Black Friday: “Perched: Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC – Champions Of Everything”
Excerpt from the chapter: Leadership, Teamwork and What Makes Klopp So Special
So, there’s something called Black Friday (apparently not the lead singer of the Pixies), which means people order lots of needless shit online, for a period of time that lasts far longer than one Friday.
Until my next Liverpool book arrives in 2022 (if all goes to plan), Perched remains my latest. Liverpool are no longer perched, but still doing pretty well. And the 19th league title win remains worthy of revisiting, now and … well, forever more.
I’m sharing part of a chapter below, as well as some links to the book, which is available only via Amazon, but in paperback or Kindle format; with paperbacks available only in the more bigger Amazon national stores. (Australia has recently added paperback production to its options.)
Excerpt from the chapter: Leadership, Teamwork and What Makes Klopp So Special
Practice is obviously vital; almost all exceptional talents are proof of the well-known “10,000 hours” rule – it usually takes that much time, give or take a thousand hours or two, working at something to become considered elite. Then again, there is also the level of difficulty in practice undertaken, which can push the limits, just as exercising beyond comfort allows new muscle to build.
For teams, however, it’s far more complex. These are always groups of disparate individuals, driven by different desires. What is the magic behind making a team exceed the sum of its parts?
Leading American organisational psychologist Adam Grant, writing for The Huffington Post in 2013, asked in the title of the piece, ‘What’s the Common Ingredient for Team Success in Surgery, Banking, Software, Airlines, and Basketball?’
“What if work experience is overrated? In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analysing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.
“A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1%. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.
“The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anaesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.”
Of course, to become a surgeon requires thousands of hours of study and practice before becoming part of a team. But once they were fully qualified surgeons, the team around them became the most important factor in success. In football we idolise the individuals, yet few people think about why Mo Salah was not so good at Chelsea and yet has been so sensational at Liverpool; or why Philippe Coutinho became so exceptional at Liverpool and was not so good at Barcelona.
Myriad factors are in play: at the most basic level, they are not even the same players even from one game to next, given that their physical and mental states will never be 100% the same each time, no matter how close they get to that state through training and mental practices, and the players around them will be different from day to day (and the way the game unfolds will always be uniquely different). The opposition will be different; the same opposition can play well or play poorly, and you don’t always know what version you’ll get. The bigger the change, however, the greater the disruption. Moving to different clubs, and to different leagues, involves forming new relationships, facing new challenges and, to use a culinary metaphor relating to a mix of ingredients, if you represent the curry powder you will work well in a lamb korma and terribly in a lasagne (or so I have been told in relation to my strangely unpopular spaghetti carbonara vindaloo). Even the very same curry powder will work differently in an alternate Indian or Thai dish, depending on what the other ingredients are; some might enhance your flavour, others may overwhelm it. It’s about the blend, the balance.
Of course, a footballer is a more complex entity than a mere mix of spices; a human has the capacity to work at altering their own qualities, even if it’s not easy to change one’s character or abilities overnight. But within a team, the individual is reliant on what’s around him or her. And time spent together plays a role.
In the summer of 2019 I argued, in the face of the usual transfer-based hysteria that often makes those months unbearable (for some people, “winning” the transfer window seems more important than any actual football), that Liverpool were probably right to keep their powder dry in the transfer market, because the team was at a very good average age, and was increasing its interdependent skills. The previous summer, in 2018, both Spurs and Manchester City made virtually no additions to teams that were at good ages, and subsequently had their best seasons, by some of the biggest metrics, in their history (in City’s case, three trophies was a club best; in Spurs’ case, it was their first ever European Cup/Champions League final). Of course, a further year later, heading into 2019/20, they then had issues with some ageing players; and so they bought new players, and rather than improving, they regressed, to the point where they were miles adrift of the Reds. None of which is to say that buying new players was therefore a mistake; just that it can take time for a team to form, and grow, and sometimes it simply won’t work out. If your players age-out, you need to replace them – you cannot keep a team together beyond its natural lifespan; but that change can often disrupt the shared wavelength – in the short term, at least – that everyone else has tuned in to. Indeed, this is why Klopp often chooses to let players adapt to Liverpool’s football via months of training before they are exposed to the first team; which was also famously the way Liverpool used to do it during the halcyon days, perhaps as no coincidence. (Albeit back then, there was less fanfare about new arrivals, and players like Alan Hansen, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol were all fairly young when they arrived, but went straight into the reserves.)
