Over the weekend of 20th/21st November, Kolo Toure, one of the leading members of the Manchester City football team, publicly questioned the motivation of some of his team mates. “There are some players here, I am not scared to say, who are not working hard enough for the team … Some don’t do enough in training but still expect to play. We all get big wages at City but some need to work harder. You cannot have a place in the team – even if you are an international – if you don’t show what you can do in training. As players, we have the best job in the world and if the manager said: ‘You haven’t worked hard enough, you will only get half your wages this week’ it would make players fight harder.”
By way of background, Toure was bought from Arsenal in July 2009, reportedly on wages of £120,000 per week. Manchester City is probably the richest soccer club in the world, owned and financially backed by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and has a clear strategy of using those financial resources to establish itself amongst Europe’s elite clubs, after decades in the football wilderness. During the summer of 2009 alone, over £100m was spent on buying new players, yet so far without conspicuous success.
Although there are examples of clubs having bought success on the pitch, notably Blackburn Rovers who won the Premier League in 1995 and Chelsea after being bought by Roman Abramovich, the reality is that enduring success of teams in highly competitive arenas depends on much more than the ability to buy and pay the wages of expensive sporting talent. In Blackburn Rovers’ case, success at the top level was transitory and the club was relegated from the Premier League in 1999. To be fair to Chelsea, although Roman Abramovich’s millions allowed the club to emerge from decades of relative mediocrity by enhancing its squad with players hitherto beyond its reach, success was also the product of an inspirational manager, José Mourinho, who built a strong team dynamic that did produce results on the field of play.
Manchester City may yet succeed in translating its financial muscle into success on the field but the outlook at the moment is not promising. Something in the mix will need to change. The team is capable of fine performances but this is inconsistent and the squad seems to be dysfunctional, not just amongst itself but also in how the players relate to the manager, Roberto Mancini. In plain terms, many of the players are probably at the club not because of any prior affinity but because Manchester City has suddenly acquired the ability to pay astronomic wages. It is these wages that motivate many of them, not the success of the team or the club.
Motivation is the force that drives us to achieve objectives or goals. Individual task or job motivation can be categorised in two ways; extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is where an individual’s task or job motivation is derived from factors external to himself/herself, such as financial reward or status, rather than intrinsic motivators where an individual is driven from within regardless of external forces. Classic intrinsic motivators include enjoyment in the job or task itself or the need to perform to one’s best ability. Having succumbed to the ‘siren’s call’ of buying expensive talent in order to achieve rapid success on the field, Manchester City may be discovering the shortcomings of key members of its squad being mainly extrinsically motivated. Although extrinsic motivation does not necessarily mean that a player is uninterested in team or personal success, it is the primary reason why they are at the club and affects ability to sustain motivation to perform on the field. In an era of player portability, how many of them would remain at Manchester City absent their current wages and seek to build success on the field? The problem for the club is that they receive their wages regardless of individual or collective performance. Yes, it’s nice to win …. but £120,000 inbound week in week out regardless doesn’t half hit the spot. Kolo Toure identifies this precisely when he wonders if withholding players’ wages would motivate them to “fight harder”. It isn’t going to happen … but he gets the point.
So, you can’t necessarily just buy sporting success, especially when other teams are highly competitive on the field. To get the best out of a collection of individuals is a complex cocktail that involves more than their individual motivations. It’s an old but frequently overlooked adage that the 11 best players don’t necessarily make the best team; nonetheless, it remains true. In outline, there needs first to be a sense of unity, a belief that each member of the team is qualified to be there and committed to the collective future. In part, that is something that the manager or team leader can create (sometimes manufacture). Second, there needs to be a clear vision of what the team is trying to achieve and an understanding of each member’s role and the others’ dependency. There is nothing more destructive to team cohesion and performance than the belief that some amongst you are being carried, especially when the stakes are high and powerful egos are involved. Take the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race crews. During the long selection period and in the run up to the Race itself, each oarsman is motivated almost exclusively by a desire to perform better today than he did yesterday (a high need to achieve), to do his bit towards the collective output to the best of his ability. Having achieved a seat in the Blue boat is in itself little motivation; contributing to a boat that wins the Boat Race is what drives. An oarsman does not need to like his fellow crewmen but he does need to respect their right to be in the boat and implicitly trust their commitment to the cause. For example, Steve Redgrave and the late Andy Holmes who won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988 rowing together. For a fascinating insight into the motivations of such high performing individuals, and to the knife edge dynamics of high performing teams, see “The Last Amateurs” by Mark de Rond, a Cambridge academic who spent a year closely observing the 2007 Cambridge crew.
