Q2 · 2023From very good to great – like Manuel Akanji

From time to time in Spotlight on Performance I’ve addressed the question of what separates a very good performer from an outstanding one. Often, the world of sport can answer this for us because it shows so vividly how certain key factors make all the difference.

And the good news? Some of those same factors apply beyond sport, so by learning what they are, business leaders, executives and entrepreneurs can raise their own game from being very good to outstanding.

Footballing excellence

Take the world of football (or soccer in the US). As someone who had a first career as a professional football player, I am still very much connected with the game. However, you don’t have to be a big fan of the sport to recognize that some players and teams are very good, while just a few are outstanding. Right now, Manchester City are masterful. They have a squad of fantastic players, terrific teamwork, superb staff and, in manager Pep Guardiola, world-class coaching and leadership. Their performance on the pitch demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that they are currently amongst the absolute best club teams in Europe and the entire world.

Among City’s many fine players, Manuel Akanji – who I will call “Manu” going forward – is one who has taken his level of performance into the category of ‘outstanding’. Since September 2022, when City signed him from Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, Manu has played a key role in the team’s success – which has included winning the remarkable treble of the English Premier League, the FA Cup and, for their first time, the UEFA European Champions League.

I have been Manu’s performance psychologist since 2020. Back then, Manu was already an excellent player. Having worked closely with him, I’ve seen at first-hand how he has managed to raise his level even further.

First, let me tell you briefly just how good he has been and what an important part he has played in Manchester City’s wonderful run. From September ’22 to June ‘23, Manu has played in 46 games for his new team – 29 in the Premier League, 11 in the Champions League, and 6 in the FA Cup. In the same period, he has also played in additional 11 games for his national team, Switzerland, including the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

What has stood out in Manu’s performance this season are his:

  • Accuracy: In the Premier League, he ranked as the leading player in passing accuracy, with 93.3% of his passes completed successfully.
  • Versatility: He has played not only in his main position of central defender, but also as a defender on the right and on the left, if needed by the team. This has required a variety of footballing skills, but also a massive desire to help the team succeed whatever it takes, a growth mindset and a willingness to adapt.
  • Focus and executional discipline: In his entire Premier League season, Manu committed only 24 fouls on opponents and picked up just four yellow cards – which is very few when playing in so many matches, especially for a defender.
  • Impact on the team: In all Manchester City’s Premier League matches involving Manu this season, the team won an average of 2.5 (out of 3) points. And in the UEFA Champions League, the team did not lose even one match in the entire season.

His manager and coach, Pep Guardiola, has often praised Manu’s adaptability and tactical understanding, commenting in the media: “It proves again, intelligent people always pay off. Manu has made a huge impact since he arrived. Again the club made an incredible decision with him. When you are intelligent, I didn’t know him but you realize immediately, I only had to tell him once and he knows it, the movement defensively at set pieces. He did it perfectly. It’s a gift for a manager, a gift.”

Based on Manu’s performance data, researchers at Opta Analyst even picked him into their “Premier League Team of the Season”.

Performance context at the very top

The conditions Manu faced when joining Manchester City in September 2022 may appear at first glance potentially challenging, because of:

  • Internal and external standards: The players are expected to perform exceptionally in every match. There is constant scrutiny from a large global fan base and worldwide media coverage.
  • Team composition: The team is comprised only of outstanding players, almost all of them being a key figure for their national teams. There are at least two world-class players per position.
  • Intensity: As a world-class team, Manchester City invariably advance in every competition. Their season will therefore be longer, and their number of matches will be significantly higher than for most other teams – and the time to recover and prepare will be shorter.

So, what did Manu do to have such a successful season? The answer lies not only in his footballing talent, which is immense, but also in his holistic approach to sustainable high performance.

A winning mindset and mental preparation are key

To be ready and prepared to succeed, Manu preferred to regard the performance context and the conditions at Manchester City not primarily as challenging, but as overflowing with possibilities and opportunities. He saw that:

  • Having the privilege to play alongside some of the best players in the world is highly inspirational.
  • Being scouted and selected for one of the world’s best football organizations, one that attends to every detail to achieve success, is highly motivating.
  • Playing under a leader and coach who values team-player qualities, intelligence and mental strength is highly encouraging.

Building on this, a key part of my work with Manu was to be ready to grasp opportunities. We worked on his mindset to not only further build resilience, but also maximize focus, mental strength and determination, so he would be the best that he could be and, ultimately, be able to compete successfully in huge matches for multiple trophies.

Become a Business Champion

In business, as in football, it is often only fractions that separate outstanding performers from very good ones. The reasons for fractions may be difficult to spot, so a thorough reflection based on holistic diagnostics can be a key starting point for this.

Whether you are an executive, business leader, entrepreneur, or an up-and-coming corporate talent, there is nothing to stop you from adopting the winning mindset of a Manu or creating the inspirational performance context of a Manchester City – whatever your chosen field.

What we can all learn from Manu:

  • Aim high. Being around the best in the world is very likely to be the inspiring environment that will help you rise even further.
  • Build resilience and focus. By working on your mental toughness, you will maximize your chances that you will be able to cope with the intensity at the highest level and deliver great performance.
  • Be versatile and adaptable. Embrace the fact that you may be needed for a variety of tasks. See the bigger picture and always put the team and the organization first. It’s not all about your own success in the first place. Use your adaptability and intelligence to perform well in a variety of areas if required.
  • Find peace in yourself. Have confidence in your capabilities and don’t compromise on your values. Know what you are worth and what value you can bring.
  • Prove critics wrong. At some point, there will probably be some people who will tell you things like “This is not for you” or “You won’t make it there”. Build a strong team behind you, executive with the highest level of precision and accuracy, prove your critics wrong and be a champion!


Wishing you greatest success,