Teams: learn to play without your superstar!

It is good to have a superstar in your team. A superstar is the one who will help you make the difference in many occasions, and he will be very useful when thing get tough. You should just not forget that a superstar can be absent, ill for some days or even worse, leave you team. When this happens, you’d better be prepared…

The recent defeat of the French soccer team Paris-Saint-Germain against Chelsea in the Champion’s League, is a good example of the fate of a team that depend too much on one superstar. In this case you will have guessed that I want to talk about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

And I am pretty sure that this applies also to software development teams. As you know M. Ibrahimovic is the great Superstar of the Paris Saint-Germain and best scorer of the French Championship. He plays almost every match, and all his teammates all constantly looking for him and orientating the game towards him. The team strategy is based and centered on this player.

The facts imposed that evolution, because Zlatan Ibrahimovic really is  the more efficient and decisive players in this team, a player that can win a match by himself. One that almost any coach would like to have in his Team. Both Carlo Ancelotti (the former Coach) and Laurent Blanc (the current one) based the game of the Paris Saint-Germain entirely on him.

But this one-player centered strategy has one drawback, that is not so easy to detect. Let’s study the 2 games against Chelsea in the 2014 Champions’ League.

During the first match against Chelsea, Zlatan was not in a very good form, he was not particularly brilliant, but Paris won (3-1). So the superstar was there, was not in his best day, but the team won.

Second game: Zlatan was injured, he could not play the game. Paris was dominated and lost 2-0 and was eliminated from the Champion’s League. The 2 matches illustrate what I have already observed in many cases in sport’s team: when the player is a superstar, is ultra-decisive, he inspires confidences within the whole team when he plays, even if he is not at his best during the game. And he inspires fear in the opponent team. If during the match he is in top form, there is a high probability that the team will win. If he is not in good form, the team can also win, because of the simple fact that he plays, he is in the team. It has an effect both on his team’s morale, and on the opponent’s.

But as soon as this superstar cannot play, it significantly affects his partners’ morale, and gives confidence to the opponents. Moreover, the team is simply not used to play without him. Because when a team depends only on a superstar, this superstar usually plays all the games (that is the case in Paris-Saint-Germain). The whole team’s strategy is centered on this player. When he cannot play the game, his teammates lose their groundings; the whole strategy that they are trained to apply is not valid anymore.

That’s why I am convinced that the problem is not having a superstar. The problem is not to learn how to play without the superstar. And the only way to do learn is, on some occasions, to play without him. Even if he is not injured, there should be some games where he stays at home, so that the team can learn how to play without him. This will give them the confidence that they can play well, even without the superstar. And the opponents will also be aware of that, so they will fear the whole team and not only the superstar. This means that if he is injured, the confidence of the opponent will not skyrocket, because they know that even without this player, the team can play well!



There are many examples to illustrate this theory (the one that I studied are mostly in Soccer). Look at the World Cup 1998 final game: France against Brazil. This was the Basil of Ronaldo, the best player in the world at that time, and he was at his top form. He was the “Public Enemy”! The one that could really win a match. The French players really feared him. They did not fear Brazil, they feared Ronaldo.
And guess what? Just before the game, they were informed that he had been ill and would not play the match!

Can you imagine the extraordinary effect on the French team’s morale? And the disaster for the Brazilian team ? Ronaldo had been the most decisive player during this World Cup, so the Team’s game was really centered on him. And most of all, their confidence was at a peak, because they knew they had a sort of magic player in their team. And just some minutes before the final, they learn that this players will not be able to play.

It is not very surprising that France finally won 3-0.

Zidane headbutting MaterazziBut some years later, the same theory was sadly (for the French) illustrated by the scenario of the 200- World Cup final game, between France and Italy. This time, the real magician, and most feared player was in France’s team: Zinedine Zidane. He really was the best player during this World Cup. The whole French team’s strategy and was centered on him. Some minutes before the end of this epic game, Zinedine Zidane – who had scored the first goal – got a red card, because of his know famous head butt against the Italian defender Marco Materazzi. At that moment the score was 1-1. And the French team were really pushing hard against the Italians, that seemed to be more tired.

Some minutes after the red card, the Italian won the final.

I let you figure out if you think the above examples are relevant or not, but I am pretty sure of one thing- that applies to all team- whether in team sports or in software development:

If we depend on only one expert, that has  a significantly higher level of expertise than the other in the team, it will work as long as he is here. The day he is ill, or he leaves, we will face many problems.

So we should train the team to be able to deal with difficult situations without this superstar: don’t give all difficult tasks to this only expert. Create situations where he will not be implied, and the other team members will have to find solutions for themselves. We should teach them how to learn and improve, and not how to transfer the problems to this only person. Sometimes, this expert must “‘disappear”, he must be put on other tasks (teaching the other for example), so that the team can react when he is not there.

It is good to work with an expert, as long as you know how to work without him.



2 thoughts on “Teams: learn to play without your superstar!

  1. It’s a very good analogy. You can see the effect in Barcelona at the moment. Messi isn’t playing that well and as a result they have been losing(!).

    Just having superstars in your team isn’t enough. Team Russia had the best individuals at Sochi but still failed to get a medal at ice hockey. Incidentally they lost to Finland that was playing without some of the stars due to injuries.

    A team made of B players often triumphs over a B team made of A players. Of course if you have an A team made of A players you are pretty much indestructible. You can find many examples of that in sports history.

  2. Yes the victory of Finland is a relevant example: the Finnish team members had confidence in the Team – as an abstract entity – and not only in the superstars. I am pretty sure that the team culture and the communication between all team members (most senior one and others) were great.

    You are right to notice that the A team with all A players is pretty much indestructible. The only thing is that for the ones who want to be really prepared for victory, they should be able to adapt if and when one superstar is missing. There is also a big difference between one team that has only one outstanding player, and one team that has several. For the first team, if the outstanding players is missing and the team is not prepared, the chances to win are very small.

    Thanks for your comment 🙂

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