to Premier League standards immediately. Both Brendan Rogers and more recently Tim Sherwood have been more heavily criticised for perceived failings in the transfer market than their ability to develop young players – at which both actually seem pretty skilled. Second, the importance of a successful transfer policy is evident in that many clubs now seem to operate a transfer committee, where the purchase of players is decided by a group of individuals. Whether the manager does, or does not, have the final say differs depending on which press report you read. But this seems a classic fudge. The manger bears all the responsibility, but does not necessarily have all the power.

In an interesting article Alex Keble, writing in the Independent queried whether the sacking of Tim Sherwood was a victory for business over entertainment. It is a triumph for business in that it is financially important for Aston Villa to remain in the Premier League. But it is not very ‘business like’ in that Tim Sherwood was sacked ten games into a new season where he was presumably trying to enact a longer term approach for the club after a successful spell towards the end of last season. He presided over the sale of his two best players and the purchase of younger, talented, but unproven players. If he is the wrong person now, he was the wrong appointment eight months ago. Both his strengths and weaknesses as a manager were readily apparent at his appointment and little has changed since then. It is this type of muddled thinking that makes sustainable long term success unobtainable for so many clubs.

Of course there are clubs that are an exception, Swansea, Stoke City, and Southampton have all successfully ascended to the Premier league and flourished there. But as an outsider viewing many of the clubs in the Premier League it seems as though immediate improvement is the sole objective, the strategy is to change the manager when things are not going well and hope for a boost from the honeymoon period and the tactics vary accordingly. That half the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year is illustrative. A longer term strategy based on OST would help many clubs. The tactics to succeed at football really depend on the wider strategy and clear objective.

Alastair Campbell will be undertaking a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th-18th November and will be giving a Public Lecture on the 16th November.