United’s sporting chance
The director of football, or sporting director, may seem like a modern phenomenon, but the role has existed for decades. Fundamentally, the role is an intermediary between the board and the first team manager, with a task of creating continuity: in the long-term direction, playing style, transfers, hiring and firing, and bridging the gap between the academy and the first team. Given that managers and players often focus match-to-match, the former with the intention of keeping his job and the latter with hope of staying in the team, the sporting director is charged with executing a long-term vision.
Many clubs have generated success from the role, driving ambition with lasting effect. Historically, different directors, like people, are good at different things. Michael Zorc is central to Borussia Dortmund’s success since 2000. The policy of promoting home-grown talent and coaching the most promising youngsters until their potential is fulfilled has become ‘the Dortmund way’ – with plenty of success, despite Bayern Munich monopolising Bundesliga silverware.
"The director of football, or sporting director, may seem like a modern phenomenon, but the role has existed for decades."
In a different area, Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, also known as Monchi, has been one of the most effective transfer market gurus in Europe. In his role at Sevilla, Monchi signed a full team of unpolished gems, including Andrés Palop, Dani Alves, Federico Fazio, Martin Cáceres, Adriano, Ivan Rakitic, Júlio Baptista, Seydou Keita, Christian Poulsen, Lúis Fabiano and Carlos Bacca. The total outlay: just £23.5 million. The income achieved from moving that collection on: more than £150 million.
Sevilla’s possession of a sporting director who identifies hidden gems amid the giants splashing millions is probably more influential than hiring a quality manager. Monchi was not bad at identifying talent in the youth system either, with Sergio Ramos, Alberto Moreno, Luis Alberto, Jesús Navas and Jose Antonio Reyes all fetching handsome fees after spending a few years with the club. Monchi now plies his trade with Roma and the club is now, unsurprisingly, punching above its weight in Serie A and the Champions League.
Sporting directors are also charged with maintaining a club identity, even if ‘identity’ is one of the more ambiguous discussions in modern football. After all, can anyone actually define “the West Ham way,” and is David Moyes really the answer?
Two different, but ultimately successful examples of directors fitting this mould can be found in Leipzig and Manchester. Ralf Rangnick retired from management in 2016, moving into the role at RB Leipzig to allow Ralph Hasenhüttle to take over first team duties. Steeped in the gegenpressing philosophy, Rangnick has left a legacy of fast-paced and aggressive football at both Leipzig and RB Salzburg. He has a philosophy of signing players between the ages of 17 and 23, with Sadio Mane, Joshua Kimmich and Naby Keita being some of his success stories. The alignment on philosophy between manager and sporting director has helped RB Leipzig become one of Europe’s success stories, with the club finishing second in 2016/17. It was Leipzig’s first ever season in the Bundesliga.
A little closer to home, Manchester City’s appointment of Txiki Berginistain made the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager all but inevitable. Having assembled key aspects of Guardiola’s dominant side at Barcelona, including Dani Alves, Eric Abidal and former United player Gerard Pique, Berginistain has been influential in bringing in the players capable of executing the Spaniard’s philosophy at City, including John Stones, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané. The shared ideology, alongside bucket loads of cash, has helped City’s ascent.
At United there is a different philosophy – Sir Alex Ferguson’s success still guides the club’s thinking and remains a fundamental reason why United has not installed a sporting director. While initially hands on in training, Ferguson’s role as the manager evolved to include elements that are closer to the modern sporting director: controlling the playing style of various age group teams, bridging the gap between the youth and the first team, and identifying key transfer targets. The Scot noted “delegation of responsibility” as a key feature of why he was so successful, which is often why Mike Phelan and René Muelensteen are given more praise for their roles at United than most coaches.
“Once I stepped out of the bubble,” Ferguson once noted. “I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.”
Part of the reason Ferguson could take up this role was due to his longevity at the club. Since his retirement, the club has lacked any consistent identity, due to the frequent managerial changes and the lack of an over-arching plan. David Moyes’ disastrous tenure knocked all the confidence out of the squad, while transitions to Louis van Gaal’s possession football and José Mourinho’s more defensive style have been far from smooth.
There has also been a basic lack of nous when it comes to the transfer market. Under Moyes, United dithered and then panicked during the summer of 2013, eventually paying over the odds for Marouane Fellaini. Under van Gaal, the club’s hierarchy signed off on huge investment in the squad, with Ángel Di Marίa, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and others joining the club. Not all of the spending was successful. Mourinho’s tenure has ushered in a more coherent strategy, although that is more likely to be down to the Portuguese’s clarity of thought than any confidence in Ed Woodward.
Since Ferguson’s retirement the command structure at the club is beginning to look dated. Ed Woodward is the executive vice chairman and director, responsible for running the club, much of the marketing behind ‘brand United’, and completing transfers. Mourinho takes charge of the first team duties, while Nicky Butt directs the academy. Yet, with Woodward’s focus on the administrative side, Mourinho has complained recently that he has not enjoyed enough support from his bosses – that he is not being give the resources to succeed. Mourinho believes that not executing the transfer of Ivan Perišić, for example, has negatively affected the team, with the lack of width isolating Romelu Lukaku. Mourinho’s side has delivered more crosses than any other team in the league.
It is perhaps telling that the two ‘top six’ clubs that have not seen significant improvement in the last three years are United and Arsenal given that both eschew the sporting director model. Arsène Wenger has spoken negatively about the role in the past, likely because of the threat it poses to his role as manager and general patriarch at Arsenal. Chelsea, City and Tottenham Hotspur have all thrived under the model. True, Liverpool has stagnated, but that might be down to poor execution and decision-making, such as not focussing on improving the quality of defensive personnel.
"It is telling that the two ‘top six’ clubs that have not seen significant improvement in the last three years are United and Arsenal."
United might need to revisit the model though. It seems unlikely that Mourinho will stay beyond the two years, leaving Woodward and the board with the job of planing for the manager’s departure. It would draw clear lines between a future manager and the club’s executive should a sporting director arrive. The appointment would also relieve any manager of duties that are not solely about preparing the first team – a function that has become frustrating for Mourinho.
Ferguson had it right, delegation is key to success. It allows individuals to focus on their specialism and would allow the club to bridge the clear blue water between the business side and what happens on the pitch. If sporting success is the primary aim then a long-term direction is crucial. United lacks that vision right now.