As a huge Manchester United fan, I was invited to discuss the current state of play at the biggest club in the game. This will hopefully be the first of many. Let me know your opinions in the comments!
David and Goliath
Having just finished the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, it naturally made me think of times when underdogs defied the odds to win. As a football fan, Leicester City’s title-winning season is one of my all-time favourite stories. Why you may ask? Let’s just say I had a lucky bet one time.
Here I take a look at how Leicester slayed the Goliaths of the Premier League in 2016.
Leicester City almost went down the year before
Leicester City had dramatically escaped relegation the season before, and had just appointed a new manager named Claudio Ranieri, who had never won top division league trophy before. The bookmakers had Leicester at 5000-1 to win the Premier League before a ball was kicked that season. No-one outside of Pluto would have predicted that Leicester would win the league that season. But did exactly that, trumping the footballing giants of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. The most commonly-used starting XI cost just £20 million compared to the Premier League winners of the previous four years costing on average ten times more.
So how did a team so far off the pundits’ radar smash the odds to win, and what can we learn from it?
Leicester didn’t look in typical places to recruit, and they didn’t look at typical factors when considering players to bring in.
Clubs in the Premier League usually recruit from the top leagues in Europe and from the Championship league in England. Because Leicester were on a lower budget, their recruitment department went to leagues as low as the fifth division of each European nation in order to find diamonds in the rough. They were successful in finding three truly magnificent signings, some of which would make big-money moves to richer clubs after winning the Premier League with Leicester. Firstly, Jamie Vardy, who scored a league-high 24 goals, started off in the lower leagues in England and only made the move to Leicester City in 2012 at the relatively tardy age of 25, after years of considering quitting the game. Amazingly, he was 27 when he played in the Premier League for the first time. The left-footed winger Riyad Mahrez was signed from Le Havre in France for less than half a million pounds. N’golo Kante, a central midfielder with great natural fitness and could contribute in defence and attack, was also signed from France for around £5 million. Barely anyone had heard of him, not even Ranieri.
The rest of the squad was made up mostly of players that had been released or had ‘failed’ at other clubs in the Premier League. Not only were these players cheap, they also would have the extra fire and motivation to prove themselves after the rejection from their past clubs. Players like Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson had been previously discarded by Manchester United, while Robert Huth was sold from Chelsea to Stoke and then to Leicester. Marc Albrighton had just been picked up for free after Aston Villa released him.
Premier League teams have a bias towards players that are in their early-twenties and have strong physical attributes like height, strength and pace. They also favour players that are born in the British Isles or are from strong football nations. Many of Leicester’s signings were professionals that would be considered well past their peak years in their career, while other players like Shinji Okazaki, Kante and Mahrez would certainly have been overlooked by other clubs because of their lack of height, physical strength, or the country they were from. This is why Leicester could pick these players up for cheap, because these over-weighted factors meant that these players were undervalued. That style of recruitment very much reminds me of the film ‘Moneyball’, where a US baseball manager goes against conventional wisdom and uses a new statistical model to revamp his team in a bid to win the championship.
Even looking back though, no-one in their right mind can say that this squad was the best squad in the Premier League. So how did they still win against 5000-1 odds when they weren’t even nearly the best group of players?
Leicester won using a style of play that other teams weren’t willing to utilise.
Typically, football teams that have won the Premier League average 58% of possession, playing short passes. Leicester’s manager, Ranieri, switched this on its head as he favoured a defensive gameplan averaging only 42% possession and focusing on sitting deep and using a counter-attacking long-passing strategy. Not only was this a good strategy to beat almost any team (especially the teams that they ended up competing against at the top of the table), it played to the strengths of the squad Ranieri had at hand.
Ranieri’s two central defenders in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan could easily be beaten in a footrace so he did not want them exposed to the pacey strikers that are so prevalent in the Premier League. Instead he preferred the opposition play wide to cross the ball where the defenders would have the advantage aerially, or to play more patiently through the middle and run into an inevitable tackle. He ordered his back line to position themselves closer to their own goal to cut the space for the opposition to attack.
Shots were easier for defenders to block because they had more men back and were lined up in compact military fashion, with Okazaki dropping into midfield with Drinkwater and Kante when Leicester were without the ball, often only leaving Vardy as the out-ball when Leicester recovered the ball.
