Not quite a good week for the household name in German soccer, FC Bayern Munich. Three losses in a row put an end to all domestic title hopes.
Especially the first one against league leaders Borussia Dortmund, a 1-3 loss at home, was a demonstration of how modern power soccer can dominate traditional approaches. Bayern had 64% of possession, yet they were dominated by a team that was just quicker than them – not only physically but also mentally. How could this happen?
For those of you not following German soccer closely: Borussia Dortmund started the season with an average budget and a bunch of young players, hoping to finish among the top five in the league. After 25 of the 34 match days of the season, they lead the table with a whopping twelve point lead, and analysts over at “Euro Club Index” estimate their chances of winning the title at 99.6% – the highest in any major European league (as a comparison, dominating F.C. Barcelona in Spain currently stands at a 96.2% chance, English premier League Leaders Manchester United are at 77.3% and AC Milan in Italy scores 67.1%).
While Bayern Munich fields super stars like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Philipp Lahm or Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Dortmund team is a bunch of talented youngsters. Their starting lineup in Munich was as incredibly young as 22.3 years on average.
In a match report in English newspaper “The Guardian”, Raphael Honigstein came up with the following remarkable sentence:
“After a decade in which having a strong “footballing identity” was seen as a must, [Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen] Klopp’s approach tantalisingly hints at a post-ideological future when there will only be micro-tactics left”
Wow! “Post-ideological future” and “micro-tactics”. Pretty heavy stuff, so let’s take step back:
Not only in soccer, tactics and strategies help us to deal with complex situations. They help us to find a way by transferring the given situation to an abstract level and use the pattern that best suits it on the abstract level. It gives a clear direction and aligns the efforts.
So far so good, but looking at it from this angle also shows that they are a simplification and therefore not the optimal approach, just a possible way to deal with complexity. With our world becoming faster and more complex with every minute, does this mean that we should be more strategic in order not to lose the overview?
Probably most of you would agree that soccer is also a lot faster and more complex than say 30 years ago. Bayern Munich’s answer to it was to play a lot more strategic: Their coach Louis Van Gaal’s approach is to dominate the play to make it less complex to control. Which leads to 64% of possession or in other words: In two thirds of the match they were in control what was to happen next. Strategy leading to simplification. In this case also leading to a loss.
Unlike Bayern, Dortmund did “not slavishly stick to Plan A but constantly adjust, in line with the demands of the game and opposition at hand” (Honigstein).
It seems to me like this is not only the tactics of the future in soccer, but could work in companies, too. A general game plan that leaves the decision power to those doing the action, giving them room to adjust to the given situation, to be creative, to support each other and to co-create, linked by a frame work that builds on the knowledge that those that are trusted and empowered will give their best at all time.
That’s “micro-tactics” implemented. This “post-ideological future” still gives a general direction – you may also want to call it a high-level strategy – but no ideology to be applied in any given situation.
When Bayern Munich was faced with an opponent who didn’t do what they expected him to, their ideology did not help them. They had possession, but didn’t create anything. Their style looked like in slow motion, compared to the flexible, creative approach of their opponents.
That’s the post-ideological future: Being strategic does not mean to tell others what to do. A large part of it is to define where not to tell them what to do.
This brings us back to Honigstein’s game report. In the sentence following the one I cited above he continues like this:
“Big game-plans might be less decisive than the ability to find the best possible solutions in every situation”
Makes a lot of sense to me. And in contrast to Honigstein, I’m not talking soccer now.