A sporting director is now a common part of
any elite footballing structure. While generally understood as a measure taken to protect clubs
from the growing financial risk associated with their
sporting decisions and as a means of ensuring continuity, the mechanics of the role remain
vague. Previously, football departments were governed
more simply, by a manager and an executive. The manager would coach the side, the executive
would handle club finances, and both would share
responsibility for recruitment decisions. But while this method was successful in the
past, the model is inadequate to serve the modern
game. The dynamic was predicated on the kind of strong relationships which the declining
lifespan of managers has made a thing of the past. According
to 21st Club data from 2018, managers have lasted
an average of just 14 months since the 2012/13 season. The logical consequence has been that
clubs are now increasingly reluctant to bestow transfer
authority upon a transient position. More broadly,
building any short or long term strategy around the role accentuates the wastage already associated
with professional football. Bury sporting director Lee Dykes characterised
this problem in a recent interview with the Telegraph,
saying: “We cannot be self sustainable if, every
time there is a change of manager, all of the plans go out of
the window, a big chunk of staff leaves and half the playing squad is considered a cost
because the new manager wants to bring his own players
in. It would just plough the football club into debt.”
The evolution of football has also manifested in the creation of many more performance layers
within a club, requiring a level of expertise beyond
that of the old executive. Now, sports science, analytics,
scouting, and coaching units operate as their own departments, almost like individual businesses
with their own specific targets and aims.
Essentially, the sporting director role has grown to fill space created by football’s
growth. The position demands a combination of business and sporting
acumen, combined with strong leadership ability and
inter-personal skills. Typically, they are also trained professionals with real-world
qualifications. Damien Comolli, previously sporting director
at Liverpool and Tottenham, has a law degree. Raul
Sanllehi, currently head of football at Arsenal, spent over a decade working for Nike and has
a BA in economics, marketing and finance. These are
not just ex-players who have migrated into management
roles post-retirement, but skilled, educated and experienced private sector workers.
Not that ex-players are precluded from the positions: Borussia Dortmund’s Michael Zorc
is widely considered to be one of the most successful
sporting directors of the modern era. After playing for the
club for 17 years, Zorc took on the role in 1998. During his tenure, the club have won
the Bundesliga three times, reached a Champions League final,
and have consistently produced, nurtured and recruited talented young players.
Zorc has been fundamental to that success and is responsible for creating and sustaining
the philosophy at its core. In “How the World’s
Best Play the 21st Century Game” by Grant Wahl, Zorc
outlined his approach. “Our philosophy is linked to our region,
a working-class region” he said. “So it has to be daring, it has
to be attacking. The fans don’t like it when the team plays like chess on the field.
That’s a very important point.”
Rather than just an ideal, the philosophy provides a guiding principle for the way the
club functions. For instance, despite hiring four different
coaches since the departure of Jurgen Klopp in 2015, that
change has never led to major upheaval. Instead, Dortmund habitually appoint managers with
similar philosophies who require similar types of
players. As a result, a change of manager never necessitates
a squad overhaul. Additionally, Dortmund is renowned for producing
excellent young players through their academy and also for their intelligent transfer
recruitment. In the current squad, Mario Gotze and
Jacob Bruun Larsen are academy graduates, while the likes of Lucasz Piszczek, Mahmoud
Dahoud, Julien Weigl, Marco Reus, and Jadon Sancho
have been purchased at young ages for minimal fees.
Zorc is also insistent that the youth teams mimic the first-team’s tactics, meaning
that transition to senior level football is easier
for developing players. Dortmund’s ability to purchase and
nurture young talent is not simply down to their excellent scouting, but also the result
of a fierce commitment to youth development that stems
from their philosophy of “daring” and “attacking”
football. It makes Dortmund an attractive destination for players who, by their career’s
peak, would most likely be outside the club’s price
range. That financial reality has accentuated Zorc’s
effect. Unlike Bayern Munich domestically, and
Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and Manchester City in Europe, Dortmund cannot compete for
the best players in the world. As such, they are forced
to find a different route to success. But that doesn’t mean that the role is less
significant at clubs at the top of the food chain. In
addition to the issues suffered at Chelsea and Manchester United in recent years, where
the position doesn’t exist, Txiki Begiristain’s success
at Manchester City makes a compelling case for its
importance. Begiristain joined City in 2012, after serving
as sporting director of Barcelona between 2003
and 2010 under Joan Laporta, during which time he also appointed Pep Guardiola as head-coach
of the first team. Begiristain was an attractive
target for Manchester City, given that the club have
repeatedly expressed a desire to become. like Barcelona, synonymous with a certain way of
playing. But his personal relationship with Guardiola
and the trust between the two of them also made him an
outstanding candidate and, in light of the club’s success, a primary catalyst for the
club’s rapid evolution.
But Begiristain is not just crucial to City because of his links to Barcelona and Guardiola.
Like Zorc, he believes in sensible recruitment that not only equips his manager properly,
but also reinforces the existence of a native style.
Begiristain’s emphasis on transfers contributing to a long-term project ensures that City don’t
view transfers from a purely financial standpoint. Rather than entering the market simply to
buy marquee stars who can attract media attention
and sell shirts, they attempt to look for players who can
fit into a specific blueprint. Their financial strength enables them to spend the money necessary
to acquire those players, but the overarching
guidance – especially when compared to the lack of
direction across town at Old Trafford – affords them a greater return on their investments.
The sporting director model has been successful at many clubs across various leagues, and
has yielded similar success in other sports. In America, an astute general manager is arguably
of equal or greater importance than any coach: consider
Billy Beane’s influence in Oakland, or Theo Epstein’s
effect on, firstly, the Boston Red Sox and, latterly, the Chicago Cubs, both underachieving
franchises who, after Epstein’s arrival, won the World
Series after decades of underachievement and having
cycled through dozens of coaches. Football still remains more resistant. Even
at its highest level, some clubs exhibit an apparent
distrust of sporting directors, preferring to keep faith with the more traditional, two-pronged
structure. That is not the trend, though: Arsenal will
soon appoint their second sporting director of the postArsene
Wenger era, former FA technical director Dan Ashworth moved to Brighton & Hove Albion in
early 2019 and Liverpool’s Michael Edwards, who was promoted to sporting director in 2018,
is credited with building the squad which Jurgen
Klopp has managed to back-to-back Champions League finals.
Across the modern footballing landscape in Europe, it is now rare to find a successful
or efficiently-performing club which is not under
the guidance of a sporting director. It’s becoming
increasingly clear that a position which was once viewed with suspicion is, by virtue of
its specialisation, becoming fundamental to competing
across modern football’s growing battlefields.