How the sporting director is taking root in English football

(Franco Baldini via The Guardian)

(Franco Baldini via The Guardian)


The foundations for a summer of change at White Hart Lane were laid a decade ago. After Glenn Hoddle was sacked in 2003, Daniel Levy, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, decided to take the club in a new direction. Dismayed at the prospect of overhauling the first-team squad yet again, Levy travelled across Europe with John Alexander, the Spurs secretary, to see how leading clubs operated. By the time they returned, Levy was sold on the idea that Tottenham needed “a new continental structure”.

Implementing that model has not been as straightforward as Levy would have hoped – Frank Arnesen left to join Chelsea 12 months after he was named sporting director at White Hart Lane in 2004 and his replacement Damien Comolli lost his job when Harry Redknapp took over as manager in 2008. However, the chairman’s belief in a setup that he said nine years ago would strengthen Tottenham’s ability to “operate in an international market” and deliver “a consistent strategy for first-team and youth development” has never wavered.

That structure has returned this summer and, with a world-record transfer fee poised to be deposited in the club’s bank account for Gareth Bale, the timing could not have been better. Appointed as technical director in June, Franco Baldini has made a number of impressive signings, highlighting the value of employing someone with the contacts and expert knowledge to oversee player recruitment while leaving the manager to coach the team. It is quite a contrast from what has happened this summer at Arsenal, as well as Manchester United and Liverpool.

“Daniel has always fancied this structure, to have a technical director on the board, on his side, to make sure that there are two people in charge of the football department,” Arnesen says. “I think Baldini’s very knowledgable, he knows the market and Spurs have done very well. The good thing is, if Bale is going, they’ve got five or six very good players in. As an individual Bale is fantastic but as a team and a squad, they probably will be stronger.

“What I like about Baldini is that he’s very much behind the scenes and that is the way I think it should be. André Villas-Boas knows this structure, because he’s worked with it before. The same with [Manuel] Pellegrini at Manchester City. I think if you asked Pellegrini: ‘Do you want to do all the transfer business?’ he would say: ‘No, no. I want to be on the pitch everyday.'”

Arsène Wenger would almost certainly deliver a different answer, such is his desire to have total control at Arsenal. Synonymous with innovation when he took over in 1996, Wenger feels like yesterday’s man when it comes to player recruitment. With money to burn, Arsenal are dithering again.

“There is a big difference from when he started 17 years ago. All the clubs – I have seen it at Tottenham and Chelsea – have become more organised and much more professional in the scouting department,” says Arnesen, who is hoping to return to football after agreeing a settlement with Hamburg this week. “In the beginning, the best French players came to Arsenal and they never had any competition. But now all the competition is so big. You can see it with City with [Txiki] Begiristain coming in [as director of football]. He has a lot of time to deal with the transfers and with the scouting, and that is a big difference now, and that is why it’s probably difficult for Arsenal to sign those players.”

More Premier League clubs are starting to buy into the two-tier structure that is commonplace in other European countries. As well as Spurs and Manchester City, the role exists in one form or another at Chelsea, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Southampton and Swansea City. The lack of understanding about how the management structure works, and the scepticism with which the role is viewed by some, is not helped by Newcastle’s decision to appoint Joe Kinnear, a man who believes his experiences as a manager and a player “put me head and shoulders above every other director of football”.

When the structure is set up in the right way and the position filled with the right person, the benefits are there for all to see, as was the case with Albion under Dan Ashworth. Appointed as sporting and technical director in 2007, Ashworth was given responsibility for recruiting the head coach as well as players, which is the continental model. A central component is that the playing and recruitment philosophy should be determined by the sporting director, which prevents the first-team squad from being torn up every time a coach is appointed.

“The structure allows you to build a bigger picture,” says Ashworth, who left Albion this year to become director of elite development at the Football Association. “We went through a cycle of two or three head coaches and what we couldn’t have is a whole change of player recruitment philosophy, because it’s extremely costly and time consuming. So in the interview process for a head coach, it would be: ‘This is our philosophy, these are the profiles of our players, this is how we recruit, are you happy to buy into that?'”

One of many misconceptions in this setup is the notion that players are forced on the head coach. Ashworth and Arnesen both worked along the same lines, where they would speak to the coach about the positions he wanted to strengthen, draw up a list of candidates after liaising with scouts and then ask the coach to put the players in order of preference. If there was another player that the coach wanted to throw into the mix, that name would be considered as well. Age, cost and playing style would all be important factors, before the coach, together with the sporting director, agreed on a choice.

Another problem in England has been that some managers see a director of football or technical director as a threat to their position. “I presented on the Pro licence a couple of times whilst I was at West Brom and my presentation on the role of a technical director starts ‘Angel or Devil?'” Ashworth says. “I think it’s very much a fear of the unknown for the manager – and I can understand it, because if you’ve got the wrong person sat up with the chairman and they really want your job as a manager, you don’t know what they’re saying.

“If you’ve got somebody who doesn’t want to be a manager and is in a position that you trust, who is going to fight for you with the chairman and the board, it’s a wonderful position. You don’t have to get involved with all the frustrating things with agents and policy and procedure, and they’re there to support you and leave you to make key decisions on getting things right on a Saturday, it’s a wonderful position.”

Continue reading at The Guardian.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has come out strongly against the role, “if a director of football buys the players, when they don’t work you are guilty for not using them well. When they work he has bought well,” Wenger said. “I am not against having people to help me to buy and sell. I cannot do it all. I am not the one who thinks he is Superman.

“But I think the final decision has to always be with the manager. He is the one who is responsible for the style of the team, and the results. It makes sense that the manager chooses the players who come in.”

On the eve of another tense north London derby, Wenger admits that maybe this approach piles too much on to his plate. “The transfer market, I don’t deny, is a problem for me,” he says. “It conflicts with the period when the season has started already and it needs a big focus on the competition.”

The quotes above have been excerpted from this Amy Lawrence opinion piece.

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