Why England Lose – Talent Management Insights from Football


For England fans the World Cup is sadly over, our ears have recovered from the din of Vuvuzelas, and once again the England team has fallen from its precipice of unrealistic expectations.
The question of the day is “Why do England lose?”
To answer this, rather than ask the usual football pundits, we look to our ‘dismal’ friends the economists. Usually found researching and thinking about stagflation, economic stimulus and other boring stuff, when they turn their inquisitive minds to football, we discovered some interesting insights. From their findings we have identified some broader talent management lessons.
“Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained” is a book by Simon Kuper who writes a weekly sports column in the Financial Times and Stefan Szymanski, a Professor of Economics and MBA Dean at Cass Business School in London. The book draws on geography, economics, statistics and psychology. 

Why England Lose


The answer to the question of why England lose at football, is of course – they don’t. The authors did some number crunching on historical data of football games and using regression analysis determined how much of a given outcome (winning football games) can be related to a other factors (wealth, population size, footballing experience, home advantage).  The authors suggest that England are in fact over-performing.
The authors came up with some interesting findings about football, which we think poses some interesting lessons for management and in particular talent management. Sport played at the highest level really hones management techniques as every win and loss is played out in public. Getting the most out of your people is crucial, with small differences in individual performance making or breaking a season (and of course a towns’ collective heart).
The authors also looked to case studies of teams that have had great success, they looked for structural reasons rather than individual greatness or prowess.
Some lessons come from Olympique Lyon, who have progressed from a relatively obscure provincial club to rule French football, winners of Ligue 1 from 2001/2 until 2007/8.   In England in 1979/1980, this occured with Nottingham Forest  (before then even less known in football terms than Lyon) who won consecutive European Cups with the footballing management duo Bryan Clough and Peter Taylor.  More recently there are lessons from another modern French thinker of football, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal Manager.


The authors highlighted 12 main secrets of the football transfer market, and from these we have pulled out 8 broader talent management lessons for you :-



1 – A new manager wastes money. Typically the new manager wants to make their mark by buying and selling players. This is usually disruptive to the team, with the manager unlikely to stay around long enough for this tactic to pay dividends. Would you let your new Executive ‘hire and fire’ and bring in their own team in the first few weeks? Or get them to utilise the existing resources, understand their strengths and weaknesses before filling capability gaps to match your strategy?

2 – Stars of recent World Cups are overvalued. You can pick the player who dazzles for their country in the big tournament, playing for their national pride, but will they deliver on a cold, wet evening in Blackburn in November?  A new recruit is “only as good as their last project” this cliché is simply not true. Don’t be dazzled by the last project – look for a consistent pattern of performance.

3 – Centre-Forwards are overvalued – goalkeepers are undervalued. Do you have to pay more for some roles because you are told you have to pay more for that particular ‘in demand’ new skill? Isn’t it more important to get the best people who delivery the core elements and pay them appropriately? Don’t be blinded by the flashy or those who ‘talk a good game’ – you might find it’s the goalkeeper who really keeps the company moving forward (and stops those painful own goals!)


4 – Use the wisdom of crowds. When Olympique Lyon think about signing a player, a broad group debate the transfer.  In England it’s usually the manager. The more collaborative system has proved to be successful and tends to avoid the typical mistakes in the transfer market. How can you benefit from the wisdom of crowds in recruitment, and implement a process where different views are taken into account?

5 – Gentleman prefer blondes. At least one big British football club noticed that their scouts recommended more blonde players – apparently in a field of 22 similar looking players, the blondes tend to stand out.  The club in question began to take this distortion into account when judging scouting reports. Sport is all about improving performance – there is no point in excluding a section of the population if they give your team advantages.  An example quoted by the authors is a decline in racism against black footballers since the 1970s. So you may have a diversity policy and track demographic data religiously – but are you missing out on the breadth of talent that can help your organisation really shine? Identify and abandon your organisation ‘sight-based prejudices’ and look for systematic failures – rather than individual mistakes.  

