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Barcelona win again - but why?

23 May 2016


Last week Barcelona were crowned the football champions of La Liga in Spain, which they have won 3 of the last 4 years. And yesterday won the Copa del Rey (Spanish cup) at the end of a season where they set the Spanish record (39) unbeaten consecutive games in all competitions. Congratulations to Luis Enrique their manager and the present team who won the treble last year (making them the only European club to win the treble twice, as well as being the only club ever to win 6 out 6 competitions in a single season). All this in a recent era when the Spanish national side – with many Barcelona players, have won 2 European Championships 2008, 2012, and a World Cup 2010. What is their secret? What can business learn from this?

My research into high performance in sport or business suggests you need three things: Firstly, excellent players (staff) both on and off the field of play. Secondly money – you need to be properly capitalised. But many teams both in sport and business have both – champions have another ingredient – Leadership. Part of the leader’s role is to instil the philosophy, values and culture of how things should be done – and Barcelonan FC shine as a contemporary example of this to the world. Sharing performance, values and purpose you become more than a team. So what can business learn from the Barcelona way?

Barcelona’s approach has been created over many years and has had many great people contributing to it. But many would argue the arrival of Johan Cruyff from The Netherlands to be the wind under the Catalan wings. Cruyff was three times winner of the Ballon d’Or; inventor of the Cruyff turn; and esteemed as Europe’s greatest ever player – some say the person who made the biggest ever overall impact as player and manager in football. As Guardiola put it “Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”. Guardiolas’ Barcelona reached a record six champions league semi finals and won 14 trophies in 4 years. Guardiola plus Cruyff account for 25 trophies. Guardiola played for and was mentored by Cruyff.

Barcelona’s “pattern of play” or way of playing, is clear for a trained eye to see, but what underpins this? Although adapted by specific coaches over the years it derives from a paradigm around “time and space”. It is similar to / derived from the Total Football played by the Dutch national side of the early 1970s. Ajax used this approach to win three successive European cups 1971 to 1973. While I was coaching a youth team I was trying to explain it to 13 year olds, and came up with this explanation… “Put simply – when we have the ball - the most important people are your 10 team mates who do not have the ball – their job is to find space to receive a pass or drag the opposition so someone else can receive. When “they” (the opposition) have the ball – the job of our 11 is to close down space. By controlling space and creating space we find time to express ourselves in, to enjoy playing. And also most importantly, realise that we play not for the glory of ourselves but for a higher purpose - the service to our teammates, our club, our parents, our country”.

A couple of interesting observations. Firstly I quoted 11 players, not 10 (i.e. including the goal keeper). The philosophy inspired by Cruyff was taken to Bayern Munich by Guardiola ...the goalkeeper is used as an outfield player ... and Manual Neuer the German goalkeeper of the world cup winning team 2014 completed more passes than many of the outfield players! Also, in the total football fluid system the players do not have fixed “positions”! (Which interestingly contrasts with most of what appears the received wisdom of many modern coaches, often heard debating 4-4-2 vs. 4-3-3 vs 4-2-3-1).

Having a strong philosophy can be embedded in all aspects of a business / club so that those who are new or are growing up in the organisation are imbued with the values and beliefs ready for when they play in the top team. We learn best from those we respect and admire who show interest in us. Incidentally Messi, Iniesta and Xavi were voted the 3 best players in the world via FIFA - all are products of the Barcelona Academy! The academy are proponents of the tiki-taka (short passes, movement, work the ball into channels, keep possession) and this was crafted for Barcelona based on the Ajax method that Cruyff had himself experienced. Interestingly , some of Barcelona academy players would not be tall enough to have made it into the football academies of some premier league clubs who still have height as a criterion!

A question that has long intrigued me is – where did Cruyff get this idea from? It turns out that he himself was mentoring through the Ajax academy system and was inspired by another great Dutch coach called Rinus Michels. Ajax incidentally won 3 European cups playing this way in the early 70s (46 consecutive home wins!). So I then wondered who inspired Michel’s – and it turns out he was … an Englishman – a flat cap wearing northerner from Manchester called Jack Reynolds – who played for teams such as Second Division Grimsby Town. Jack was Rinus’s mentor and manager. Jack was not a great player – but he was a great leader. He was one of the main pioneers of total football and ended up the manager of Ajax (1915-25, 1928-40, 1945-47), which he led to 8 Dutch league titles. He was also the Dutch national manager and until 1913 was actually also the German National Team manager (short post for obvious reasons).

To me this shows the power of leadership mentoring - as leaders we pass on not only our knowledge but our values and philosophy too. Many business leaders I work with give credit to an inspirational mentor who shaped their ideas and encouraged them along the way.

Whether it is in sport or business, - you do need great people and great funding to have great business. But you also need great leadership and this is often passed on through great leadership mentoring – where the torch of “philosophy and values” are passed onto the next generation. The next time you see the sunlit people of Catalan get to their feet after a move that begins with a Chilean, through a Brazilian, and a Croatian, then touched by many Spaniards before the Artistic Argentinean creates a “simple tap in” for the Uruguayan – think of the Dutchmen who gave us the confidence and insight to play this way and an Englishman in a flat cap from Manchester – who on a rainy day in Grimsby started the move!

Nigel Cushion

Chairman, Nelsonspirit

Mentoring for Leaders
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