In recent years, the term ‘culture’ has become something of a buzzword in football. In the context of any sports team, it can be defined as a measure of the observable behaviours that are promoted and accepted within the group. For many coaches, creating an environment that demands high standards is central to their priorities when taking charge of a new team. Setting a collective target and laying down a vision as to how it can be achieved is the first step, but sticking to that plan and refusing to alter principal ideas is the real challenge given the multitude of road-blocks that can emerge along the way. This article will attempt to break down the steps required to create a winning culture at a football club, taking lessons from a series of coaches and players who have experienced working within these types of environments.
Characteristics Of A Winning Culture
Before assessing how a coach can implement and maintain a winning culture at their club, it is important to identify the common characteristics of such an environment. Organisational psychology professor, Damian Hughes, has studied the culture of some of football’s most successful teams of the 21st century. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United have each been dissected in search of insights. Below are some of the key behaviours that Hughes identified from these cultures.
Humility- the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others.
Fabian Brandy, a former youth player at Manchester United, recalled an occasion that highlighted this aspect of the culture under Sir Alex Ferguson: “I was about 13 when Kieran Richardson had just made the first-team squad. He came into training one day with the car roof down and his music blaring out. He thought he was the man. Unfortunately for him, Roy Keane was walking into the car park. He pointed at him and said, ‘Turn your music off and go home. Don’t come back here today.’”
Work Ethic- a set of values centered on the importance of showing a desire and determination to work hard.
Ferguson stressing the importance of work ethic: “Every team talk I ever had finished with work ethic and concentration. Because I think the best player, if he doesn’t have work ethic, will not be the best player.”
Team-First Mentality- Placing the interests of the collective over any opposing personal motivations. The attitude that ‘no one player is bigger than our team’.
Pep Guardiola on the importance of a collectivist mentality: “I don’t like it when people say: ‘I like freedom; I want to play for myself.’ Because the player has to understand he is part of a team, with 10 other players. If every player plays like a jazz musician, it will be chaos. They will not be a team.”
Relentlessness- the drive to continue setting and attaining targets. Rather than being satisfied with past success, players are motivated to succeed in a continuous sense.
Former United captain, Gary Neville, discussing the importance of this trait: “If there is one word which sums up my time at United, it is relentlessness. You never stop driving, never rest on your laurels.”
Psychological Safety- a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It is characterised by a mutual honesty, honesty of the team with the boss and the boss with the team.
Liverpool midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain explains how Jurgen Klopp encourages him to take risks: “He would scream at me ‘SHOOOOOT!’ It goes in or it misses but in his head it’s, ‘So what? Mo (Salah) and Sadio (Mane) are running in.’”
Selling Your Vision
When first meeting a group of players, It’s important to clearly state what will be expected of them in terms of preparation and performance. Further to this, however, it is also reasonable to suggest that a more sustainable effect can be achieved by working to convince individuals that your vision is the best way for them to move forward. Following his appointment as head coach of Arsenal, Mikel Arteta spoke about how essential it is that his players have total belief in his philosophy, rather than simply demanding that they blindly follow his lead. Arteta went on to describe the fundamental values that he intends to instill at the club, and made it clear that anyone who doesn’t buy into those ideas will be moved aside.
“I want to do things my way, but by convincing them that it’s the right way for everybody to live better. The players and the staff have to believe in what you’re trying to deliver.
Everybody has to respect each other and I want people who take responsibility for their job. I want people who deliver passion and energy to the football club. Anyone who doesn’t buy into this, or has a negative effect, is not good enough for this culture.”
Of course, not every player will be convinced. Some will be turned off by the prospect of hard work, or a tactical system that relies on a collectivist mentality. Because these individuals represent a potential obstacle to the group’s attempts to achieve their objectives, the only option for the coach is to ensure that they are not included in any long term plan for the team. Jurgen Klopp spoke about the importance of these principles when asked how his Liverpool team have managed to achieve such high standards in recent years.
“You have to show respect to the team. The moment you show me that you think you are more important than the team, we have a problem. You can still help the team now, but in the long term we will have more problems. As long as you are not Cristiano (Ronaldo) or (Lionel) Messi, you have to defend. Easy rules.”
Having the ability to generate buy-in from the group is a critical skill for any leader, but it’s also vital that the philosophy being laid out is consistent with the personality of the coach. For example, If you come across as a negative or conservative individual, how can you expect to convince players of a brave vision with high expectations. A team will most likely grow to represent the personality of their leader, and so it’s crucial that coaches embody their philosophy in the way they communicate, both verbally and non-verbally. Klopp’s assistant, Pepijn Ljinders, has often spoken about this idea. The Dutchman also provides a useful definition of ‘identity’ in relation to sports, stressing the importance of having collective ideas that are easily recognisable.
“No written word, no spoken plea, can teach our team what they should be. It’s what the coach is himself. The character of the coach becomes the character of the team. How you are as a person influences so much how the players approach the game.
Creating an identity is knowing exactly how we approach things as a collective. So that If we wore different shirts, you would still recognize us.”
Overall, the process of outlining a vision to players relies on having the ability to communicate a philosophy that is clear and convincing, and that instills confidence in the group. During this introductory phase, individuals who fail to buy into the project should begin to show themselves quickly with their behaviours, and plans can be adjusted to move forward without them.
As the building blocks are being put in place, consistency in relation to the messages being delivered to the team is key, and sticking to core principles will continue to be of critical importance throughout the project. It’s easy to become reactive when things start to go array, but chopping and changing can have a series of negative consequences. If the coaches’ belief in his own ideas begins to fade, how can he expect to retain the confidence of the players?
