The Culture Club: Manufactured not born

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Article by Jonathon Reid – @mrjblade

Culture. It can be a bit of a dirty word in football. Ubiquitous in its presence, but scarce in its understanding. It is one of the key elements of the game we love, and which lends so many of its narratives power.

Culture is instinctual; we might not understand it or fully grasp its four corners, but we know it when we see it, we feel it closely. Playing football the Liverpool, the Ajax, the Man United way, we as fans recognise and understand these qualities, even if we can’t always explain them. Culture forms the bedrock of all the things an organisation does, it’s the fabric knitting the enterprise together; the players, the fans, the manager. It’s the unwritten agreement we all sign when we let this strange and wonderful thing into our lives. It is identity, character, it underscores everything of importance.

So why is it a dirty word? Well, the problem with culture is that when it works, it is edifying. It’s Mario grabbing the gold star, it’s that little something extra that you can’t put your finger on but isn’t luck. This isn’t to say all cultures are successful, but usually the successful people have the best cultures. But most cultures aren’t understood that way, they become caricatures for use as a shorthand, and then just caricatures for their own sake. Mourinho? Parks the bus. Guardiola? Just possession and passing sideways isn’t it? We’ve all done it, we all know it not to be the case, but the truth resists simplicity and easily gained facts, so instead we make the narrative suit and keep moving forward.

Arsenal are a terrific case in point: early period Arsene Wenger? Strong, incisive, beautiful. Late period Wenger? Weak, dithering, spineless. The real truth is probably somewhere in between. Those early teams possessing less flair and being more workmanlike than we care to remember, whilst his later teams had more grit and consistency than he gets credit for. We forget the large number of draws racked up by the ‘Invincibles’, we ignore the back to back FA Cup wins of the later years.

Pick any team you care, and you can use their own culture and the emblems of it as a stick to beat them with. Most cultures don’t last, either through lack of success or a changing of the guard, the instigator leaves, a key component fails, or they don’t move with the times. In some cases, they even become a trap that can throttle an organisation, as they persist in pursuing something long after it has stopped working (hello to any Blues reading this, I look forward to your angry tweets).

The point is that culture is a tactile thing, it breathes and grows and changes with the times. It isn’t just a mission statement, carved in stone tablets, that can never be altered or a twelve-step guide to success. Culture is organic, it has to be developed, fed and maintained. Put simply, culture changes. It has to, just as the people involved in and around it do.

Culture is only the story, the medium, the message – it isn’t the why, just the how. It’s the roadmap that gets you to a destination, not the journey itself. It takes fusing that culture with a vision to make an organisation successful, and in footballing terms, no two teams have been more successful in that than Liverpool FC and Manchester United, the two giants of the English game lauded at different points for their all-conquering nature.

Growing up in the 1990s, there were only two footballing cultures in the UK: Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and everybody else. Ferguson’s teams possessed seemingly everything to be successful – youth, flair, tenacity and, above all else, an unshakeable ability to win. They were a team hewn in the image of their manager, perfectly in line with his vision and his desires. They weren’t all superstars, despite what we might think or tell ourselves, in fact a lot of them were unremarkable, but they all shared in the vision of what United had to be to be successful.

Ferguson was a master of culture, and with his retirement now firmly in the rear-view mirror, we can see how his remarkable career was down to managing change through a consistent culture. All of his teams were different, but they all married the characteristics he demanded and that are now part of footballing folklore in a cohesive way. They started as a team better than the sum of their parts, and slowly became a team littered with individual brilliance with an almost telepathic understanding of one another. It didn’t matter if you were a footballing superstar or a squad player, you all fell in line with his view, worked hard, gave everything and success would follow. The tactics and formations changed, but the success didn’t.

There’s a simple metric I can use for this, the bastard scale. How many United players can you name, superstar or otherwise, who were absolute bastards to play against? Start with the stars and work down to the lesser lights, you’ll realise quickly they all were. Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez? Bastards. Keane, Neville and Vidic? Bastards. John O’Shea, Jonny Evans, Louis Saha? Bastards.

We may smile at the flippancy in saying it, but it’s the truth, and it is testament to the culture and the characters Ferguson recruited to maintain that culture. Don’t want to work hard, be honest and give everything? You’re out. Stories abound of Ferguson confronting new signings with video of their worst mistakes and asking for an explanation, those who were honest stayed, those who shifted blame were quickly shipped out.

It’s an apocryphal story perhaps, but it highlights just how acute a focus Ferguson placed on culture, and how deeply intuitive he was when it came to understanding human nature. He wanted players with confidence and a steely determination, who were prepared to give the maximum whatever the cause; everything else could be worked on. It’s a cliché, but its why players more limited than you might expect became mainstays of his teams and why those who lost the hunger were shipped out. It’s why Jonny Evans is still near the top of the division even now – how the current United could do with a player of his grounded nature to inject some of that culture back into the team.