Manchester City may cast an envious eye across the city to their neighbours at Old Trafford. What Sir Alex Ferguson has achieved at Manchester United is not the result of purchasing power alone. Granted, for much of the past 20 years he has been assisted by deeper pockets than most of his rivals but that did not guarantee success, let alone its repetition. That came from understanding how to harness individual motivation and skill to a strong and enduring collective effort, backed up by a brilliant tactical footballing brain. His story is not one of ‘one season wonders’ … but that is for another day. It may be worth a prediction that Manchester City will not achieve anything like the same success until the people running the club realise that they need more players with a higher intrinsic motivation than at present. In the current game, paying top wages may be an indispensable part of assembling winning talent but it is simply not enough to turn potential into reality. That realisation is basic. Acting on it successfully is difficult.
Postscript (added 05/08/11)
As an interesting postscript, the Manchester United player, Paul Scholes, made a series of very interesting observations in July 2011 on retiring as a player. Commenting on both the current England squad and the team of which he was a part when he decided to retire prematurely from international football in 2004, his observations seem to point to the heart of why England as a football team have failed to succeed, particularly in the last decade or so despite containing talented and highly feted individuals.
Scholes is widely regarded as one of the finest midfield players of his generation, a team player par excellence who always avoided the personal limelight. There was surprise when he announced his international retirement, though most commentators accepted his explanation at the time that he wanted to devote his energies to his club football and his family. It now seems, however, that Scholes had become disillusioned with the attitude and team ethic of some of his international colleagues. He charges that England’s lack of success is not due to a deficiency in talent, rather the ego of players selfishly chasing personal glory at the expense of collective success. “I wanted to be part of a team and there were individuals who were after personal glory. Instead of making a simple pass of 10 yards, they might try to smack it 80 yards to get themselves noticed … If you look at the Spain team now [the current World champions], they all seem to play for each other. There isn’t one of them who would try to do something in a game that doesn’t suit the team and the way they play. And that could happen here with England.”
Scholes’ observations are interesting because they illustrate the essential point that a cohesive team will nearly always outperform a collection of more talented individuals. Of course, this has its limits – there will be a tipping point when the disparity in ability between the opposing individuals becomes too great for team cohesion and spirit alone to be sufficient. Nevertheless, when opposing teams are relatively evenly balanced in terms of ability, it is the extras such as team cohesion and attitude that will make the difference. This perhaps explains why Greece was able to win the European Football Championship in 2004, at the expense of several more ostensibly talented teams (notably, including the England team that Scholes retired from after the tournament). The Greek team played as a unit, without individual stars and big egos, and ultimately prevailed. Since then, they have made little or no impact at international level, but for the duration of the 2004 tournament, they battled and performed as one unit. England, with all its star Premiership players and powerful egos, exited yet again at the quarter-finals to a Portugese team they were well capable of beating in normal time. In the 2010 World Cup, the destructive tensions produced by the egos of some of the England players (coupled with management’s failure to understand the specific dynamics and requirements of a squad when kept together for longer than usual) seems to have been the major contribution to one of the most abject sporting performances in England history.
