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  • Giacomo Ciufoli

What does Amazon’s Tottenham Hotspur documentary tell us about the arbitration of management issues?

The sixth episode of Amazon’s all or nothing branded documentary on Tottenham Hotspur is weird and wonderful. Maligned with injuries, the Spurs side will eventually bundle to a Europa League qualifying spot in the 2019/20 season.

There are two highlights from the six episodes that serve as learning opportunities for those interested in improving their business management skills.

Tottenham had just spent around a billon pounds on its new world class stadium. It had made it to a champions league final, an extraordinary achievement for a team with a limited budget relying on a predominantly young side. However, in the Autumn of 2019, it decided to sack its Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino who had taken them to the European final. Did Spurs make a huge mistake? Surely the side were just going through a predictable and momentary psychological crisis from defeat in the final. Surely Pochettino would have got them back to the Europa League places. Eurosport thinks getting rid of Pochettino was wrong.

Surely, probably or maybe?

Would they have recovered to go further in the Champions League in 2019/20? What evidence had the board put together in making such a decision? The documentary doesn’t reveal this, but it suggest a certain degree of impulsiveness of the board, or Levy, to change managers. This is a business procurement decision of epic proportions with significant ramifications. You don’t just lose Pochettino, but you also lose a manager that may bolster another rival team. You are also stuck with the new guy for a few years, unless you want to spend more money on terminating that contract. But, of course, contracts should be made so that they are not terminated.

What evidence should they have taken into account in making such a procurement decision? Well let’s look at Liverpool who won that final. They lost the Champions League final the year before. They won the league the year after. Persistence with their manager paid off. Sir Alex Ferguson has a similar sort of spell in his first five years as Pochettino, winning mostly eluding him. Had the United board done the same, then there is no Ferguson as, arguably, the greatest manager in history. Pochettino knew his players better than the incoming Mourhino. Was Pochettino not better placed to turn things around and start this season with new aplomb ? Doesn’t the high of a final go with the low afterwards and then you turn things around?

Of course pressure and stress on the board made them feel that a big decision should be made. But this seems to be self-induced. From what can be gleaned from the documentary the big expenditure made on the stadium caused the board to be psychologically manueavoured into making a decision on Mourhino. Mourinho has incomparable credentials. It is a move, however, that management guru Jim Collins author of Good to Great would warn against.

Jim Collins’s warns of the big guns that are brought over from the outside to push the performance of the company forward. It rarely works. Tottenham in their first new game of the season, yesterday, lost to a dynamic Everton side. There a big name, Ancelotti, was brought in to booster the psychology of an Everton team that had been treading water over the last few decades. Tottenham shouldn’t have that problem. They were just in a champions league final. The Tottenham board should have anticipated a psychological fall out in the short term after the final defeat. Arguments from the University of Calabria state that mid-season sackings do not necessarily have any benefits.

By the bye our view is that Oliver Holt’s grudging article missed the point about the documentary. Focussing on the documentary’s inextricable artistic imagery, so as to create a lively cinematic experience, has meant that his critique has glossed over some of the fantastic insights the documentary has on the management issues of the football club. One does feel sympathy for Daniel Levy’s pain when the team are struggling. The management of any business, of whatever size, is not easy. However the compulsion to act must be poised with a strong case for not acting too. Or the old adage from the pot into the fire may come true.

Company boards can be locked on critical decisions such as this, though there is no evidence in the documentary to suggest the Tottenham board was. Where there is a lock down, they can get an external arbitrator to weigh up a commercial decision within the remit of authority stemming from the company’s articles of association. The board can then still decide to reject the arbitrators decision. It would, however, make procurement decisions more thoughtful with an outsiders input at play. The case for and against Mourinho may have been less emotional and more professional with such an arbitration mechanism at play.

The second critical management issue in the documentary comes from the tension between the medical well-being of an injured player, who desperately needs time to recover, and the club’s need to get the player back on the pitch. In business these arise as commercial conflicts of interest and can have a bigger impact on long-term performance of a company or an individual (as in football) but also a big impact on institutional trust.

Where there are commercial conflicts of interest the need for a third party intermediary, in the spirit of arbitration, would also not be a bad idea considering that both parties may have a clashing agenda as to what is the best interests of the club or businesses. Particularly where there is an individual whose long-term interests might be compromised.

Promotional decisions, sometimes, come with a tension between the person’s best interest (putting her at risk of the sack if it is likely she won’t be able to perform) and the company’s best interest in filling a particular role at lower cost in the short-term. These call for objective decision making, of which a third party intermediary such as an arbitrator, would only be one option. Better still would be to analyse and anticipate such problems by creating a flexible, but criteria based, decision-making process to avoid the consultancy fees of lawyers all together.

As far as football is concerned the short gain of a player in crucial matches may mean some performance improvement, but there is always the possibility that the player has been rushed back into action too fast. To be fair the Spurs physio team seem to do a fantastic job of drawing a strong line in the sand, which the decision not to play Son after his arm injury showed in the documentary. A link to a part of that discussion is available on YouTube here. We hope that what appears to be an intuitive rather than an objective decision to hire Mourinho turns out well for Spurs who can push on from their amazing achievement of being in the major European final.

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