As Manchester United prepare to take on Manchester City this weekend it highlights for me one of the most interesting things about this football season from a psychological perspective (even accounting for Mario Balotelli). That is the way in which Louis van Gaal has been treated by the media and the general positive feeling that is coming from Manchester United. In particular the contrast with 12 months ago and how quickly David Moyes came under fire from the supporters, the media, and if rumours are to be believed some of his own players.
There are of course lies, damn lies and statistics. However, at this stage of the season Louis Van Gaal’s record is worse.
So despite having a much easier start to the season, and spending £150 million, there is no improvement in terms of points gained. Yet Louis Van Gaal is not criticised. With games against the top teams to come it is feasible for Manchester United’s performance to get (relative to last season) worse again.
Why the different treatment of the respective managers? There are many reasons, but for me one that stands out is that the fans, the media, and crucially the players appear to have confidence in Louis van Gaal.
That the confidence we have in our leaders influences our behaviour has been illustrated in a series of studies in exercise settings. For example, exercise participants reported greater personal confidence and attended classes more often when they had confidence in the class instructor’s ability to teach, motivate and communicate.
As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura outlined, having confidence in others is thought to be particularly important in situations where (a) the person (i.e. player) does not have the means to achieve a desired success on their own (b) if this person (i.e. manager) will help achieve success better, easier or faster, (c) the person (i.e. player) does not want direct control or responsibility over the possible outcomes. Certainly (a) and (b) apply from a footballer’s perspective as ultimately success in a team game depends on others and arguably (c) applies with some footballers as well.
This confidence in others is what psychologists call proxy-efficacy. Just like our own personal confidence (self-efficacy) we can derive confidence in others from a number of sources. Primarily, and not surprisingly, previous success is the biggest source of confidence. Whatever Louis van Gaal asks for of his players it comes from a person who has won league titles in a number of countries and the Champions League. There is confidence in the messenger, and so the message. And as such it is easier for Louis van Gaal to get buy-in for his methods. Confidence does not solely come from previous success but can also come from many other sources as well, for example other footballers who have worked with Louis van Gaal, testifying what a good manager he is, or Louis van Gaal interacting in clear, knowledgeable, ways with the players that in turn instils confidence in them.
Looking from the outside in it seems that proxy-efficacy is one reason why with similar records (and much more money spent) Louis van Gaal is seen as being at the start of an exciting journey of rebuilding, whereas David Moyes was seen as failing. It is because of this that Louis van Gaal, will be given more time to succeed. It is because of this he is more likely to succeed. Success, and crucially the opportunity to succeed, is in sport, as in life, in the eye of the beholder.