Science And Technology And A Long-Term Commitment: Liverpool Football Club’s Remarkable Transformation
A State of Waste
It is hard to surpass professional football when it comes to a high-stakes, high-visibility environment. Even in such a public arena, it’s astonishing how often clubs fail designing and executing a strategy at the cost of billions of dollars. Intricate coaching methodologies, expansive scouting networks, seemingly limitless chequebooks, and the latest sports medicine; all provide no certainty for success. According to Optima Football, “75% of all clubs in the top 5 leagues aren’t working with a sustainable model or strategy.” Whatever the reason for this lack of health, it’s clear this amount of waste wouldn’t be tolerated in any business.
Examining football’s current state, one club in particular stands out for the way it has looked to build a sustainable model to deliver results- the Liverpool Football Club (LFC). Upon closer examination, science, rather than coincidence, has been the driving force behind their recent successes making them the envy of their European rivals.
Philosophy and Vision
Fenway Sports Group’s (FSG) initial era at Liverpool was marked with continuous underperformance and misalignment at the operational level. Whilst the club did come close to winning the English Premier League (EPL) in 2013-14, it was clear to the Board that success needed to be built on an unwavering philosophy, vision and high-performance culture. Based on the use of mathematical analysis, made famous by their Moneyball modelling, enter Jurgen Klopp. Unproven in the EPL, and on the back of a below par run in the Bundesliga between 2013-15, he was identified based on a scientific selection process underpinned by predictive analytics that removed the biases such as reputation or track-record. The qualities the Board was after were for a manager to galvanize players, staff and the Board alike; towards a destination where the whole of the club had to be greater than the sum of its parts.
With the Board’s backing, Klopp began putting together the blueprints for the success in an uncompromising manner, avoiding the traps of short-termism prevalent in football and many industries today.
Klopp was able to build trust rapidly with his Board and ensured whole-of-club alignment to this new philosophy and transformation. He established a strong coaching backroom based on total collaboration when it came to football strategy and analysis, player scouting and management. Furthermore, regarding talent, he refreshed the focus on the club’s Football Academy, where with Board approval, he created a single training site for both the Academy and senior teams. This was a statement of intent with LFC: betting on the future, as well as creating a source of motivation and integration between senior and youth squads.
Similarly, when it came to the fans, Klopp was quick to understand the Anfield mindset, one built on a legacy of pride, loyalty and hard work. This has been leveraged every week for the world to see with his sincere touchline passion. Creating this social contract with the club’s supporter-base early in his tenure had a telling impact on the energy and belief towards the club’s new culture.
Talent Through Science
Mathematical modelling was also extended in building the right squad. This was based on selecting fit-for-purpose players that can be plugged in to the playing methodology envisioned by Klopp. Player screening and selection was executed based on rigorous analytics and overseen by the coaching panel, rather than just one individual. Through the use of such analysis and assessment, LFC was able to bring greater certainty with their player selection and development. Past player performance and future potential, was shrewdly calculated with attitudinal and behavioural pre-dispositions towards creating the club’s envisioned winning culture.
Deploying such science did not require a high-profile squad, and the inflated price tags and risks that come with it. Rather, lesser known younger players along with the rejuvenation of forgotten stars created the right mix.
Develop and Measure
Building on the use of data for talent identification and selection, this was also utilized for the development and performance management of all players. LFC have been able to deploy data throughout games, to devastating effect. For instance, when games are in the balance, they are able to adopt defensive and counter-attacking options at ease through data-driven pitch control tactics. This is done in real-time and activated or de-activated at an instant, completely suffocating the opposition or attacking with the utmost precision. To be able to effectively capture this data LFC has used “missile-tracking technology to assess its players” during game time.
Just as important is the ongoing use of this business intelligence during games and training to sharpen player techniques through digital-monitoring and continuous feedback. This has enabled LFC’s squad to actively measure individual performance, but also set targets and create a sense of precision and ownership around them.
Klopp’s first two seasons were about building the base and consolidating the defensive structure of the club, akin to a Corporate CFO or COO avoiding unnecessary leakage. However, once in their stride, the team was able to win and with ease, breaking numerous records over the past two EPL campaigns. In particular, LFC have mastered the art of smothering opponents through Klopp’s Gegenpressing Strategy. The instinctive activation of such tactics, could not have been achieved without the right players, being able to execute the envisioned playing strategy, supported by the right feedback and business intelligence. Importantly, this has been driven collectively by a tenacious desire and fortitude to win, a squad Klopp admirably labels “mentality monsters”.
LFC’s on-field successes now make the club one of Europe’s most financially secure boasting continuous growth and record profits. Klopp’s laser-like focus on executing his strategy around an enduring philosophy and vision, are only outdone by his people-management qualities connecting with supporters and players alike. His success has been infectious and acknowledged by the extension of his contract by FSG until 2024.
In an age of knee-jerk Board decisions, the LFC story tells of a powerful partnership between FSG and Klopp. Built on the use of both modern science and club history, the club has reinvented the way football can be played and won. Most importantly, it has done so organically with the Merseyside culture and fabric sitting at the core of these successes. The crowning of EPL Champions for 2019/20 stands as testimony for Leaders who wish to examine the state of their organizations, beyond a financial period or season, when looking to survive during these turbulent times.
How can you apply these lessons to your organizational transformation?
Following the “traditional” path may not be the right fit for your company. Here are the key LFC lessons you can explore when examining your business:
- Remember your transformation is long-term journey and must be sustainable.
- When building or buying your talent, remove biases from the equation. The most expensive and experienced candidates might not be the best fit when looking execute your strategy or deliver on objectives.
- Collect the right analytics and business intelligence ensuring it is human and technologically integrated (bionic), in order to enable performance, and remove any risks/ roadblocks.
- Objectively identify your critical stakeholders and how to tailor your approach when connecting with each. From front-line employees to clients and the Board of Directors, these are the people that will make your company successful.
- Invest adequate time to inspire and connect with stakeholders during your organizational transformation journey, connecting their day-to-day efforts with the destination.
- Leveraging a diversity of views and collective attitude in addressing key issues in the business, will ensure stronger risk assessment, governance practices and opportunity maximization.
This article first appeared in Forbes Middle East in Jun 2020