Do leaders make a difference? Alan Hansen thinks that Alex Ferguson proves the case

Alan Hansen

Theorists continue to puzzle whether leaders make much difference to performance. That great football theorist Alan Hansen is in no doubt. He cites Sir Alex Ferguson’s impact on the performance of the current Manchester United as a case in point

Alan Hansen has become an intelligent commentator on the game he once graced as a player. He is opinionated and risks being remembered for his famous remark some years ago that you can’t win anything in football with kids, before Alex Ferguson’s young team at Manchester United proved him wrong. Hansen learns from his mistakes, and thinks deeply about the game.

He has reached the conclusion that the latest Manchester United team is succeeding despite being relatively modestly-equipped with great players. He bases his case on the contribution of their manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In an article for the Telegraph [26th April 2011] he notes:

Ferguson’s current United side are not a bad team, but they are an average one when judged by the club’s high standards. There is no doubt that they are a distant third in comparison, but the defining quality of the class of 2011 is purely and simply the driving force of Ferguson as manager. Had he been in charge of any of the top four clubs in the Premier League this season, then that club would have gone on to win the title.

Good journalism, good scholarship

He is referring to Ferguson’s Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City. Each has a well-respected manager. Chelsea and more recently Manchester City have great financial assets through their wealthy backers. Chelsea’s wealth has propelled them to a major force in the Premier league, but has had managerial departures, allegedly over conflict with its ambitious Russian owner. City has not yet converted its financial support into national or international success, although that is widely considered to be only a matter of time. Neither Arsenal and United are in the same financial league, and United’s debt burden is among the grievances of its fan base against its unpopular American owners. Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger is rated for prudent financial management and for the development of teams playing beautiful football. But Arsenal has not succeeded in winning trophies. (Too many kids, maybe?).

What differentiates United?

Put these facts together, and one factor which differentiates United from the other three teams may well be the contributions of the manager. There seems to be some good journalistic sense in what Hansen has written. His basic comparative analysis is not without scholarly merit. But it would be interesting to get more deeply into the why. What is necessary for a leader/manager to outperform expectations? Are there other factors to consider? Historically, Ferguson survived in his early time when at another club he would have been fired for under-performing. A Premiership manager needs corporate support for longer than is often granted (compare turnover at Chelsea or Manchester City). He is shrewd tactically, and his substitutions and game plan often merit the description creative and unusually imaginative. His wider strategic activities are also admired. He gets some decisions wrong, although that is inevitable for judgement calls. He also has had several “great buys” . This year Chicharito (Javier Hernández Balcázar) is a fine example. His selection of staff around him has also been impressive and has spun-off various high-quality managers such as Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce, both outside bets to replace Ferguson eventually.

Reasoning from the obvious

If there is one point which weakens the impact of the Hansen analysis, it is its tendency to reason back from the obvious, namely that Ferguson is obviously identified with success, and it is not difficult to find an explanation for success in hindsight. It remains difficult to dig more deeply for causal links between leaders, their actions, and the perceived consequences of those actions.

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