The importance of Sporting Directors in Football
Following the big announcement at Manchester United that John Mortough and Darren Fletcher have been appointed as Sporting and Technical Directors respectively, it is imperative to understand the importance and the specifics of a sporting director especially.
This is important as Manchester United is one of the few amongst football’s elite to have thought it previously useless and unnecessary.
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 have remained quite vague to many.
Why do clubs need sporting directors?
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.
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 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 FC sporting director Lee Dykes characterized this problem in an interview with The Telegraph a couple of years ago, 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 push 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 the space created by football’s growth. The position demands a combination of business and sporting acumen, combined with strong leadership ability and interpersonal skills.
What a sporting director needs
Typically, they are also trained professionals with real-world qualifications. Damien Comolli, previously the sporting director at Liverpool and Tottenham, has a law degree. Raul Sanllehi, former head of football at Arsenal, spent over a decade working for Nike and has a B.A 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 has 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 idea, the philosophy provides a guiding principle for the way the club functions.
For instance, despite hiring five different coaches (Marco Rose will be the sixth when he takes over in the summer) 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.
Sporting directors as stabilizers
Additionally, Dortmund is renowned for producing excellent young players through their academy and also for their intelligent transfer recruitment. In the current squad, Giovanni Reyna, Youssoufa Moukoko and Felix Passlack are academy graduates.
The likes of Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham, Mahmoud Dahoud, 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.
Financial and stylistic realities make a sporting director essential
That financial reality has accentuated Zorc’s choices. Unlike Bayern Munich domestically, and the likes of 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 hasn’t existed (now does at Manchester United), 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 has repeatedly expressed a desire to become like Barcelona, synonymous with a certain way of playing.
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.
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 style of play. Begiristain’s emphasis on transfers contributing to a long-term project ensures that City doesn’t view transfers from a purely financial standpoint.
Rather than entering the market simply to buy marquee stars that 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 success stories of sporting directors
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.
These were both underachieving franchises who, after Epstein’s arrival, won the World Series after decades of underachievement and having cycled through dozens of coaches.
That is not the trend, though. When the hugely successful Beppe Marotta left the sporting director role at Juventus, Andre Agnelli immediately hired his assistant, Fabio Paratici. Marotta himself is doing well so far at Inter Milan.
Carlos Monchi is very well recognized in world football for his work at Sevilla. Arsenal have appointed two sporting directors post-Wenger, and former FA technical director Dan Ashworth moved to Brighton & Hove Albion in early 2019.
Sporting directors and the future
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.
Across the modern footballing landscape in Europe, it is now rare to find a successful or efficiently-performing club that is not under the guidance of a sporting director. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a position that was once viewed with suspicion is, by virtue of its specialization, becoming fundamental to competing across modern football’s growing battlefields.