What makes a High Performance Team?
By Stephen Liebmann
The difference between a winning and losing team is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the ‘arena’ of professional sport. I am a long suffering Tottenham Hotspur fan, although I have to admit I don’t mind the suffering which seems to exemplify the noble pursuit of striving to improve; it also means there is something to look forward to, even though this is theoretical and the arrival date for success is undefined.
But Spurs are an interesting example of a team becoming a High Performing Team.
Dead Cat Bounce
This term, borrowed from the world of finance where a recovery in the price of a declining stock should be seen for what it is, a temporary improvement based on an illusion, is the way I look back on the High Performing Team renaissance of Harry Redknapp’s reign as manager (2008-2012). I know this is cruel of me because Harry brought us great joy, success (for much longer than a dead cat can bounce) and he really is an entertaining ‘chap’, but this success was based mostly around one player – Gareth Bale – in what became a lopsided team over-reliant on one person. Towards the end of Bale’s time at Spurs the deference shown to him by other players was painful to watch as they simply passed the ball to him as often as they could in the hope he could do something special. The team abdicated responsibility to one individual which is not sustainable.
Knowing How to Succeed and Why you are Succeeding
It seems to me Spurs were not a High Performing Team under Harry’s reign because they had not yet rediscovered an identity. Throughout their history Spurs were known for playing attractive, passing football, however the exemplar and holder of that crown had passed many years ago to, it pains me to say, Arsenal. What I mean to say is that any new player joining Spurs during 2008-2012 would probably not have had a clear image in his head of the type of team he was joining and whether he would fit well into that regime. This lack of identity probably lead to the mainly disastrous player purchases made with the proceeds from selling Bale. These new players could probably have described what Spurs’ playing heritage was, but not is.
However I believe things have fundamentally changed under new manager Mauricio Pochettino and a High Performing Team is emerging because the whole team is playing with unity and a similar style and plan. They know what their plan for success is, and I believe they understand that their recent wins against the top clubs are absolutely because this plan is being executed effectively. It’s no accident.
Spurs’ success has not emerged due to any dramatic change in personnel. Instead, having started the season poorly, exhibiting a lack of playing coherence, an identity and playing style has developed which looks like a blueprint rather than a happy accident. This is neatly described by Ewan Roberts’ recent analysis, ‘Tottenham Revolution‘, where he goes in depth into the deliberate tactics employed by the team and says “For too long Tottenham have been bereft of an identity, a clearly defined playing style, but Pochettino’s ethos is starting to take root. There is an energy and electricity to Spurs at their peak, the blend of fast breaks and up-tempo pressing coming together most notably against Chelsea [and most recently against Arsenal], while the refocus on academy products has started to chip away at the disconnect between players and fans that started to develop under [previous manager] Andre Villas-Boas.”
Roberts’ last comment about promoting academy players and the relationship with fans is well observed. There is a cynicism in today’s football due to the vast excesses of money. Always the sense that success has been bought rather than won. In contrast, there is a real pleasure in seeing boy-made-good stories emerging on your doorstep. As Jacob Steinberg in The Guardian wrote of new star Harry Kane (Kane enters Tottenham folklore) “The beauty of Kane is that he looks like a supporter who has won a competition to play for his favourite team, with such heart and endeavour, charging around the pitch as if he had been informed before kick‑off that the world would end if he – and only he – did not give every last drop of sweat.” “…it would not have been a surprise to discover that he also found a spare moment or two [during the Arsenal game] to sneak into the crowd and lead a few chants.”
So Spurs’ emerging identity is about youth, promoting home grown talent, high intensity, stifling the opponents when they have the ball, and genuine passion as though the team are also supporters, which is connecting with the crowd and unlocking them as the ‘twelfth player’.
Spurs’ definable identity is not theoretical but is clear to see as a tangible ‘thing’ for the players and supporters to focus on; and it is this identity that is helping to drive the creation of a sustainable High Performing Team.