What Man Utd can learn from Barcelona about culture
Written by Professor Damian Hughes — October 2, 2018
GARY NEVILLE’S recent comments about Manchester United's betrayal of their unique culture struck a chord with many.
The term 'culture' might seem abstract but, in reality, it simply means how people are expected to behave within a particular environment. Research indicates that when done correctly, it can offer a significant competitive advantage.
This was something Sir Alex Ferguson harnessed to great effect in United’s halcyon age, as did Pep Guardiola during a period of astonishing success at Barcelona. The parallels are stark and hint at where United now need to refocus.
"These people have been working hard in tough jobs all week. They come here to be entertained. We owe it to them.” Sir Matt Busby.
This was a sentiment Johan Cruyff also shared. When asked whether he’d be willing to play with a mainly defensive system to win the league, Cruyff replied: “Imagine having to sit through a season of ugly football - and you might not even win the title! The whole season would then have been wasted.”
It is a neat significance that before each man's greatest triumph, in the European Cup victories at Wembley in 1968 and 1992, the final words uttered before their players entered the fray were, 'Enjoy it!' The reason being that their enjoyment would be reflected in their style of play and that the joy would soon spread to the terraces.
What both men also did was impose clearly understandable, everyday behaviours to their teams. "Talent will always get you into the dressing room,” explained Txiki Begiristain, a member of Cruyff's side and later the Director of Football at Barcelona, “but how you behave within the culture will determine how long you remain there.”
When Guardiola was appointed Barcelona head coach in 2008, he immediately imposed three behaviours on his charges which informed them how to act: humility, hard work and putting the team above your own self interest.
There are myriad tales illustrating how this manifested itself, including one in which Guardiola's long-serving assistant, Manel Estiarte, watched the reaction of players sat on the subs' bench and told those who failed to react to the game's ebb and flow to FIFO: Fit in or Fuck off.
United's own behavioural code has long been inculcated within the club's DNA as well:
"If there is one word which sums up my time at United, it is relentlessness," said Gary Neville. "You never stop driving, never rest on your laurels."
Steve McClaren, in his time as Ferguson's assistant, summed it up neatly: “United never get beaten. We occasionally run out of time but we never get beaten.”
2. Risk taking
Roy Keane recounts one incident in which United's players conducted a draw to determine who would win a pool of money from endorsement deals.
“We decided to put all the cheques into a hat, and the last cheque out, whoever’s name was on it he got to keep all of the cheques. The younger players, including David Beckham and Gary Neville, were allowed to opt out. They were new on the scene and didn’t have the money to spare.”
Two young players, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, however, insisted on being included.
Eric Cantona’s was the last name out, winning him approximately £16,000. “Eric, you lucky bastard,” was Keane’s retort. The next day, Cantona presented Scholes and Butt with £8,000 each.
“He said,” Keane explains, “the two of them had had the balls to go into it when they couldn’t really afford it.” Cantona had rewarded their willingness to take a risk.
Ferguson was once asked to describe the essential ingredients of a United player. "Anyone can demand the ball when we are winning comfortably, courage is to want it when we are getting beat and under pressure."
At a coaches’ meeting, Guardiola once asked Ferguson: “If you get to a situation where the balance seems broken, what do you do? Do you go or do you change players?” Ferguson's answer was succinct: “You change players.”
Before Guardiola had taken over at Barcelona, the stories about the unprofessional behaviours within the dressing room were rife within the city, with even the teenage Lionel Messi being implicated. Returning from one of Ronaldinho's frequent parties, the Argentine had an accident with a van in Barcelona.
Having crashed, he faced the indignant owner who, fortunately, was a fan and happy to reach an agreement. There were other stories of incidents in Barcelona’s nightclubs. The “Ronaldinho effect”, which had once rejuvenated the club was now having more serious consequences, especially for the next generation.
Ferguson's advice was heeded and Guardiola's ruthless treatment of the club’s three star players - Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o - signalled the dawning on a new era. In his first press conference, the young head coach announced the end of the star triumvirate's Nou Camp careers. The first two left soon afterwards and Eto’o departed 12 months later.
This allowed Guardiola to build the club around Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Messi and Gerard Pique - all products of La Masia. He dubbed these his “cultural architects”, the ones who identified and would consistently role model the trademark behaviours.
There was a neat illustration of this during a 2011 victory against a beleaguered Rayo Vallecano. After the fifth goal - in a 7-0 victory - scorer Thiago began a samba dance in celebration and was joined by team mate Dani Alves.
Captain Carles Puyol trotted over to the pair and put a stop to it, directing them back toward the centre circle. It wasn’t the samba rhythm that offended, but the lack of humility. Following the game, Guardiola issued an apology: “That’s not the attitude of Barça players. It won’t happen again.”
This attitude pervades all his teams. When they score, note how the scorer will always seek to point and acknowledge the role of the person who created the chance. It is a small, but telling example of how he seeks to rid the culture of egotists and instils a sense of the team coming first.
Think back through the great United sides of the past and you can easily list three or four of these same strong, occasionally belligerent characters; leaders who protected and defended the team's cultural DNA.
Former youth team player Febian Brandy recalls: “I was about 13 when Kieran Richardson had just made the first-team squad. He came into training one day with the car roof down and his music blaring out.
“He thought he was the man. Unfortunately for him, Roy Keane was walking into the car park. He pointed at him and said, ‘Turn your music off and go home. Don’t come back here today.’”
When Paul Pogba's explanation for the recent defeat to Brighton was down to "the attitude of the players had not been as it should", the absence of cultural architects, defending the club's DNA, was stark.
In a recent study, it was found that coaches with a cultural fit to the teams they lead have better winning records. The research provided two important takeaways.
First, a coach’s experience might be not as powerful of a factor as you'd think in explaining a team’s winning percentage.
Guardiola’s single year’s coaching experience with Barcelona’s B prior to his big break is testimony to this.
Second, the cultural fit of a leader really does matter. It is not a nice to have add-on, but essential to peak performance.
Warren Buffett, the world’s best-known investor, echoes this when advising businesses how to appoint a leader: "They must possess intelligence, energy and integrity. If they only have intelligence and energy, don't touch them!"
It is the third quality, integrity - the courage to stay true to their ideals - which makes the difference.
Mourinho's current formula, from his pragmatic, win-at-all-costs approach; to his reliance on experienced players at the expense of youth; through to his dour demeanour, complaining about the pre-season tour, the lack of signings and the fans, is diluting the impact he can make.
There is a great quote, often used in crisis management situations, that success leaves clues. When you are facing problems, start by looking at the occasions when you have been good and work out why it happened. This was the approach adopted by those in charge at FC Barcelona back in 2007. It wouldn't be too late for those in charge of Manchester United to heed the same approach.
- Damian Hughes has worked with many sports teams including, most recently, the Scotland Rugby Union side. He has written several books, including the acclaimed How To Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson. His latest book, The Barcelona Way, is published by Macmillan.