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In the future: the manager will become obsolete

Ten years from now it will seem incredible that, for all the wealth enjoyed by top flight football clubs in England via ever-increasing television rights deals and commercial sponsorships, few of them afforded themselves one of the most valuable luxuries to any successful team: time.

Time to strategize, time to develop an appropriate club-specific plan and playing philosophy, time to make the appropriate hires to reflect that outlook, both in coaching staff and playing personnel, time to focus not on short-term results but long-term process.

Stranger still will be how even fewer realised that luxury could come at the relatively low cost of a single salaried position, that of the Director of Football.

The pre-football directorship era will be regarded as archaic. Not only will those in the sport find it hard to believe that a club’s entire player transfer and wage budget was under the auspices of a single manager—a person also responsible for team selection, tactical preparation, selecting eligible young talent from the reserves and academy, assigning duties and responsibilities to the first team staff—but that the average tenure of the manager was 1.66 seasons in the Premier League, (a precarious duration position which will have dropped even further following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement).

In the future, people will look back and ask: Why did clubs put millions of pounds of long-term player value in the hands of a person whose job is on the line based on results from week to week? Why didn’t they share some of those responsibilities with a position more detached from the short-term results sooner?

This past summer may have finally helped to change some minds on the potential of the DoF role. That was the transfer window when Spurs, with the help of director of football Franco Baldini, managed to acquire all their major summer transfer targets while the more traditional partnership of Arsenal’s chief exec Ivan Gazidis and manager Arsene Wenger, seemed to dither until securing Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil dangerously late in the window (who, in fairness to Arsenal, has arguably proved the best of the North London clubs’ summer buys).

Franco-Baldini Franco Baldini has been the driving force behind Tottenham’s recent shrewd transfer dealings, but there’s so much more to the Director of Football role – writes @RWhittall

Meanwhile United manager David Moyes and chief executive Ed Woodward, who reportedly targeted the likes of Thiago Alcantara (who signed for Bayern Munich) and Ander Herrera (stayed at Athletic Bilbao following an issue with his buyout clause) but were only able to secure Marouane Fellaini, were themselves negatively compared to Manchester City’s Txiki Begiristain, the DoF who helped his club pick up four international targets in Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas.

Suddenly the idea of a dedicated football director role to focus primarily on player recruitment seemed essential in a geopolitically complex and competitive player market. The Daily Express reflected the mood shortly after the window closed:

Given the market United are operating in and how it is new territory for both Woodward and Moyes, perhaps they should consider another layer of expertise in the mould of Manchester City and Tottenham, where Txiki Begiristain and Franco Baldini operate as directors of football.

Even Damien Comolli, the man who many believed cast doubt on the football directorship role after he helped acquire Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing while at Liverpool—all of whom have subsequently moved on at cost—felt compelled to offer United his advice: “If there’s a club who needs a director of football it’s United. It would ease the process for both [Moyes and Woodward].”

Yet few seemed to recognise the full potential of the position beyond recruitment. And still others will now make the mistake of looking at the above clubs’ relative table positions (Arsenal 1st, Spurs 7th, Man City 8th, Man Utd 8th) and success of certain recruits (Navas, Lamella) as evidence the current system works just fine.

This wonderful data visualisation tool on the Transfer Window allows team to assess how effective they’ve been in their player recruitment dealings. Yet, equally, this kind of short-term results-based thinking somewhat misses the point. The skill of the position is in implementing a good and sustainable process. Not one that is error-free, or one that will produce instant success, but one that will provide more Ws than Ls in the long-term.

For example, the director of football could implement industry best practices from top to bottom, use analytics not only for more efficient (and less costly) player recruitment but also to establish a long-term financial plan and internal rules on transfer and wage spending (as Begiristain has implemented with chief executive Ferran Soriano at City), and ensure that each executive (front office) hire reflects the outlook of the club as a whole. In the process they save smaller clubs potentially millions of pounds or euros whilst competing above their pay grade, crucial in a post-Financial Fair Play world where revenue is king. They could take the time to look at the science of player development in order to build the foundations of an academy that will produce more first team eligible players than their competitors, either for the first team or for the transfer market. The possibilities that time affords are endless.

This broad outlook on the director of football role was focus of a recent column on the rise of the Director of Football by the Guardian’s Sean Ingle. Ingle quotes from Everton’s head of technical scouting James Smith who was deep in discussion with 21st Club co-founder Blake Wooster: “The job of a Premier League manager in the old-fashioned sense, where you are theoretically in control of everything, is too big for one man,” Smith says. “The weekly cycle of training and matches is all-consuming.”

Ingle then identifies two key components of the football director’s job:

So what should a director of football do? Two things: set up an excellent recruitment department to monitor and chase targets across the globe; and ensure a consistent philosophy and approach across the club – from the academy to analytics to sports science – by appointing the best staff in every position.

Implied in both of these is the focus on a long-term strategy—on slowing down and moving away from putting long-term decisions in the hands of a person judged primarily on game-to-game results. The DoF gives a club the advantage of time and a helicopter view.

This will not be an easy process, nor will it be free of some major friction between erstwhile managers who suddenly find themselves consulting with the DoF as a “head coach” (though many others will be thrilled with the prospect of more time to focus on the first team). But as the financial risk of running a football club increases, more and more owners and chairpersons will recognise that a director of football role can provide far more than a successful transfer window.

This article by @RWhittall is the second post in the ‘Future of Football’ series for @21stClub.

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About Richard Whittall

Richard Whittall has created 28 entries.