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Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal – Are Manchester United and Chelsea really football ‘teams’?

Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal - Are Manchester United and Chelsea really football 'teams'? 

Chelsea have a squad that cost nearly £300 million; Manchester United nearer £400 million. Between them they boast some of the finest footballers in Europe, perhaps the world. Yet both teams are seen this season as failing; generating thousands of words of criticism in the sports press; the Chelsea manager Mourinho has been fired, constant rumours and doubts swirl around the head of the Manchester United manager Van Gaal.

The debate around ‘why’ has been intense but consistently both managers have been said to have ‘lost’ the team. And although (even in the most generous organisations) senior business teams usually don’t cost as much as a football team - they may also not work as a team and have an ineffective relationship with the CEO.

Many theories and suggestions have been made – but one I haven’t seen explored is the extent to which the teams are actually teams at all. It could be argued that whilst they could work together reasonably effectively through the good times – the level of engagement and personal commitment was insufficiently developed to enable them to flourish in the face of more than temporary set-backs, or in situations that require collective leadership.

In the 1960’s the psychologist Bruce Tuckman proposed that teams move through a number of stages of development before they really ‘gel’ and maximise their potential. These stages of forming, storming, norming and performing have remained a key idea in understanding the development of teams.  In the early stages ‘forming and storming’ team members are working out how much they want to commit or belong to the team and who is likely to have influence and leadership. Individuals can work together as a group during this stage and, particularly during the forming stage, can seem to get along quite well with lots of jolly banter, storytelling and jokes. In the ‘storming’ stage - as individuals try to work out where they fit in with implicit hierarchy and work out how much influence and respect they have with and from each other – then tensions arise. In my experience this is rarely overt; expressed much more in off-line conversations, passive-aggressive behaviours and a rigid adherence to a limited sense of role responsibility. At both these stages more difficult topics and points of contention are not raised and people don’t tend to risk expressing their feelings or challenging things. Interestingly for Mourinho, Van Gaal and CEO’s all over the  world  - one way a group in the storming stage can attempt to resolve the tension between themselves is to direct it at the leader who becomes a kind of lightning rod for discontent.

All this can work quite well in the good times, where success is easily maintained by everyone doing what is expected of them, but soon crumbles when faced with the unexpected crisis or new and tougher conditions in which deeper truths need to be aired and old assumptions need to be challenged. In these times successful teams are those that have progressed to the norming stage (where there is an understanding and informal agreement about surfacing problems, dealing with interpersonal conflicts) and the performing stage (characterised by deeper levels of engagement and commitment between team members and a willingness share responsibility and collaborate). Teams that have developed to this level have the resilience to cope when the going gets tough – they ‘own’ the challenges they face together.

There are several reasons why this might be the case with elite football teams which suggest they might have got stuck at the forming/storming stage; intense competition for places, agents on the lookout for new clubs with better deals etc. may result in groups of very talented players who are essentially hedging their bets in terms of team commitment.  It could also be the famously autocratic styles of these two individuals are inhibiting development, meaning that the team cannot ‘own the problem’ only they, in the end, can resolve.
If this situation is true of Manchester United and Chelsea it is also true for many organisations globally where relatively little effort is made to create the basis and means for sustainable high performing teams at more senior levels.
Yet the tools for this are readily available – using skilled facilitation to create a ‘safe climate’ where issues can be expressed in ways that allow them to be resolved through collaborative problem solving; rarely heard voices can contribute insight and innovation and new approaches committed to and followed up. All this can be supported by effective feedback mechanisms and ongoing team and individual coaching.

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Comments on this Post

Terry Priestley on 25th January 2016

Ditto other comments here. I believe it's also useful to overlay your 'Command and Control v Freedom to Act' model here Steve. Certainly LVG is known to favour the former and appears to demand compliance from his players. Perhaps aiming rather for commitment through a supportive and encouraging stance, where mistakes are seen as an effort to increase performance, would serve well?

Bryan Stiles on 10th January 2016

Steve, this really does open up some interesting avenues. If engagement and personal commitment at the two clubs is under-developed, such that in challenging times hard issues are not being raised and there’s inadequate challenge, and if successful teams understand how to surface problems and deal with interpersonal conflicts, how can teams get to that point - it isn’t easy? Even if they don’t end up like one happy family, the manager or leader in business, needs to draw out and resolve differences in the team and focus on building respectful working arrangements. Managers and leaders can certainly benefit from getting in support to build these capabilities, both in themselves (no matter their previous achievements) and throughout their team. Chelsea were successful last campaign so could we infer some cohesion at Stamford Bridge – whichever way they’re clearly now off the rails? I wonder whether rather than being stuck, they’ve reverted to the forming or storming stage, i.e. de-formed. At Old Trafford, the departure or retirement of key players and the arrival of so many new one (high team turnover, the same as happens in business), makes the need to re-form the side all the more apparent. The pain associated with this re-forming might be reduced by clarifying roles and objectives; when each team member understands (and commits to) what constitutes individual success they become more aligned to the collective goals. Again, as you say, using skilled facilitation to diagnose the issues and create a ‘safe climate’ can be a big help in getting back to the performing stage, as can using coaching of the leader and the team, particularly where this is tailored to the right stage of process development. Can we expect a follow up considering reasons for the success of Clement at Derby or Ranieri at Leicester….?!

Darren Wilson on 8th January 2016

Goal! I think you have scored one with this blog! Whilst the transfer market may not be as rife in the "business" world, the move from focusing on what's in it for me to what's in it for us, is a massive difference as is the ego factor! Useful reflection for the start of 2016 - many thanks.

John Conway on 7th January 2016

Steve, I think you have an important insight here in relation to team performance and the environment. Strong performance is easier to sustain when there is positive momentum and conditions are benign. When conditions change, the team may not have the resilience to cope with the higher stress levels and as a consequence performance suffers. The team leader has a crucial role to play, even when teams are in the performing stage. When leadership skills and behaviour come into question, team confidence and self-belief can get seriously knocked. An autocratic style will not get the cats back in the bag! Perhaps Ranieri or Wenger could do some managerial coaching on the side.

eduardo bezares on 7th January 2016

Superb food for thought!! Happy New Year

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