PAUL MANSELL LOOKS AT THE EFFECT LOPETEGUI HAS HAD ON WOLVES 'TOGETHERNESS'
Wolves went into the Christmas period rock-bottom of the Premier League. From their 15 games, they had managed a total of 8 goals and only 2 wins – they were staring down the barrel of relegation. Enter Julen Lopetegui. Counting Porto, Real Madrid and Sevilla as his previous clubs, Lopetegui also presided over an unbeaten period of 2 years in charge of Spain. Inspired by the great Johan Cruyff, tactically astute, and possessing a track record of winning major honours such as the Europa League, there is no doubt that Lopetegui is a world-class manager. But how has he managed to transform the Premier League’s worst side so quickly?
New signings have undoubtedly made a major impact by adding a combination of experience, energy, and quality. However, perhaps the most important of Lopetegui’s actions have been to create a sense of togetherness among the players – something that was suggested to be severely lacking in the latter part of Bruno Lage’s reign. Instead of viewing themselves as individuals, it appears that the players now perceive themselves as a collective – ‘us’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘me’. Togetherness and cohesion are oft-used phrases by pundits and fans alike, and they are recognised to be important predictors of performance with good reason. This is borne out in a host of studies that demonstrate that togetherness is associated with better performance under pressure, enhanced peer support, and greater confidence. Indeed, through a greater ‘mobilisation of effort’, players give more to the cause. They try harder, they run further and they help each other out more. But this sense of togetherness does not develop on its own. It requires a leader who is psychologically aware and has the skills, experience and knowledge to put these ideas into practice.
Contributing to an approach known as ‘social identity leadership’, Lopetegui appears to have implemented the 3Rs approach: Reflect, Represent and Realise. In the Reflect phase, a manager needs to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their own approach, the players at their disposal and the values of the club. Appointed in November but without a Premier League game until Boxing Day, this afforded Lopetegui time to weigh up the changes that would be necessary and how he might go about making them. Importantly, he did not try to employ a ‘one-size fits all’ solution, but instead he demonstrated a shrewd and considered approach which was doubtless developed during December’s warm-weather training camp in Spain.
Having understood the situation and the make-up of his squad, Lopetegui then had to demonstrate the team’s values that he wanted the players to enact, known as the Represent phase. Leading by example is a crucial component of leadership – you can’t ask the players to do things that you would not do yourself. So what kind of values were important to Lopetegui and how did he demonstrate these? In his interview with Guillem Balague, characteristics such as hard work, mutual respect and passion were all highlighted by Lopetegui, and we have seen evidence of him modelling these exact behaviours and attitudes. Take his touchline demeanour during the match – he is full of energy, which must transmit to the players. He starts work at 8am and often doesn’t finish until 9pm. This is particularly important as it not only models the work ethic he desires, but shows the players that he is acting in their best interests. Indeed, Lopetegui talks of foregoing time with his family to ensure that he is demonstrating full commitment to the cause. In short, he puts the “we” before the “me”, and this is an essential value that leaders must demonstrate to foster togetherness.
Finally, Lopetegui has used the Realise phase to enhance togetherness. This involves deliberately creating opportunities for players to bond, live out their shared values and make progress towards their shared goals. Adopting a similar strategy to that of Claudio Ranieri when Leicester won the Premier League in 2016, Lopetegui has promised to take the squad out for dinner if they win. Although Premier League footballers can undoubtedly afford to buy their own dinner, this is not the point. Such occasions provide the chance for positive relationships to be built between the players, which may be especially important with 6 new signings to integrate into the squad. This shows the players that we win as a team and when we do, we will enjoy the fruits of our labours. An intentional ploy to enhance togetherness, it makes the players hungry for more – if you’ll excuse the pun.
To summarise, there are many reasons why teams may perform well or why managers may experience success. An effective recruitment strategy clearly helps, as does keeping important players out of the physio’s room. But perhaps one of the most powerful things that a leader can do is to turn a group of individuals into a team – this is something that Lopetegui understands and is able to instil in his ‘pack’.
ARTICLE BY PAUL MANSELL
Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology
Paul is currently undertaking a PHD and is investigating the psychology of stress in sport.