6 – Replace your best players even before you sell them. Do you wait for your trusty Finance Director to decide that it’s now time to spend more time in the garden or with the grand children? Have a succession management plan in place, so when the big day comes (and retirement is the nicest option here), you have someone who can fill the boots of the star players.

7 – Buy players with personal problems, and then help them deal with their problems. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor were great football thinkers, they had their vices and this possibly gave them particular empathy with troubled players.  Once they identified a ‘more challenging’ player’s issue, they helped that player manage it.  Their motivation might have been altruistic, but the outcome was they got much better value out of the transfer market and better results. In football the attitude has been “we pay you a lot of money now get on with it” – as if mental illness, addictions, or homesickness should not exist above a certain level of income. The modern attitude of Arsene Wenger also helped Tony Adams through his own recover from alcoholism, see Adam's charity, Sporting Chance. We are not suggesting you make “personal problems” one of your recruitment selection criteria, but this is a real issue in maintaining a healthy workplace. According to the 2001 World Health Organisation, one person in four will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their life. There is an ethical and strong business case for helping employees who are having a hard time. See the CIPD Factsheet – Mental Health at Work.

8 – Help your players relocate. Why spend £24 million on a new member of staff and then let them fend for themselves in a Hotel in a new country. Clough and Taylor found that many transfers failed because of problems off the pitch. Use relocation consultants or find some way of integrating new joiners into their new role in your organisation.  Didier Drogba spent months in a hotel looking for somewhere to live after training with Chelsea, how much faster would he have assumed his current form if his move, six years ago, had been better managed?



Before we blow the final whistle, here is our final thought – if we can learn something from football management, what can football management learn from talent management practices in other businesses?




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6 Responses to “Why England Lose – Talent Management Insights from Football”

  1. Tweets that mention HR Transformer Blog » Blog Archive » Why England Lose – Talent Management Insights from Football -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Jean Kelly Says:

    I enjoyed reading about this book – will get myself a copy.  A couple of other thoughts from the World Cup.  The French manager was told his contract would end after the World Cup.  What a way to undermine his authority with his team.  No wonder they would not do as he said and went on strike!  An English player said, after the so-called get together with the manager after the second poor match, that no, they did not have a discussion with the manager – the manager spoke and they listened!  We can indeed learn how not to manage staff through football management.  Regards, Jean

  3. AndySpence Says:

    Hi Jean, thanks for dropping by and commenting, much appreciated.  Another book on football and management I enjoyed reading is "90 minute manager" (http://astore.amazon.co.uk/glasbeadcons-21/detail/0273708309) which analysed some of the best and worst football managers in Britain, with some pointers on good people management.  Unlike some of the recent examples you highlighted from the World Cup!   Thanks, Andy

  4. Amar Dhaliwal Says:

    I think of English football similar to an Industrial Age company. It is heirarchical; siloed; slow; predicatable; non-adaptive; linear; and not able to deal with discontinuity. Football played by other nations is similar to a Knowledge Based company – networked; mobile; connected; fast and adaptive;

  5. AndySpence Says:

    Hi Amar, many thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.  If English football is in the Industrial age, any ideas how it can move up the value chain? Regards, Andy