Leicester made the most tackles and interceptions in the league that year too, because the opposition players were always coming up against what seemed to be a huge human wall any time they would get close to the Leicester goal.
Whenever Leicester recovered the ball, the players would kick the ball up the pitch with long passes to their enigmatic and energetic striker Jamie Vardy. Even though Leicester’s passing accuracy was the worst in the league at 70%, the passes that did come off gained much more territory than the average pass made by the rest of the teams in the league. This meant that they could not only minimise mistakes made when in possession in their own half, but a higher percentage of their successful passes led to goalscoring chances. Vardy ended up scoring a record 11 league games in a row, and a league-topping 24 in total. Mahrez also scored plenty of goals and made lots of assists with performances that won him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award.
Whenever Leicester led, they played it even more safe, and often won their matches by just a single goal. This is not exactly a new way of playing football, but it was the first time that I’ve seen this strategy used as a plan-A on a consistent basis in order to win a league.
A reasonable question to ask is – why didn’t any of the other teams with better squads try out this strategy? The answer is that all of the so-called bigger clubs these days are so rigid in the way that they believe football should be played, that they are willing to give up a higher chance of victory in order to play in alignment with their short-passing ideologies. Leicester was a team that had barely survived in the division the previous year, so why would they destine themselves to fighting the same consistent struggle just to please spectators with cookie-cutter football and potentially lose millions of pounds and go down? In my opinion, seeing this style of play was refreshing and entertaining to watch, and Leicester were willing to stand up to be criticised for their long-ball game. In the end, the criticism didn’t come anyway. Everyone loves when an underdog wins.
Keys to being an underdog
These major factors that produced Leicester’s famous win in 2016 showed that even the biggest underdogs can win. They just need to change their way of thinking, see what other people aren’t seeing, be pragmatic enough to challenge the unwritten laws of the game, and use past hardships as a driver for success. Add in the courage to face potential scrutiny for the unorthodox strategy, and the fortune of the competition underestimating the underdog, and you have the ingredients to replicate a modern-day David versus Goliath.
What ways can you implement these strategies in areas of your life where you are an underdog? Which new areas could you look to find your next job, recruit, romance or social interaction? Which unpopular strategies can you apply to make sure you’re not playing the Goliaths at their own game? What’s your favourite underdog victory of all time?
I’d love to know in the comments section below.
A hero’s return
In the last two months Manchester United have gone from European laughing stock to a team that is genuinely feared by each opponent it faces. On December 18th 2018, Jose Mourinho was sacked as manager after a disappointing run of performances, epitomized by the embarrassing defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool. Former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed until the end of the season and since then the team have won 11 matches, drawn one, and lost one. This is title-winning form. United have beaten Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea away from home – all formidable opponents.
Pundits from all over the world have speculated on what has happened behind the scenes for this dramatic shift in fortune. Common quotes like “he’s put smiles back on the players’ faces” and “he has got the best out of Paul Pogba (widely considered the best player in the team)” are true, but how has he actually done that? Here is what I think is a key change in the way the team is managed.
Has Solskjaer been studying US Navy SEALs?
Decentralized command has been made popular in recent years by the book Extreme Ownership by former US Navy SEAL Officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It is a leadership and management technique whereby more responsibility is placed upon individuals lower in the chain command to achieve success in a particular mission. On the other hand, centralized command (which Mourinho preferred) places the responsibility on one leader to make sure that everybody does their job correctly. In decentralized command, the team is split into several smaller teams, giving the chance for individuals to take more control and find effective solutions themselves. These individuals become empowered by the responsibility, and the resulting sense of importance adds more drive to achieve success in their mission. Any idea that is believed to be their own will be executed with vigor, conviction and wholeheartedness – nobody likes their idea to result in failure.
Mourinho the control freak
“I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.”
