On Sunday February 24th 2008, Tottenham Hotspur won the Carling Cup Final at Wembley against a much-fancied Chelsea team. Juande Ramos received plaudits for the transformation achieved at Tottenham since his arrival earlier in the season.
Does a sporting leader make a difference? Sometimes. At a micro-level a coach can change the course of the game by a substitution which sets up a different pattern of play. An illustration of a positive effect can be found in the actions of new coach Juande Ramos, during the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Aalborg in the Uefa cup.
The Tottenham Aalborg match took place on Thursday 29th November, 2007. According to the BBC,
A storming second half from Tottenham overwhelmed Aalborg as Spurs put themselves on the brink of qualifying for the next stage of the Uefa Cup. Thomas Enevoldsen’s 22-yard strike put the visitors ahead before Kasper Risgard bundled in from close range. But a tactical reshuffle by Spurs boss Juande Ramos saw Dimitar Berbatov poke home and Steed Malbranque power in an angled far-post shot to level. Darren Bent grabbed the winner when he tapped in a cross from Aaron Lennon.
It was Ramos’ switch of formation and personnel, as well as his half-time team talk, which reinvigorated the hosts after they had been given an early shock as Aalborg went ahead with just two minutes gone.
The praise for the coach’s tactical changes was widespread in the post-match accounts. However, Ramos also pinpointed what his tactics had been unable to do, namely set up a team with fewer defensive frailties. He acknowledged as much in his post-match conference
“We are making mistakes that could be costly …The most important thing in the team is balance – and we are imbalanced. We are conceding too many opportunities and we have to find a solution to this, because we are not going to score three goals in every game. We have to stop the defence leaking goals. “Unfortunately a lot of the injured players we have at the moment are in the same area of the team. We have King, Gardner, Rocha out”.
In microcosm, then, a coach made a difference to the performance of the team by a tactical decision that was considered imaginative and surprising. I’d say it was a little act of creativity. It is a matter of discussion to assess what proportion of top-level coaches react as impressively, under similar circumstances.
But should we also note that to make a difference, the team had to be playing less successfully before the change? In which case, the success is balanced by an earlier failure for which the coach also has some responsibility. Closer examination of the play may indicate whether the players had just failed to follow the coach’s plan. In which case, advocates of the theory of situational leadership would put it down to some mismatch between leadership and player actions and competences.
The simplicity of the example makes it a useful one for study. In what ways might we borrow from the theory of situational management to help other coaches achieve better results? The theory suggests that the level of commitment and competence may vary, and the leader has to modify interventions accordingly. Tottenham’s second string defenders are not displaying the competence expected of Premier League professionals; Ramos finds a creative way of overcoming it, with the old adage that attack is the best form of defence. But the adage is not applied in an automatic way, but under specific circumstances. Ramos also intends to work at more direct ways of protecting his team from defensive errors.
The theory of situational leadership remains controversial as research results appear to be at best inconclusive with respect to results achieved in the predicted directions applying measures of leadership (and follower) styles. Perhaps the football field will be a promising arena to study the theory, and maybe apply it in practice.
There is a wider issue that should be mentioned. The arrival of Juande Ramos, and departure of Martin Jols is a far more complicated story to untangle. It would be simplistic to suggest that the Board was correct in replacing a leader who had achieved rather unexpected success over five years at the club. That story requires a far more detailed study over a much longer time-scale than the ninety minutes of a football match.
Image from the wonderful land of New Zealand.