The Liverpool of this era of early United dominance were the complete inverse, and this is a subject well documented elsewhere. Friends and family older than me often talk of the mythical ‘missing’ piece for the Roy Evans side, but in truth the missing piece was culture. It’s no surprise that the standards introduced by Gerard Houllier led to a more successful, if more workmanlike, Liverpool in the early 00’s. Flair and ego was substituted for commitment and professionalism.

To my mind, it’s also no surprise that Liverpool were much more successful on the continent during this period than domestically. European nights at Anfield are woven into the culture of Liverpool and carry their own expectations for the fans. It is easy to hold yourself to an ideal when confronted with a substantial challenge, less so when your tasks are run of the mill.



 

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How often were Liverpool in this period guilty of ‘showing up against the big teams but struggling against the small sides’? There are many mitigating factors, but it bears thinking about in some respect. Romanticism haunted the Liverpool sides of the 1990s and 2000s, at different points they contained all the elements of a championship winning team, but never in a manner that led to a cohesive whole. The club had the vision for its success but lacked a culture to take it there, we all knew where we wanted to be, but didn’t know how to get back there.

All of which brings us to the present day and an extremely interesting period of transition for both clubs. Now Liverpool are in the ascendancy and a club unshakeable in their pursuit of success. The old stereotypes still exist, and, to a casual observer, we’re still lost in the romanticism of times past, with a cheerleader for a manager and squad packed with rejects. Culture is still the stick used to beat us, caricatured down to parroted quotes about pressing and hugs, all of which rapidly falls away when opposition play this team and realise the change within them.

Players and coaches alike have lauded the tenacity and synchronicity within the current Liverpool team, not least Chris Wilder who spent most of a post-match effusing about our club and praising them as the yardstick for others in the division. Salah, Mane and Firmino? Solid, but never did it at big clubs. Wijnaldum, Shaqiri and Robertson? All relegated. Henderson, Gomez and Milner? Boring and overhyped English players. Bastards every single one of them. What unites all of them and puts lie to any accusations? Culture. Jurgen Klopp’s culture. Perhaps we need to retire the bastard test now, strike the old documents and find and replace them with the doubter to believer test.

Klopp was, and remains, derided by outsiders for the emphasis he places on culture, but it’s no secret how integral he views it as to his projects. From that initial press conference through to now, he has always pressed that the mindset of his players is equally as vital as their physical and tactical abilities. The success of this approach is clear to everybody, and its hallmarks litter his reign as they did Ferguson’s. ‘From doubters to believers’, saluting the fans, bombing Sakho; they all point to a man with a strict hold on the expectations of the organisation he runs, who knows how to manage change successfully.

It was evident from the first game of his tenure what the rules of engagement where, and what he expected. He’s even extended that challenge to us as fans, demanding we stay longer, shout louder and embrace our team for their honesty. How many of us have demanded investment and signings to compete? How many of us have been forced to eat our words by a developing squad this year? How many of us have doubted the Origi, Lallana and Shaqiri’s of this world before they have contributed? How do Barcelona fans feel after that night in Anfield, a night the manager admits even surprised him, and gave the team the ‘mentality monsters’ tag now familiar to all of us? Not all team’s cultures are successful, but successful teams usually have the best culture.


United by contrast, are almost a case study in how rapidly things can go wrong, a club parroting the hits of the previous regime without understanding the nuance or complexity involved and hoping something sticks. As Gary Neville has pointed out for some time now, what is the current Man United project? 12 months on from the beginning of Solskjaer’s reign it’s hard to say. The project left by Ferguson has very rapidly been subsumed by Moyes’ incompetence, van Gaal’s sharp left turn to possession and Mourinho’s ends being more important than the means approach. Ask a United fan what the club’s issue has been and it’s hard to say, but they mutually agree poor leadership and spending too much money are big factors.

I would suggest that the vision of club very quickly lapsed from honesty and hard work, to something completely different under the guidance of three very different coaches and an ownership only interested in a financial bottom line. In truth I don’t think Solskjaer has done the worst job, but he’s a coach consistently hampered by his own limitations, instead of a manager responsible for changing the fabric of a club. Positives for him are bringing Phelan back into the fold and building a coaching staff around him to mask some of these issues, as well as rewarding youth and hard work instead of experience.

Negatives are his tactical limitations and his inability to affect change at the club in the same way he used to on the pitch. The vision United have of themselves remains wedded to their previous success, but without the map to take them back towards it. Solskjaer’s recent comments about Manchester City in the League Cup, for me, show a man who truly believes in what he says and does, but is unable to change or reconcile his current situation with the vision he has of the club.

It’s a story our fans recognise because we’ve seen it happen, but the meeting between the two clubs this weekend brings it into stark relief. Somewhere United fans now must be listing off some of our players as being frauds, in the same way we did for them in the 1990s. I’m under no illusions one day United will be back in a big way, but the changing of the guard between the two sides highlights just how vital culture is to achieve anything, and why we should revel in what we have now. Ferguson was in the business of winning, Klopp is too. Long may it continue.

Up the Reds,

Jonathon Reid – @mrjblade

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