Mourinho was an egoistic puppet-master while managing at Manchester United. If they won, he would take the credit for masterful strokes of tactical artistry. If they lost, he would simply blame his players for not being good enough to follow his instructions, complaining that he needed more skillful and obedient puppets. The thing that Mourinho failed to understand is that the volumes of instruction and excessive micromanagement he was giving the players was overwhelming and paralyzing them. They played in a confused and fearful manner, unable to see the bigger picture that the overall mission was simply to win a game of football. They were bogged down in whether to attack or defend, press or sit deep, and whether they were in their correct defensive positions. I was alarmed in April 2017 when Mourinho told the press of an example of this excessive micromanagement of left-back Luke Shaw: “I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.” Mourinho gave no freedom to his players which came back to bite him – there was no-one else to blame for the defeats because he controlled everything his team did. On top of that, his players took no responsibility for their moves on the field because Mourinho gave them no freedom to find their own solutions. “I just did what you told me to do boss”, they would think as they trudged back to the changing rooms after another defeat. The disjointed performances led to lots of goals conceded and not many scored – a recipe for disaster, and a managerial sacking.
Ole’s at the wheel… or is he?
“They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”
What Solskjaer has done differently is give control back to the players. Players are now given the freedom to find their own solutions on the pitch. They now attack each game with enthusiasm, as opposed to the dread which filled the chests of the players each time they took to the field under Mourinho. This is where the “smiles back on faces” quote that every pundit is saying comes from. Solskjaer is giving the chance for each player to be a leader by splitting the team into smaller units. Smaller units like the combination of Martial, Pogba and Shaw on the left side has led to more cohesive combinations on the ball, while the defence looks improved under the new increased responsibility of each player to contribute to the collective mission. With Solskjaer, the mission is clear – win the game simply by scoring more goals than the opposition team. The players are trusted to create their own ideas on how to win the game, and to own these ideas. The players are much more invested in these ideas because they were the ones that created them instead of the manager, and therefore they are trying much harder to make them work – it will be their fault if they don’t. There is no coincidence that Manchester United went from the team with the least to the most distance covered per game in the Premier League once Solskjaer came in as manager. The execution of decentralized command is visibly shown on the touchline at Manchester United matches now too. Solskjaer spends the same amount of time – maybe even less – in the technical area than his assistants Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan, demonstrating that he has used this strategy with his staff too. When United score now, the whole matchday staff team jump and celebrate in unison because they all know that they contributed their own ideas and creativity to the success. Solskjaer has shown humility by looking up to the United Directors’ Box for advice from Sir Alex Ferguson, something Mourinho never did in his two and a half years in charge. Last month Solskjaer was quizzed by the media about the squad at Manchester United – the same squad that Mourinho would publicly criticize with worrying regularity. He said: “They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”. Contrary to the song all the United fans are singing, Solskjaer is letting his players take the wheel.
United have the mentality of a top team now.
Under Mourinho, Ander Herrera was used in matches against Chelsea as a man-marker for the dangerous opposition winger Eden Hazard. His instruction would simply be to follow this player on the pitch for 90 minutes. This strategy was worrying for many reasons. This sent a message that United thought that Chelsea’s players were better, and also it was too simplistic to think that just by stopping Hazard, it would lead to a United win. It would only take one individual duel that Herrera lost to potentially result in a goal too, and the role as a man-marker took away from Herrera contributing more to the game when United were in possession. In the same fixture under Solskjaer, Herrera was an influential member of the team – making tackles and interceptions, passing the ball and scoring a brilliant goal. Now under Solskjaer, it is the United players that are being man-marked. Paul Pogba was marked by Calum Chambers of Fulham recently – Pogba ended up still scoring two goals in a 3-0 win.
No, Paul Ince couldn’t have done it.
It is important to note that Solskjaer has not just simply turned up and told the team to play football, and sat back to watch the wins come in (like a certain ex-United and Liverpool player may think). Solskjaer has used clever gameplans in his various matches in charge. Against Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth his team dominated possession and attacked quickly, mainly on the inside left channel where Pogba is positioned. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea he opted for the counter-attack strategy employing wide strikers and was happy to concede more possession of the ball in order to defend more compactly. He has identified weaknesses in certain areas of opposition teams such as the left side of Chelsea, where the attack-minded Alonso would vacate space in behind for midfield runners like Herrera and pacey attackers like Marcus Rashford. Unlike Mourinho, Solskjaer is not obsessed with details, but places the correct amount of importance to them. The most crucial point of all is that his players have bought into the vision that Solskjaer has championed – winning.
How can you implement the above strategies to get more out of your team and your life? Let me know in the comments below!