Football insights: does happiness create success? Learning from Leicester’s unlikely supremacy

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Apr 262017

Whether happiness and success are linked or opposites has been debated for centuries. In creative arts, misery seems more linked with genius. But football offers us a different view, at least this year.

For readers who think football’s a bore, I must say that I find it a rich source of insights and analogies for life generally. So bear with me for a few paragraphs.

In May 2015, Leicester City narrowly escaped relegation from the Premier League. Now, in April 2016, they look likely to be League Champions for this season. The turnaround has a lot to do with happiness. To show how unlikely this success is, Leicester spent much of the 2014/15 season in the relegation zone. They started the current season as favourites for relegation, with their manager favourite for first manager to be fired, and odds of 5000 to 1 on winning the League.

Most of Leicester’s players are unchanged from the struggles of the previous season – this is not a team with big ticket bought-in stars and massive egos to match. When Leicester appointed Claudio Ranieri as manager early in this season, many (including me) though they’d made a bad mistake. Ranieri is oldish, 64 years old, with a mediocre track record.

But the Ranieri we’ve seen this season is happy, sweet, even playful guy, who has clearly given his players permission to enjoy every match. They’re a team who just seem to be happy to play football, without the angst and pressure of big-name teams with big reputations to defend.

Technical stats suggest Leicester are not that great: for example, their pass accuracy at 70% is awful. Ranieri says, “The first thing I said to players is for them not to worry too much about tactics.” Clearly, spirit and fun count for more!

Even as the season nears its climax, and expectations are huge, the team seem to be playing to enjoy the moment, and Ranieri is staying pretty calm. In a recent interview on Match of the Day, he was asked “Do you feel it’s becoming a real possibility now?” He smiled, and said “What? Oh, you mean the championship?”

Life lessons from Pep Guardiola

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Sep 152016

Happy days are back: it’s the start of the soccer season. As regular readers will know, the Premier League is not only a favourite entertainment for me, but a source of life wisdom in vivid allegorical form.

We have several new managers in the Premier League this season, most of them seemingly from the arm-waving uber-emotional school. Has Mourinho switched to a jacket and tie to differentiate himself?? For me, the most intriguing new arrival is Pep Guardiola. Manchester City probably have the best combination of deep pockets and long-term vision of any club, and they have patiently pursued this guy for years, so he must be special. Even at this early stage, a distinctive style is emerging, and here are some ideas of what we can learn from him:

Presence can match ego: the Premier League is a cauldron of egos and drama, constantly stirred and heated by media desperate for news. Pep doesn’t get hooked by this: he’s a strong, steady, understated character with tremendous presence.

Life lesson: don’t get rattled by any loud egos or drama lovers around you. Trust your own strengths and values, and stand quietly by them.

Make difficult decisions cleanly: some players attract excessive deference, such as Joe Hart. Dropping him can’t be easy, and risks unsettling the team. Pep has been upfront and consistent in his approach, and it’s clear that he talked it through in person with Hart at the outset. This contrasts favourably with Mourinho, whose decisions to drop players seem partly based on ego, and can be crudely done, as with Schweinsteiger.

Life lesson: so integrity and consideration in hard decisions, and talk them through with the person involved.

Defend assertively: one of Pep’s big strategic innovations has been the keeper-sweeper: a goalie who may come well forward of his goal to act as an extra defender. Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich and Germany is probably the best example. It’s a high-risk strategy for a manager to adopt, because if your goalie louses up, the attacker has an open goal ahead of him, as we saw on Bravo’s debut. The pay-off is that you can use defensive players to give you dominance in midfield and support your attack.

Life lesson: if you feel that pressures on you are increasing, find creative ways to get off the back foot, use your resources differently, and be willing to take a few risks.

Calm, focus, intelligence: even at this early stage, Guardiola has impressed fans and media by swiftly improving the performance of several struggling players, such as Raheem Sterling, Clichy and Kolarov. Arjen Robben said of Pep’s time at Bayern Munich: “He thinks constantly about how to make the team better and how to improve players.” His recent comment on Sterling shows Pep’s obvious own calm and focus: “The best advice is to keep calm and focus on his training, his body and his personal life. Then when that happens he has a lot of quality…”

Life lesson: even with intense situations, find ways to keep your own calm and focus, use your intelligence to improve the assets and colleagues you have.

Systemic improvements: He has put a high priority on physical conditioning to reduce the high injury rates which have plagued City in recent seasons. He has introduced set team meals to manage diet, and changed sleeping arrangements before matches: just a few of the systemic changes which are already bearing fruit.

Life lesson: don’t get bogged down in solving problems ad hoc, look for ongoing systemic changes which reduce the number of ad hoc problems you face.
The acid test of all this was the Manchester derby match on September 10: a truly elegant victory for Pep’s approach over the Special One’s.