Contrast that with the Spanish squad. Yes, they had individual players with egos and profiles every bit as big as the England players, yet the difference is they were prepared to subsume all individuality to the benefit of collective success. This gave them the confidence to play some sublime football, even when under pressure – don’t forget, they unexpectedly lost 1:0 to Switzerland early on, with Spanish Press recriminations against their goalkeeper for allegedly being distracted by his girlfriend from the sidelines! Likewise, the success of a very young German team who humiliated England 4:1. The Germans played as a unit, as they invariably do in tournaments, and they went on to humiliate the talented and much fancied Argentinians (Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez & Co). Both the Argentinians and the Brazilians (also very talented and fancied to win the tournament) fell apart as teams when the going got tough and, in their losing knockout matches against Germany and Holland respectively, it is noteworthy that players on these teams started bickering with and blaming each other when they fell behind.
Cast your mind back to 1966, the only time when England has had international footballing success. It seems no coincidence that Alf Ramsey’s squad won the World Cup by playing as an effective unit, with individual players fitting the system Ramsey had devised. Jack Charlton arguably was nowhere near being the best individual centre-half in the country but he was what Ramsey required. It is not the case that the team did not have star players – Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves were all big stars of their day – yet the idea that they would behave or display attitudes akin to some England players of today was anathema. As it happened, Jimmy Greaves was injured early in the tournament and a novice Geoff Hurst got his chance in the team. Come the final, Greaves was fit, on form and available for selection but Ramsey decided that Hurst better fitted the team and tactics that he required on the day to face West Germany … the rest is history. No doubt, Greaves was personally devastated to miss out on playing in the Final but have you ever heard of any public acrimony? Imagine today if England got to a final and, for example, Wayne Rooney or John Terry (fit, on form and available for selection) was dropped for reasons of team effectiveness on the day … what would be the reaction? It would take a brave and enlightened manager to make such a selection. And, perhaps, there’s the rub of it.
And the moral of the tale? If you are good, yet not especially talented as a team, you will likely prevail if you channel all individual effort and output towards team success. No matter how individually talented you may be as a group, if you lack cohesion or a team ethic, you will fail as a collection of individuals when it matters under pressure. If, however, you are a collection of talented individuals who can also harness all that talent for the benefit of the collective, you will be unstoppable.
Further Postscript (added 29/09/11)
The Manchester City player and former club captain, Carlos Tévez, reportedly refused to leave the substitutes’ bench and come on to the field of play in a Champions League match against Bayern Munich, in escalation of his feud with manager, Roberto Mancini. Writing in The Times newspaper on 29 September 2011, football correspondent Oliver Kay posed the questions; “Why are there so many negative stories in the media about their club? Why does it seem that, even in the best of times, they are only ever one bad result from getting the crisis treatment?” His answer is straight to the point; “Because it still looks, sounds and feels like the whole thing is bound together with sticking plaster; because stories of unrest and dissatisfaction filter out of the dressing room like at no other big club (though Liverpool, for at least 18 months before Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as manager in January, and Chelsea, have come close in recent seasons); because there is still a sense that Roberto Mancini and his many admirable players are swimming against a tide that is whipped up and polluted by self-interest and a lack of true togetherness; because, while they should not be, they really are only ever one bad result away from crisis.” Oliver Kay goes on to observe; “There is an obvious contrast to be drawn with the situation Sir Alex Ferguson presides over at Old Trafford. We should not overlook the problems Ferguson has endured with players such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gabriel Heinze and even Wayne Rooney in recent years …” Although Manchester City have made a strong start to the 2011/12 Premiership season, like Oliver Kay, one cannot help get the feeling that it is only a question of time before a series of disappointing results or performances tears apart the “sticking plaster” that temporarily holds together the disparate egos and agenda of the Manchester City squad. Roberto Mancini and the club still have a long way to go to match the enduring success of their Manchester neighbours. Building, managing and sustaining high-performing teams is not easy, as another manager at the Emirates is discovering to his cost.
