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Pep Guardiola helps Manchester City players ditch script

By: Matthew Syed
December 6 2017, 12:01am

In the spring of 2014 the economist Michael Housman was working on a project to figure out why some call-centre workers perform so much better than others. This is a key job in retail, taking calls from consumers with different problems, and navigating towards a solution. Housman had reams of data from a job-assessment form the workers had filled in, but couldn’t find any patterns.

But then one of Housman’s team had a revelation. Might there be a connection between performance and the type of web browser each worker used to fill out the form? Housman was doubtful; surely this was personal preference. The results, however, were extraordinary. Those who filled out their form on Firefox or Chrome had higher sales, happier customers and shorter call times than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari. As Housman told me: “It was one of the most emphatic sets of results we have ever found.”

Guardiola gives his players the scope to find space and to think for themselves
Guardiola gives his players the scope to find space and to think for themselvesTIMES PHOTOGRAPHER BRADLEY ORMESHER

What was going on? The answer is, in fact, quite simple. Safari and Explorer are the default browsers. To use them, you merely have to switch on your computer. To use Firefox or Chrome, on the other hand, requires initiative. You have to have the curiosity to wonder if there are better web browsers, and then download them. It wasn’t the browsers themselves that were driving the difference in performance, but what it said about the mindsets of the users.

Some people stick to the default. In terms of their jobs, they keep to the script handed down by the call-centre supervisor. This is the “command and control” model. Others, however, can think independently. When a customer comes along with a problem that isn’t covered by the script, they look for a novel solution. They adapt. “We were initially shocked by the size of the results,” Housman said. “But we came to realise that the web browser decision, which seemed inconsequential, had shone a light on a crucial trait that impacts upon success in the modern world.”

What does this have to do with sport? For too long, English football has operated according to a command and control model. This starts painfully early, with children playing this beautifully complex game while being barked at by “sergeant major” coaches. Initiative, far from being nurtured, is coached out of young players by hyperactive adults keeping up a steady stream of instruction from the sidelines. At my local park, it is almost deafening.

A seminal paper lead-authored by Professor Mark Williams, then of Brunel University, showed that this approach continued into the upper echelons of the youth game. A study of 25 coaches at Premier League and lower-ranked academies found that the majority of time was spent drilling (65 per cent), rather than in game-related activities (35 per cent), and that coaches incessantly barked commands and admonishments. “Traditionally, coaches have tended to provide copious amounts of feedback in the belief that ‘more is better’,” Williams writes.

This could hardly be more destructive. To exercise initiative, people need the space to think for themselves. They must be given the latitude to depart from the “script”, make occasional errors and learn. Coaching is effectively undermining the very qualities that are needed to blossom. As Professor Williams put it: “Recent empirical work has highlighted the dangers involved in being overly prescriptive and in using these behaviours too frequently during practice.”

Even at senior level, command and control often holds sway. The basic notion is that the coach has the brains to come up with a strategy, which the players should mutely carry out. In psychological terms, they are like call-centre workers docilely following a script. Players are also denuded of responsibility for the way they train or rehabilitate after injury, and have agents who micromanage every aspect of their life beyond the pitch. They are spoon-fed to the point of passivity. This is command and control in overdrive.

Is it any wonder that players who come through such a system struggle to exercise initiative? Is it any wonder that when England went 2-1 down to Iceland at the European Championship finals, the players appeared helpless, looking to the bench for inspiration now that the script had been superseded by events? When the world changes in unpredictable ways, professionals need the capacity to think flexibly and fearlessly. These are the attributes that have been systematically, if inadvertently, sabotaged by decades of top-down coaching and didactic instruction.

It is not just call-centre workers who perform better when liberated from the straitjacket of a script; powerful evidence suggests that the same is true across the professional world. This is not to say that instructions and strategies are irrelevant. If teams are to co-ordinate effectively, and not descend into anarchy, there must be agreed conventions and norms. The point, however, is that managers often get the balance wrong. There are too many commands and not enough discretionary space; too much Safari and Internet Explorer and not enough Chrome and Firefox.

One of the key strengths of Pep Guardiola is that he intuitively grasps these truths. The former Barcelona midfielder, who came through the club’s famous academy, has a quintessentially Cruyffian conception of the game. He encourages his teams to play out from the back, and to press when they lose possession. But players are also given scope to find space, to think for themselves, and to make unpredictable runs of the kind David Silva made to acrobatically convert a diagonal chip from Kevin De Bruyne against West Ham United on Sunday. City do not conform to a script; they riff within broad parameters.

This approach is particularly powerful when players have come through a youth system that values independent thinking. When Guardiola was at Barcelona, he had the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Lionel Messi who were not just attuned to each other through long familiarity, but for whom improvisation was second nature. At Manchester City, Guardiola has had to nurture this quality. Although rigorous in defence, he has liberated his players to attack with flair, aware that this is the most effective way to break down tightly-packed defences.

Raheem Sterling is a vivid example. The 22-year-old is not yet a complete player, but he is performing with more freedom than under Manuel Pellegrini, when he was often instructed to hug the touchline. He can take on defenders, and is making darting runs into the box. Free to think for himself, he is finding more dangerous spaces, and converting more chances into goals. This “on-the-fly” decision-making cannot emerge from a script, but only from the courage to transcend instructions, seizing opportunities as they arise.

It is only recently that English football has woken up to these insights, with a new generation of coaches seized by the importance of creating “thinking” players. This was at the heart of the successes of the under-20 and under-17 teams in recent World Cups, with players handed more responsibility, and whose educations have been encouraged. One hopes that this philosophy will go yet deeper into our game, so that we might finally boast a generation of players capable of leaving the shackles of command and control and making game-changing decisions.

As Guardiola has put it: “Once the referee has blown the whistle, I stand there and wave my hands, but it is always down to the players. With Raz [Sterling], I can tell him to move left, right or in the middle to receive the ball. I can tell him maybe that an opponent has problems defending his right side. But that’s it. When Raz gets the ball, do you think my info is in his head? No, because he only has a split-second to decide what to do and a million possibilities. I am here to help, but football belongs to the players.”


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