Culture and character should supersede talent

Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson has stepped down as LA Lakers president of basketball operations saying he wanted to go ‘back to being Magic Johnson again’. The Lakers. like Manchester United, are a club guilty of valuing star power over commitment.Picture: Ethan Miller

If it’s any consolation to Manchester United supporters these days, the biggest and most gloried franchise in the world’s other leading team sport is in an even greater state of dysfunction.

While United haven’t won a Premier League title since 2013, the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t even made the NBA playoffs since that same year, an achievement in itself considering more teams (16) than not (14) qualify for the postseason every year.

Over the past fortnight the Lakers have not just parted ways with their coach, the lame-duck Luke Walton, but also saw the most recognisable face and name in its entire history, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, dramatically and abruptly step down as its president of basketball operations less than two years after assuming the role.

In keeping with the chaotic and shambolic nature of the organisation and his own tenure, Johnson didn’t even inform owner Jeanie Buss or general manager Rob Pelinka or coach Walton of his decision in advance; instead they learned the same way and at the same time as everyone else, when Johnson called together a group of reporters under the bowels of the Staples Center just before the team’s last home game of the season.

When Pharrell Williams was looking for famous, pleasant faces for the video of his best-known song, way back in that watershed year of 2013, Johnson didn’t need any audition. ‘Happy’ was what Magic Johnson was all about. But a front-office job with the Lakers wasn’t making him feel like that or singing and dancing, so he quit, “because I want to go back to having fun”.

The mistake Johnson made upon accepting the job and Jeanie Buss made upon giving it to him was thinking it was one for an ambassador instead of a grafter.

Almost anyone else with a grasp of what goes with working in the front office of an NBA job knows it’s less a job for a star as a nerd. It involves long hours in the office,

poring through data, and even longer road trips, scouting and identifying possible signings and ways to optimise the club’s resources, financial or otherwise.

Soccer, even of the English variety, has largely come to appreciate the same. That a Daryl Morey is more precious in the current climate than a Magic Johnson, that a Brad Pitt needs a Jonah Hill to decipher who gets to first base more often than who looks better in a uniform.

Liverpool, run by the same Fenway Group headed by John Henry that tried to recruit Pitt’s Billy Beane and by extension, his crew of Hill’s in Moneyball, have Michael Edwards as their technical director, freeing up Jurgen Klopp to merely recommend and then coach the talent, instead of having to scout and negotiate with it.

John Henry
John Henry

At Manchester United, there is no equivalent of Edwards in situ, monitoring how hard potential recruits train and not just play with their current clubs; instead CEO Ed Woodward and his board bumble along erratically.

Like the Lakers, they have more money than sense. At $4.1 billion (€3.65bn), United are the second-most valued franchise in world sport, behind only the Dallas Cowboys, according to Forbes; the Lakers, at $3.3bn, are in eighth, ‘just’ a few hundred million bucks behind the chronically-incompetent New York Knicks. As Billy Beane once said, it’s extremely rare for a franchise to be both smart and rich, usually they’re either dumb or poor, and in recent years the Lakers and United have proven how valid Beane’s thesis is.

At a time when every other organisation in the world, sporting or otherwise, seems to be talking about the importance of culture, the Lakers and United seem to have no concept of it.

Last year, Professor Damian Hughes studied and wrote about a sporting franchise that had come to value such intangibles. Central to his book, The Barcelona Way, is a study by a couple of Stanford business school professors, James Baron and Michael Hannan, in which they followed the success or failure of start-up tech companies in Silicon Valley over a 15-year period.

A favoured culture adopted by some was what Baron and Hannon termed the ‘star’ model. These companies sought and signed the best and brightest, granting them lavish perks. But what Baron and Hannon found was that while the star model produced some of the biggest successes of their study, the model also failed in record numbers. There was too much ego and not enough about the team.

In contrast the ‘commitment’ model, where establishing the right culture and prioritising long, steady growth over the short-term fix, had not a single failure. They all lasted and succeeded.

For Hughes, the Galacticos Real Madrid team epitomised the strength and flaws of the ‘star’ model. Glue players like Claude Makelele and Michel Salgado, or ‘middle-class players’ as Hughes termed them — neither superstars nor youth-team graduates — were under-appreciated and eclipsed, eventually prompting captain Fernando Hierro to reprimand the club’s owners as treating players like livestock.

In contrast, Barcelona upon the appointment of Pep Guardiola ditched the star model in favour of a commitment model. Within a year stars like Ronaldinho and Deco were out because they no longer exemplified humility and dedication; Ronaldinho, in particular, after embracing a young Messi into the fold, was viewed as a bad influence. Their application in training was lax, certainly laxer than their night-time activity.

Instead Guardiola identified Xavi, a player that Frank Rijkaard and the club was previously prepared to sell, as one of what Hughes terms his ‘cultural architects’. Xavi was the epitome of humility, team before ego, and Guardiola’s receive, pass, offer philosophy.

Ander Herrera is no star or even an Xavi, but if anything epitomises or pin-points Manchester United’s general malaise and drastic dip in form under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it is the failure of the club to renew his contract and instead allow him be swooped up by a super club that may be belatedly ditching the star model for a commitment one.

Ander Herrera
Ander Herrera

The stats show that United under Solsjkaer have won four of their eight Premier League games without Herrera starting, while they won eight of their nine Premier League games with him starting. But it wasn’t just the interceptions or passes or goals that he provided that made him such a key common denominator; it was how he cajoled and encouraged teammates, even the usually listless Alexis Sanchez.

Last Sunday at Goodison Park, Solskjaer, not so long ago the one man in world sport with as infectious and as constant a smile as Johnson, declared that he would be successful at United, “and there are players here who won’t be part of that success.”

But what he didn’t say was some of the players who could have contributed positively to any success wouldn’t be there. Instead United let Herrera go when his preference was to stay, just as the Lakers let veteran centre Brook Lopez go for nothing last summer, and allow him to be swooped up by this year’s No.1 seed, the Milwaukee Bucks.

Klopp and Edwards wouldn’t have made that mistake. They didn’t ditch Jordan Henderson; instead they retained him and signed a James Milner as well.

The Lakers and United are caught in a time warp, living off an outdated model propagated by inept ownership — the well-meaning but overly-idealistic and loyal Jeanie Buss in the case of the Lakers, and the almost-apathetic Glaziers in the case of United.

The star system used to work for the Lakers when it had a Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in their prime, but as their disastrous attempt to trade away most of their young roster for the superstar Anthony Davis to team up with an aging LeBron James, it can wreck a team’s chemistry. Culture and character should supersede talent.

And instead of seeking a replacement for Johnson, they’re looking for a replacement for Walton first. When everywhere else, Johnson’s replacement would be hiring Walton’s replacement.

At United, they’ve finally come round to the idea of hiring a technical director, but initial reports are worrisome. While Mike Phelan is no star, he is no nerd either. The training ground, not the front office, is his niche.

Leave him where it is. He’s qualified for his current role.

Why mess with the one of the few things United have got right in this whole mess?

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