The Four Stages of Competence at Man Utd

In psychology, the four stages of competence model explains the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

Van Gaal has actually referenced this model himself, but I believe United’s entire post-Ferguson journey, from a team in disarray to the stage we’re at now, can be understood through this lens. Sort of. Stay with me…

1. Unconscious Incompetence

The individual is unable to comprehend their situation. This is the stage in which the individual is stimulated to learn. This is akin to not being able to drive and having never tried, in some cases doubting the skill needed.

moyes no idea


This was the stage Moyes was at when he was handed the United controls. He seemed completely overwhelmed by the job he found himself doing, having perhaps underestimated the enormity of the task when he accepted Fergie’s decision to install him as his successor.

2. Conscious Incompetence

The individual is aware of the situation and is able to interact with it, though is not able to perform to any sort of standard. The individual’s mistakes are integral to their learning process and progressing to the next level (imagine your first driving lesson).

woodward and moyes on training ground

Think back to Ed Woodward’s first transfer window. He had a solid record of Mister Potato deals and official noodle partnerships, but could he hold his own in the transfer market? It was a steep learning curve for Ed. He certainly talked the talk back in the summer of 2013, briefing the press exuberantly on every move he thought he was making, but he was actually getting played like a funky piano by an assortment of Europe’s top players and agents. This culminated in the farcical deadline day capture of Marouane Fellaini for close to £30 million.

3. Conscious Competence

The individual is able to carry out the task, but is ever aware that they are executing it. They have the capability to carry out their task and are doing so with the upmost concentration. Example: driving a car for the first year of having your licence.

van gaal and giggs deep in thought


Van Gaal exhibited a state of conscious competence in his first season as Man Utd manager. He was quick to begin implementing everything he had learned during his career, from training ground improvements to meal-time routines, and tinkered relentlessly with formations and personnel, struggling to find a formula that felt truly natural. The club achieved the target that was set – a top 4 finish and a return to Europe, but other than a short burst of brilliance that began with the 3-0 victory over Tottenham in March, there was little opportunity for Van Gaal to relax and let things flow.

4. Unconscious Competence

One is able to perform their task to the highest degree with little need to concentrate heavily. The individual is so accomplished, they can begin to multi-task or integrate other factors into their actions. Example: driving after 5 years’ experience.

sir alex and united team with champions league trophy in 1999

I believe that Sir Alex Ferguson and the 99′ treble winning team had achieved a collective state of unconscious competence in 1999. They multi-tasked by competing on three different fronts without performances slipping in any competition, and were a team at the peak of their powers. Many of them had grown up together, and played with an unconscious understanding that will be tough to ever replicate. But can Van Gaal’s ‘process’ deliver a new, albeit different, era of unconscious competence?

We are entering LVG’s second year as manager of Manchester United. In his first season he accomplished the mission set for him. At times it was a struggle, and due to the turmoil the club had suffered the season before, it was somewhat welcome that we didn’t have the distraction of European football. Unlike Moyes, he was left a team bereft of confidence, and the new manager had a task to return this grand club to the stage that it should be performing on in the upper echelons of football. Would LVG have managed to get top four and progress in the Champions League with the squad he had? After Moyes, many players had left or retired, and Louis had to rebuild. Given the players he bought, one would have imagined at the start of the season this could have been a possibility. However, Falcao and Di Maria never lived up to the hype and LVG had to deal with a genuine injury crisis.

Louis Van Gaal steered the team to the minimum target set. He performed this task competently, but had the luxury of focusing on just one thing. The poor performance in both cups showed an inability to deal with more than one competition, but when we were knocked out of the FA Cup we went on a great run which solidified our position and gave us some memorable victories against derby rivals. Van Gaal performed his task with conscious competence. This season, he must be unconsciously competent.

Or rather, he should be between the two stages. To expect him to manage the team to the standards of the reference given is a tough ask. I don’t think any of us fans are expecting the treble, but silverware or quality runs in all competitions are vital. This year LVG must be able to prove his worth in the league, get us to at least the quarters of the Champions League, and possibly win one of the domestic cups.

I think if he were to win the FA Cup and get 2nd or maybe even 3rd in the league, this would be considered an achievement. Of course we want to win the league, but when you look at the quality around us, our chances don’t look great. Winning the FA Cup would be a big moment for fans. We used to dominate the competition, but haven’t won since 1999, and Arsenal now stand as the most successful club in the competition after they surpassed our record of most FA Cup wins last year.

When we look back at the Tottenham game, the performance seemed to be one of conscious competence; getting the job done with a high amount of concentration required. This was, after all, the first game of the season, and the flame has only just been ignited – it will take a bit of time before it starts to come to the boil.

Of the new lads, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger performed well, both fitting into their midfield slots and comfortably executing their roles. Schweinsteiger in particular looked the part when he came on (after his first few minutes in which he received a yellow). He was bossing the ball and the team from the middle of the park as if he were still in Bavaria.

To conclude, LVG must get the team performing at an unconsciously competent level, which I strongly believe he will do – that’s what United deserve, and what the fans demand.