Euro 2016: What lessons can we learn from the world’s greatest football managers?

As this summer of sport approaches, with Euro 2016 kicking off in Paris tonight and the Olympics in Rio less than two months away, I wanted to investigate the impact that good teamwork (and good team management) can have on performance; in sports as in business.

The role of a manager or head coach in football is an odd one. At times underplayed, when critics praise the individual talents or work ethic of their players, and often oversold, when eulogising moments of tactical brilliance or lucky substitutions. What impact can a manager truly have on their players? Are they just impotent spectators on the side-lines, or are they the puppet-masters, orchestrating the action we see on the pitch?

This summer, 24 such managers will line up teams of eleven men and – interspersed with some hastily conceived words of advice – watch as they kick a ball around for 90 minutes. The expectant eyes and beating hearts of an entire nation will nervously clamour at every movement, every pass, every shot. What will separate the truly great managers and the truly great teams?

The team comes first

Sir Alex Ferguson, generally looked upon as the best football manager in the history of the game, became a one-club man in the last 27 years of his career. One principle that defined his management style was that the club, the team, always came first. Instilling a sense of a higher purpose – and reminding the team of that bigger picture consistently – is the lesson to be learned, and is the single best motivational tactic that a manager can employ.

That bigger picture could be something key to the business, it could be environmental, delivery-based, strategic or in Ferguson’s case to do with the reputation of the organisation. Manchester United, as is often said, has been built on a reputation for success and a culture of winning. Harnessing that as a motivational tool was key to the longevity of Ferguson’s victorious reign. Think about what is currently motivating your team, and how you can increase their energy by reminding them of the higher purpose.

Nobody is bigger than the club

Another famous mantra that Sir Alex Ferguson lived by was that no player of Manchester United could ever be bigger than the club. This resulted in the sale of David Beckham, Jaap Stam and even Cristiano Ronaldo, to name a few legends who left the club while in their prime. When it comes to your team, think about who might be disrupting the natural dynamic of the team.

Ever heard someone say ‘I like my current company, but it’s very hierarchical’? High performers should be retained, but not at all costs. If someone is undermining the team spirit and threatening the performance of the team as a whole, think about how you can resolve the issue, perhaps reassigning them elsewhere or encouraging them to address their attitude.

The siege mentality

When fostering a positive team environment, football players, as with members of any other team, respond best to a manager who engages with them on a personal level. An authoritarian figure, detached from the team and its members, doesn’t know each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. That means they won’t have a clear idea of how to delegate responsibilities and motivate the personalities within their team.

The best football managers take time to foster relationships with their players on an individual level, not so personal that they might refrain from making necessary decisions about that person’s future, but close enough to understand their unique set of skills and motivations. During team-talks, these managers address their team with the pronoun ‘we’, not ‘you’, implying that they share a common goal, and placing them in the team, rather than outside of it. This creates a ‘siege mentality’, making the team feel as if it were them against the world.

Developing potential

A further method of improving the engagement of players and staff is to encourage a focus on their development, particularly their strengths. Spending time to understand what each member of your team wants to achieve with their career, and working with them to achieve that ambition, will create loyalty and help to motivate the team.

Choosing the right positions

Fitting round pegs into square holes will only serve to undermine your team’s spirit and the happiness of individuals within it, so try to assign work based on their strengths and ambitions. You wouldn’t put a goalkeeper at centre-forward, unless you were an absolute psycho, so why assign members of your team alien work in a misguided attempt to develop a weak skill they might never need? People perform best, and are at their happiest in work, when working within a role that suits their ability. Keep that in mind when assigning responsibilities.

Deflecting criticism

José Mourinho, widely recognised as one of the greatest and most successful managers of all time, has built a reputation for reactionary and abrasive public statements. You might think this contradicts the principles of sound team management, and in the recent case of his dismissal from Chelsea it certainly proved to be a distracting factor in their early-season collapse. However, the method behind the madness is that these comments and the resulting furore are a way of deflecting criticism of his players after a poor performance. If people are focused solely on the comments that Mourinho has made, rather than how his players have performed, then their self-confidence and determination are less likely to be effected.

The lesson to be learned from this approach to management is that sometimes a manager must sacrifice his own immediate reputation in order to protect the performance of his team. Taking responsibility for your team’s performance, and protecting them from potentially damaging and unfair criticism, is vital to the role of a manager.

Using technology

Modern football has evolved. Long-gone are the days when managers and coaches had to rely on just their eyes and ears to analyse their players and make decisions for the team. Now every stadium is fitted with a sophisticated camera system that can track the activities of each player on the pitch, not unlike a sophisticated learning management system can track the progress of your team. Modern business has evolved too, so now managers have a wealth of options when it comes to supporting their team.

The great football managers rely on sports scientists, using software, tools and innovative techniques that help them better look after their players. Why not do the same? Learning technologies have progressed to the extent where a manager can conduct a thorough development review of their team, and recommend them personalised development activities, all from the comfort of their desk. Think about how you can use technology to support your team and stay ahead of the curve.

When Euro 2016 begins, as spectators we can observe which teams have been managed effectively, which players are truly engaged and determined to perform, and from that we can try to predict which countries will have the most success. But as many footballers often stutter, in their post-match PR-trained delirium, ‘at the end of the day’ it’s just 22 men kicking a ball around a field.