Julian Nagelsmann is the new manager of Bayern Munich.
Whenever a new manager joins a club, fans have a lot of opinions regarding how the team should play, who should play, and everything else under the sun. But I think there’s also an aspect of being a manager that a lot of fans don’t talk about.
What follows is a lightly-edited excerpt from my book You Say Soccer, I Say Football in which I discuss a dilemma that Nagelsmann and every other manager in football must face: should you prioritize the individual or the collective?
One of the most interesting challenges that managers face is how to balance the desires of the individual player with the best interests of the collective. On one hand, the individual wants to express himself and show off the full range of his abilities. He wants the ball so that he can show the world the marvelous talent that he has and can express with his feet.
On the contrary, the collective wants not what is good for one individual, but rather what is best for the team and the people it represents.
As a result, the individual and the collective can sometimes be at odds because the former will do things to maximize his own satisfaction (and ego) while the latter strives to maximize the collective welfare, which might require players to sacrifice a little for the sake of the greater good. Sounds a bit like life in general, doesn’t it?
The individual might hoard the ball a little longer so that he can do a few tricks or not pass to a teammate that is in a slightly better position because he senses the opportunity for individual glory. The individual cares about who becomes the hero of the story; the collective, on the other hand, simply wants the team to win as much as possible and doesn’t care who receives the glory.
Hence, the process of this player expressing himself can be damaging when he prioritizes his own glory, and uses the team as a means to this end, over the wellbeing of the team. The key party in this debate, however, is neither the player nor the collective: it is the manager. In the case of Bayern, that is Herr Nagelsmann.
Nagelsmann, like every other manager in football, will be responsible for picking the starting lineup, setting the emotional tone of the game, and determining the tactics that the players will execute on the pitch.
It is the latter two responsibilities that make him important in this discussion. By setting the emotional tone of the game and determining the tactics, he determines whether the team will emphasize the individual or the collective.
Will he encourage his players to be a little more selfish and attempt individual moments of magic from improbable positions, or will he tell them to diminish their individualism, sacrifice everything for the collective, and focus on supporting their teammates? What should he do and what options does he have?
His first option is to optimize for the individual. If he finds it more important that each player expresses their full potential through their actions on the pitch, then he should tell his players to try more creative actions and shots and be more selfish with the ball.
This way the players, especially the more creative ones, will feel that they have the creative freedom to show everyone what they’re made of. However, this approach might lead to the team becoming a collection of isolated individuals looking for personal instead of collective glory. In the words of the late Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, you’ll end up “not with a strong 11, but with 11 strong 1’s.”
Second, the manager could optimize for the collective. In this scenario, he will tell his players to rarely, if ever, attempt acts of individualism and will probably scold them if he finds them doing that. The only thing that matters is the team; hence, the players must sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing and success of the collective. Unfortunately, though, this approach comes at the cost of creative freedom and expression.
At the end of the day, the individual can only shine if the collective context is right. In order to create the right collective context the manager – once again, Herr Nagelsmann – must choose between a player-first or a system-first approach for the team. In a player-first approach, he selects the best players and figures out a system (formation, tactics, and style of play) that best suits them.
A system-first approach is the opposite. Nagelsmann will choose the best (or his favorite) system and then select the players that are the best fit for that system so that it functions optimally. If a player does not fit the system, well then it’s Auf Wiedersehen and the player will have to find a new employer.
So what should Nagelsmann do? Optimize his tactics and team for the individual, i.e. one particularly amazing Polish individual, or optimize for the collective? Should he pick a player-first approach or a systems-first approach? Should you care? Should I care? And will I ever stop asking you questions?