Unai Emery’s unsuccessful reign at Arsenal provides us with a good example of what can happen when coaches begin to waver on their philosophy. When the Spaniard initially took over at the Emirates, he spoke about wanting his side to be ‘protagonists’, dominating possession and pressing from the front. Although these ideas were evident early on in his spell in North-London, Emery gradually became more conservative, perhaps losing faith in his players and in the validity of some of his plans.
By the end of his time at Arsenal, the Gunners were a fearful team that would often sit deep and try to protect one-goal leads for large periods against lowly opponents. Their performances represented a dramatic departure from the vision he initially presented. Speaking prior to Emery’s shift in principles, Sky pundit Gary Neville stated the potential risks associated with a coach adapting to fit his players’ demands.
“He has his idea. The players have to adapt to him. He has to find out which players can adapt to him and which players can’t. The last thing he should do is adapt and change his idea, because the players will walk all over him and take him wherever they want to.”
Emery’s inconsistency was also evident in relation to his man-management. Much maligned playmaker Mesut Ozil was shunned from the first team on account of poor work ethic and an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to align himself with the new coaches’ philosophy. But after the club’s supporters made clear their disdain for the lack of attacking flair and creativity in the team by singing Ozil’s name from the stands, Emery quickly backed down and returned the German to a regular starting spot. Arsenal decided to part ways with the former Sevilla coach just a few weeks later.
Aside from creating confusion in terms of the tactical systems and principles of play, Emery’s inability to remain consistent with the cultural values he set out to instill at the club arguably had an even bigger contribution to his demise. As Neville stressed previously, if the messages aren’t clear and constant, players will begin to lose confidence and respect in the coach. At that point, the writing is on the wall.
After Freddie Ljungberg’s short stint as interim head coach, Arsenal decided that Mikel Arteta was the man to drive the club forward. Having learned from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the former Gunner’s captain was very clear about the importance of repeating the same key messages every day. As he outlines below, every single action, no matter how small it may seem, must always align with the culture that you are trying to build at a football club.
“You have to be consistent, and you have to fit the culture of the club every day to create a winning mentality. Every day is important, every act is important, every word from the organisation is important.”
As discussed, remaining true to key principles is of vital importance for coaches trying to build a winning culture. Challenges will inevitably emerge, but responding to these difficulties by sacrificing core beliefs and values can result in a dressing room void of clarity, confidence, and discipline. Actions speak louder than words, and so coaches must ensure that all of the decisions they make on a day to day basis tally up with the philosophy and vision they initially presented.
Along with remaining consistent, there are a number of other essential ingredients that will determine whether or not a coach can maintain a winning culture at their club. As mentioned earlier, gradually weeding out individuals who don’t fit within this type of environment is crucial, but it is equally important that anyone who arrives at the club is assessed on the same credentials. Having to constantly monitor and correct players behaviours is unsustainable. With that in mind, recruiting characters who regulate their own levels of motivation, work ethic, and ambition can help with creating a team geared towards continued success. Former basketball coach Phil Jackson spoke about this idea.
“You don’t motivate players with speeches. You build your team with motivated players. You cannot teach competitiveness.”
Of course, building a team filled with highly-motivated players is something that any coach would naturally aspire to. However, barring instances when a coach has already worked with a player in the past, accessing objective and unbiased insights into an individual’s psyche can be a real challenge. References can be unreliable and so when seeking out these types of personalities, multiple face-to-face meetings represents a more rigorous approach.
Jurgen Klopp has often spoke about how he will meet with potential signings on numerous occasions prior to making any final decision. He says that he never discusses football with them. The conversations are instead used to gain insight into the player’s value system and their personal ambitions, and to make it clear what will be expected of them should they join.
“If you sign a player, you have to know as much as possible about them. It’s easy to find a good football player, but learning about him as a person is not so easy. Players are often surprised when I meet them that we don’t talk at all about football.”
Klopp’s Liverpool squad is packed full of humble, hard-working individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. There are also players who appear to be natural born leaders, such as Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson. Having just a few of these types of personalities should be enough to ensure that high standards are maintained on a daily basis. The coach cannot monitor every interaction and so the natural leaders act as ‘cultural enforcers’, constantly reiterating important messages and setting an example for the rest to follow. Former Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand spoke about this idea in relation to Sir Alex Ferguson.
“He had laid down the law years ago. The machine then works itself. What was great about Sir Alex Ferguson was that he allowed the leaders to run that changing room.”
When players begin to enforce certain behavioural and tactical principles themselves, that’s when coaches can be sure that they have successfully implemented a winning culture. Having an environment where players are held accountable by each other, and where anyone who lets their standards slip will be called out, should help to achieve sustainable success. Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag spoke about how he notices this kind of standard setting occurring among players during training sessions.
“We do a lot of positional games and I put the benchmark higher & higher. I want them to demand more from one another. I ask for focus, the right weight on the ball, playing into the right foot, the right movement. If they’re not focused, these practices fail. So, you’ll see that players start correcting, coaching, & motivating one another.”
Ultimately, building a team filled with players high on work ethic, humility and ambition can help coaches to create and maintain a winning culture. Having a small group of natural leaders can ensure that core values are being emphasised daily and that the overall standards for preparation and performance don’t begin to fall. As outlined by Steve Kerr below, a coach should aspire to guide his players to the point where they begin to take charge of the vision he initially presented to them.
“A coaches’ job is not to pull strings or call every play. It’s to say ‘This is your team. Here’s a vision, now let’s get to that point where you guy’s take hold and go with it.”