Further Postscript (added 31/10/11)
Carlos Tévez’s alleged refusal to come on to the pitch as a substitute during Manchester City’s Champions League match against Bayern Munich on 27 September 2011 appears to have been the catalyst for creating a greater sense of collective responsibility amongst the players and enhancing the authority of both the manager, Roberto Mancini, and the Club at the expense of ‘player power’. Since that match, the team has delivered win after win, most notably a 1-6 humiliation of reigning champions and arch-rivals, Manchester United, at Old Trafford. Manchester City now sit 5 points clear at the top of the Premier League and are playing with a real sense of purpose and self-belief. Although City’s present League position means nothing yet in terms of trophies, it is interesting to note that the backlash against Tévez and his isolation following the incident during the match in Munich seem to have focused the squad on their collective responsibilities and created the sort of ‘togetherness’ that successful teams require. Even the hitherto erratic and individualistic player, Mario Balotelli, seems to have harnessed his talents to the team’s requirements, with demonstrable results. It is counter-intuitive but could it be that Carlos Tévez’s moment of individual petulance has provided the stimulation for a vital ingredient that might transform Manchester City’s squad from a collection of highly paid, egotistical, players into a high-performing and successful team that delivers the results and trophies warranted by the money spent by the Club’s owners? Of course, winning matches has a momentum of its own but something seems now to be different in the ‘light blue’ half of Manchester.
Further Postscript (added 8/11/11)
In an interesting further example, England Rugby Union fly half Jonny Wilkinson has poignantly criticised his international team mates in his autobiography for their attitude during the recent rugby World Cup, a competition in which England markedly underperformed, losing in the quarter finals to a mediocre French side.
Wilkinson’s accusation is that some of the players lacked the hunger to perform well and this was manifested in off the field indiscipline and self-indulgence. Recording an occasion when he addressed his fellow squad members following an unconvincing victory in their second match of the tournament, Wilkinson writes; “I tell [them] … there’s sometimes a lack of hunger on the field, a lack of desire to get things right … The basics [of rugby] are working yourself into the ground and the only reason you don’t work hard enough is that it doesn’t matter enough to you. What that ultimately means is that the other 29 guys in this squad don’t matter enough to you.”
Further Postscript (added 22/05/12)
So, in the end Manchester City overcame their travails and the team dysfunction that has threatened all season to bring them up short of their potential. Congratulations to them and for the way in which the team stood together in the face of disaster and produced when it counted.
Their experience this past season (2011-2012) has been very instructive in the context of the dynamics and motivation of high performing teams. At times, as has already been noted above, the egos and personal agenda of some of the players have not been conducive to collective output. In particular, there have been several occasions (arguably more than one would expect) when Manchester City players have openly clashed with each other, both on and off the pitch. Mario Balotelli has seemed unable to harness his highly individualist personality to the needs of the team, badly letting down his teammates at key moments of the season. Likewise, Carlos Tévez’ individual petulance deprived the team of his talents on the pitch for a significant portion of the season.
And yet, those instances of destructive individualism may have provided the impetus that forged a cohesiveness amongst the remaining core of the squad that served it well in the last few weeks (and the last few minutes) of the season, when it looked like they had “blown it”. Balotelli’s self-inflicted sending off in the important away match against Arsenal finally cut his ego and reputation down to size. He was now irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. Likewise, when Carlos Tévez “returned from exile” ready for playing duty, it was with a clear sense of contrition and humility and it is interesting to note that he was welcomed back by the rest of the squad. That was almost certainly because they recognised that, on the pitch, Tévez could never be faulted for his commitment and contribution to the team. That is an essential ingredient in the dynamics of high performing teams.
Next season, all eyes will be on the Manchester City players and the expectations of their supporters will be immense. The days of just wishing being Champions are history. The supporters and the owners will expect to win. The Manchester City players will have to show that they have learnt collective lessons. Sustaining their individual and group motivation to win over the long haul is not an automatic. Much will depend on whether they really are willing and able to subordinate their individual interests to those of the collective. That is a culture that is difficult to create and sustain, especially when accompanied by astronomic wages and superstar status.