Teamwork Lessons from Premier League Football

In Premier League football the stakes are high. Tens of millions of pounds can ride on a single result. Clubs know that winning is critical. Managers know that their job often hangs on the scoreline. The level of hype, the media coverage and the relentless analysis can start to make it all look incredibly daunting. However, the reality is really very simple. It all comes down to the number of goals that a team scores and concedes. Although it sounds obvious, the results column shows the team’s score. It doesn’t say ‘José Mourinho 1 Louis van Gaal 1’. The fixture list doesn’t say ‘Rooney vs Terry’. As much as the press likes to focus on the individuals, football remains a team game.

Undoubtedly, Premier League managers and players understand the importance of teamwork. Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri hailed his side’s teamwork in their 4-2 opening day victory over Sunderland, telling the press, “Today we played like a team [and] that’s what I want because, when you play like a team, there are one or two not 100 per cent but the team support the others.” Ranieri is not alone. Arsène Wenger has spoken publicly about the value of teamwork at Arsenal. When signing Mesut Ozil he emphasised that teamwork, not an individual superstar player, would be key to their success. Wenger also explained that once the new signings are integrated properly into the team, star players are able to really shine. 

Arguably Crystal Palace is currently one club that’s outperforming both its budget and many people’s expectations. Before a match with Manchester City, Palace’s manager, Alan Pardew, told the press that Manchester City might have more strength in depth in terms of star players on the bench, but “sometimes the team is stronger than the individual”. Over the years several smaller clubs, such as Bolton Wanderers, Charlton Athletic and most notably Wimbledon, have found that creating a strong team enabled them to rise above opponents with vastly greater spending power. Teamwork, not financial might, was their competitive advantage.

Even though Premier League Football Clubs understand the importance of teamwork, they don’t always get it right. In recent years there seems to have been an increasing focus on celebrity individuals. There is a great deal of coverage of the multi-million pound transfers, the enormous (and very public) wages, the deals and the contract disputes. Players, managers and coaches often make the TV headlines and the back pages of the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Even when there is press coverage of the game, reports often focus on the individuals who scored the winning goals, rather than the team effort to create them. The net result is that egos can spiral out of control. Too many people become focused on ‘I’ rather than ‘we’.

In the past, leaders such as Sir Alex Ferguson have made decisions to safeguard and protect the culture when individual egos threatened to dominate. On several occasions he had a direct choice between preserving the team culture and losing the superstar player. As a result, he famously said goodbye to David Beckham. In his reports to the media, Ferguson maintained that “no player is bigger than the club”.  

Premier League football is not the only sporting environment to have encountered these challenges. Former Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, explains that there needs to be a reason why NBA basketball players would want to invest into the team performance. Traditionally, NBA players have made their names as individuals. He describes the challenge of getting players to play for the team rather than showcasing their individual skills. He recognised that many NBA players saw fame and fortune following those ‘superstars’ that displayed the greatest individual flair on court. Jackson’s challenge at the Bulls was to help Michael Jordan, who was arguably the greatest individual player in history, to understand the benefits of playing for the team rather than just in the team. When Jordan focused on helping the team perform at its best, its collective success was unprecedented. In Phil Jackson’s words, “Selflessness is the soul of teamwork”.

Football coaches recognise the importance of players who work hard off the ball as well as those who look good on it. Several years ago, while working in Premier League football, I sat down with the coaching staff to analyse a match. At half time, the team were 3-0 down. In the second half, after a few choice words in the dressing room, they turned it around and finished victorious. We looked closely at the performance to find out what had changed from one half to the next. Interestingly, we noticed that our centre forward’s work rate had increased almost threefold. In the first half the striker rarely left the centre circle. During the second half, he ran into the corners, made runs across the line, worked to create space for others and give more options to passers. Incredibly, the centre forward touched the ball fewer times during the second half, but his increased work rate created far more opportunities for the team.   

Great coaches often understand that the best team players do things that sometimes go unnoticed. These players are the cement that binds the team together. Chelsea manager José Mourinho once described holding midfielder, Claude Makélélé as “undroppable” because his contribution allowed others in the team to perform. It is well documented that Makélélé’s presence allowed Frank Lampard greater attacking scope. Interestingly, Lampard scored just seven goals in 53 games before Makélélé arrived at Chelsea. In the following five years he averaged more than 18 goals a season. In his 144 appearances, Makélélé scored just two goals (fewer than many defenders). However, in those 144 appearances, Chelsea won 100 games and drew 28. 

Michael Jordan’s success with Chicago Bulls also escalated when his game evolved beyond simply being an individual star. When opponents began to double, and sometimes triple-mark Jordan, his teammates found that they had more space and time to attack on the court. Simply by occupying defenders, Jordan’s value to the team increased. Rather than creating a one-dimensional threat to opposition defences, the Bulls became dangerous all over the court. 

So, what can businesses learn from this? And how can they improve their teamwork?

I’ve studied many world-class teams in recent years, including elite sports teams, Special Forces units, Red Arrows teams, Formula One pit crews, racing yacht crews and many more. I’ve noticed that the world’s best teams share a number of key characteristics. For example, they know what a great team player looks like. In many cases, they deliberately seek to recruit the best team players. The Red Arrows, for example, recruit three new pilots each year into a team of nine. Their aim is not to select the best pilots. As a former Red Arrows team leader explained to me, “They’re all great pilots, or they wouldn’t be here.” Knowing that the pilots are all capable, the team’s aim is to select the best team player. Great teams also know that the best team players might be those who go unnoticed. They quietly get the job done, outside of the spotlight. They are happy to work ‘off the ball’, covering for others and creating opportunities for teammates.     

The All Blacks rugby team adopt a similar ethos. They adhere to a strict ‘no dickhead’ policy. In their culture, showboating and egotistical behaviour are not accepted. They value humility. No All Black is too big to do the small things. This means that after games, the players (who are amongst the world’s best) clean the dressing room with long-handled brooms. As a result, they have a solid team culture, where everyone pitches in for the good of the team. They know that their individual success is integrally linked with that of the team. When the team becomes successful, the players enjoy success. 

Businesses can adopt these simple principles too. When leaders understand what great team players look like, and how to recognise those who work ‘off the ball’, their people are far more likely to play for the team, not just in the team.


To find out more, read Stronger Together; How Great Teams Work

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