In his piece, Grant continued:
“In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past. In a study of more than 1,000 security analysts led by Boris Groysberg, when star analysts moved to a new firm, it took them an average of at least five years to recover their star status – unless they moved with their teams. The star analysts who moved alone had 5% odds of receiving the highest ranking from investors, whereas those who transferred with their teams enjoyed a 10% chance of earning the top spot.
“Huckman and his colleagues found similar patterns in a study of more than 100 software development projects. The highest quality and on-time delivery rates were achieved not by the teams whose members had the most individual experience, but by the teams whose members had the most shared experience working together. Another study of product development teams showed that it typically took two to four years for members to gain sufficient experience working together to achieve their potential.”
This last number is particularly interesting, as almost all of Liverpool’s title-winning troops – certainly the key players – had been at the club (or in the first-team setup) for two-to-four years: Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Joël Matip, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah; while Joe Gomez, Divock Origi, James Milner and Roberto Firmino were in their fifth season at the club, which doesn’t fall too far outside the limit, and they were refreshed by the new talent around them. The only key first-XI player who was long-serving was Jordan Henderson, with a few of the squad players at the club for up to six or seven years, such as Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, who had gone from the first team to the fringes of the squad, albeit still making the occasional important contribution. The research suggests that if you have a team where half of them have been at a club ten years, and half of them are in their debut season, you could have the same average time spent at the club, but not the same levels of cohesion.
Selling an overvalued star to rebuild a squad is often a good move, but it’s not without its dangers. The best example of it working to perfection is Ian Rush moving to Juventus in 1987, for a whopping £3.2m (at a time when the most an English club had ever paid was £1.5m). That £3.2m, agreed a year earlier, allowed Liverpool to reshape the entire attacking unit: John Aldridge, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton all arrived in 1987, to form what was, until the current team, arguably the best multi-pronged attack the club had ever possessed, as part of a team that rewrote the style book. But crucially, Aldridge arrived in January, and spent quite a lot of time on the bench as Rush played out the second half of his final season (before later returning in 1988, after his time in Italy proved a mistake). Houghton was the last to arrive, making his debut in late October 1987. In between came Barnes and Beardsley, both in the summer. But of course, that pair had been to the 1986 World Cup together as part of the England squad. So it was a gradual process, and the two key summer additions were already accustomed to one another’s game. It perhaps also helped that the defence and central midfielders were already a well-established unit, providing their own platform of understanding within the side.
In the aforementioned article, Adam Grant stated that “Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In Leading Teams, he argues that in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability – whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.
“The benefits of shared experience are visible outside knowledge work. Hackman referenced a NASA study showing that fatigued crews with experience flying together made significantly fewer errors than rested crews who had never flown together. He also pointed to an NTSB analysis of airline accidents revealing that 44% occurred on a crew’s first flight together and 73% on a crew’s first day. And an investigation of all NBA basketball games played from 1980 to 1994 showed that as teams gained more experience, they won more games. This was true even after accounting for player talent and age.”
As ever, not everything fits neatly with the theory. “There are alternative explanations for some of these findings,” Grant noted. “Many airline crews only do one flight or day together, meaning that there are more chances for accidents to occur on first flights and first days. Basketball executives and coaches work harder to keep successful teams together – and players are more motivated to stay with winning teams. Consistent with this idea, when NBA teams win more games in year one, they’re more likely to stay together in year two. But the opposite also holds: NBA teams with more shared experience in year one win more games in year two.
“Interestingly, in the NBA and R&D, the gains from shared experience declined over time. The value of the first few years together was much greater than additional years accumulated. As teams stayed together longer, they had less to learn and faced a greater risk of becoming too rigid and predictable in their routines. At that point, rotating a member – or a coach – might be a critical step. But most teams never made it there. The vast majority of teams weren’t together long enough to benefit from shared experience.
“Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”
This accurately describes Liverpool’s process, and reinforces the idea that the squad, and the team, is perhaps ready for one more season together, as the Covid-19 crisis forces clubs to scale down their transfer plans ahead of 2020/21. The team is getting older, clearly, but no one in the best XI is within even two years of being too old.
To order the book, search on your local Amazon or use the links below.