It’s all about creating the environment in which players can go on the pitch and run the game

October 31, 2022

Dr Bill Gerrard, Professor of Business Management at Leeds University Business School explains how player development is as much about encouraging autonomy as it is teamwork.

Do you agree with Jamal Musiala’s assessment of the different player development approaches taken by European and English national sides?

I took his comments to be focused more on his experiences at a club level rather than the national level. I certainly had this sense at the national level, the way that England does player development is actually trying to emulate the German model. Certainly, the sense I had from talking with people who’ve been involved in the national setup, there’s much more of a German styled team.

Traditionally we were the nation that put the emphasis on tactical discipline and physical fitness. Also, the coaching style, traditionally, was very authoritarian. I think that a lot of the problem of underperformance among the English teams and the national team between 1970 and now was really the fact that we couldn’t create, at the national level, that integration and ability of players to play together and get the best out of them.

To what extent has this individual player-led approach restricted England’s performance and how can these insights translate to a commercial management setting?

With the English authoritarian approach, the manager has a vision of how things need to be done to achieve the targets and how that translates into what individuals are expected to do. That creates several difficulties. One, it doesn’t work particularly well with temporary national teams because you don’t have as much time together. Secondly, it’s not effective in a fast-moving environment as you haven’t developed people who know what to do when things go wrong.

Now there’s an alternative approach and probably the epitome of this style was the Dutch, who were geared up to giving responsibility to the players so they could deal with the unexpected. The coaching style in that sense is a lot more about servant leadership where you are a facilitator, helping the players get the best out of each other and the team.

At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola and his backroom staff put the squad and the coaching plans and sessions together. It’s all about creating the environment in which players can go on the pitch and run the game. Because Guardiola’s not on the pitch.

Should businesses retain certain elements of an individual-led approach as well, and what benefits can be realised this way?

The manager is directly responsible for that team and can set up the broad-brush approach of how we’re going to get things done and who’s responsible within that.

But then I think those teams that are most effective are those where managers see it’s the members of the team who are ultimately responsible. The worst kind of manager is the one who wants to do everyone’s job for them.

Recruitment and selection’s really crucial and that’s the managerial responsibility. It’s recruiting not the best people in some generic sense, but who’s best for this team. Who’s best for this group? Who will fit in and be able to function and make this group better.

Ultimately it’s Gareth Southgate who has got to make decisions about the players, the way he wants them to play and which players will fit in. It isn’t a beauty contest. It’s who’s the best wing back in England who’s eligible to play and will fit in and be really effective in the team.

How can managers balance using data on a whole team’s performance and data on the performance of individuals within their team?

The way that I balanced it in the rugby union teams and the football teams I’ve worked with, was to start with a review of the game. I called it the story of the game. Here’s what the game looks like and what overall happened and metrics in terms of, for example, territory gain, and so on. It wasn’t separating out individuals at that point.

Then what we do after that is try and break that down into the different aspects of the game. So within football, it would be breaking it down into the defensive play and the attacking play. Then eventually looking at the metrics in terms of moving the ball forward and the expected goals. That automatically leads down into looking at individual stats for the players.

Then you’d have the one-to-one meetings with the coaches and players going through the game video of the players’ contributions. It would be the players who are taking ownership of the game because, ultimately, it’s them playing the game.