  6. Amar Dhaliwal Says:

    Hello Andy,
    After that inglorious exit from the World Cup I duly joined the national handwringing and then got to thinking about why there is such constant underachievement from what should be one of the teams regularly competing for honors. As I pondered on this topic (while at the same time drooling over how Germany, Spain, Uruguay, Ghana and many others were playing) it dawned on me that the issue was very similar to one we have been working on at Saba (http://www.saba.com) – Why is one organization better able to outperform another; able to define a new product category, or able to adapt to changing circumstances quicker? How are the most successful organizations thinking and why are they fundamentally different from what has gone before?
    In this context I see three key Issues with English football:           
    English Football is Organized for the 20th Century and not the 21st
    The most basic problem with English football is that it is not organized for international success and not capable of making the changes needed. The FA (Football Association) and the EPL (English Premier League) are organised for the 20th century (and that is being very generous to the FA!). These organizations are hierarchical; bureaucratic; siloed; not adaptive to change. The FA is an old boys club that consists of patronage appointments driven by ego and prestige. The EPL is driven by revenue alone and is simply a marketing machine with no greater purpose or mission. Grass roots football in England is inevitably modeled by these imperatives and will not deliver the new generation of players or tactics that are needed to compete on the world stage.
    In a business context, the analogy that comes to mind is the American automotive industry. That industry cannot thrive by simply doing the old things with redoubled efficiency and lower costs and needs to dramatically rethink its 20th century organizational models and related assumptions. They were still working to fulfill the imperative of the dying industrial age: optimizing the supply chain; reducing costs; delivering bland products that no-one really wanted while the competition, especially the Japanese and Europeans, were focused on driving innovation and creativity.
    The organization of English football needs a fundamental rehaul (from the top down and from the bottom up) – the national team needs to become a priority and driven by objectives that transcend those of the FA and EPL. The time has come for the EPL to release players for proper international preparation; to take a mid-winter break (like most other European countries) and to understand that international success drives the brand.
    No Innovation and Creativity Please…We’re English!
    Innovation and creativity are the building blocks of the new economy and of knowledge age organizations. As I have contended before, 20th century organizations were focused on supply change optimization; do more with less; squeeze margins; redouble efficiency; lower costs, etc. These are the exact same values that we English admire in our players although we use different words and phrases such as work rate; passion; strength; effort; heart; etc. The new economy does not work this way, organizations that understand this achieve something that we at Saba call the People Multiplier Effect.  The effect is that English football is like a lumbering industrial age company, linear (or Route 1), siloed, hierarchical, slow, predictable, planned, etc. The modern football teams are fundamentally different in that they value mobility; connectedness, networking, grace, skill, speed and above all adaptability.
    In English football we don’t, at a very basic level, value these attributes in our young players and in fact take steps to coach it out them. In Brazil, for example, there is little competitive football played under the age of thirteen. Just last week José Luis Astiazarán, the head of La Liga explained that all La Liga clubs have academies and many have a holistic strategy that offers education and pastoral care to their young footballers . "At six to eight years old there is no competitive football in the academies, only coaching. Then from eight to 10, in some areas of Spain, they will play matches with controls. Only after this do they start to play more competitively.". Oh and for those who did not know, La Liga is the Spanish League and Spain just won the World Cup.
    Terry Venables (former manager of England and one the most innovative and creative coaches of the last 30 years) was talking about this very issues 15 years ago – his argument was that we should ban competitive football below a certain age and allow our youth to play for fun and build their skills and creativity. Did the FA listen? Of course not.
    Net Net, English football is structured to kill creativity. This reminds me of the remarkable; inspiring; and downright funny presentation that Sir Ken Robinson delivered at Ted.com in 2006 where he spoke about how schools kill creativity. If you have not seen this I urge you to invest 20 minutes and watch it here:

    English Football Does Not Invest in Talent

    Germany has approximately the same number of registered football players as England, yet in 2008 Germany had 34,970 UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations) registered coaches while England had just 2,769. At the same time Italy had 29,240 and Spain had 23,995.  I have nothing but respect for the parents who devote their weekends to coaching football and keeping the system working but they cannot provide the guidance and growth that our children need. We need to invest in professionals who can nurture; inspire; grow and develop the talent that we undoubtedly have. Until we do this we will always be watching from the sidelines as others gather the plaudits and garlands.
    The next World Cup is in 2014 in Brazil. I am not hopeful that the English experience will be any more rewarding unless we make the big changes needed today to drag it out of the 20th Century and into the 21st.

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