Recruitment, managers and backing them.

Abdel Rahman El Beheri
33 min readMar 12, 2023
United managers since 2013.

A manager has been hired at your club. The fans are excited. This is THE one, the one who will fix it all. Suddenly, in the back of your head, you hear a voice in the midst of all the jubilation that utters the following: “The club must back him.” So you take to Twitter like everyone else and type: “I believe in [insert manager’s name] and the club must back him in order for this project to succeed.” Not even a few transfer windows later, an argument starts on whether or not the manager was backed. Some think he’s been backed and this has been not reflected in “style of play” or results. Some think, no, he has not been backed enough. The discussion goes back and forth for ages.

Usually, we don’t stop ourselves and ask: Where does one draw the line for “backed”? When can you say with at least > 80% certainty that the manager was backed? Much of the information is not available to us [the fans] and much of what we read in articles is either information agents want out or information the club wants out through the journalists that they have established a long standing relationship with. However, there’s a way to get a round this — pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition means the way the club behaved and have conducted themselves historically — at minimum last 5 years — can give us a pretty clear image of how the club “backs a manager” and we can compare that across the board with other clubs’ historical behaviors — the rises and the falls. First things first though, let’s start by defining “backed.”

What does backing a manager mean?

Backed — from backing someone up — is to support or help or provide aiding tools to someone to achieve something or a common goal. Based on that definition, what can a club provide a manager to aid him on his quest of bringing success to a club? Is it giving them exorbitant amounts of money? Is it giving them their targets? Is it the number of incomings? or who the incomings are? I mean, if the club recruits 3 superstars like Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe, it seems reasonable that the fans will expect to win it all, no? Not quite.

Let’s start by setting two things straight: One, the manager doesn’t receive a premium credit card from the club and get told: Go. Shopping. Two, the manager doesn’t set the price for neither the incoming players or outgoing players. A manager couldn’t care less how much a club spends on a player. The club pushes back on the demands of the manager and recruitment department when the budget is not enough. The manager isn’t there doing financial budgeting for the club and seeing how much and where they should spend — and by where I mean clubs or leagues where prices are lower. Can’t believe I have to say this but some fans seriously think that when they speak about managerial backing.

Here’s the thing; most football “analysis” falls back on cliché, fashion, and herd thinking. When a new manager is hired — specifically if it is the one that fans were calling for — fans talk with excitement about the impact their new manager will have on the club. From observing across the board with fans, and not just the online presence, associate manager backing to the amount of money spent — largely — then the number of incomings under said manager.

But what if these prerequisites were false to begin with and should not be used to judge a manager’s supposed “backing”?

The first assumption is “Spend BIG”, which is widely viewed as a sure fire hack to increase your probability of success and that constitutes backing. In a study done by Harvard University, they have found that there’s very little correlation between spending money on transfers and success. Money does help, there’s no disputing that but it is how it is being spent and on what. In 30 years of premier league history, the biggest spender ended up winning the league and/or the champions league SEVEN times; league only FIVE times.

While studies couldn’t find a strong link between spending money on transfers and performance, they found a strong correlation between spending on wages and performance/success. This is one of the reasons why wages structures at club needs to be kept in check.

An analysis of England’s top two divisions from 2007 to 2017 has concluded that spending correctly on wages correlated to 90% of a team’s success and a 100% correlation between the club’s salary bill and the team’s league position. For example, the team that had a 3.4x the average salary bill had the highest average league position of 3rd. On the other end of the table, the bottom team had spent 0.2x the average and had an average league position of 43rd.

Note: this is the average not season by season. These analyses are done over a spectrum of time.

The logic of this analysis is visible, I suppose, high pay attract high performers — in a general sense. If you have the best player in each of his/her position, you will win many matches regardless of who is in the dugout.

There are of course always exceptions. Players looking for a pay day at the end of their career and Leicester winning the 15/16 PL title with the 15th highest wage bill in the league — but those are the exceptions not the rule. A living proof is PSG, no coherent plan but they are still at the top of their league despite the frequent change of managers.

Leicester lifting the PL title 2015/2016.

In a single season, the connection between wages and success is weaker but the further you extend the analysis the stronger the link gets. A long enough stretch and it is a 100% correlation. Over one season, there are multiple factors that can come into play as we have seen in the league season that Leicester won, but sooner or later, natural order will be restored. And as much as the media and fans try to attribute that success to Claudio Ranieri, it had nothing to do with him. In fact, Claudio Ranieri was labelled the “perfect loser” after getting fired by Greece for an embarrassing defeat to the Faroe Islands.

“I am the same man who was fired by Greece a year-and-a-half ago” coach Claudio Ranieri after lifting the PL with Leicester City.

What other factors play or affect the success of a team in a single season? Well, many.

  1. Injuries.
  2. Other top teams.
  3. Timing.
  4. Officiating.
  5. Luck

How about the number of signings under a single manager?

Major United signings since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

The second prerequisite for declaring a manager is “backed” is the number of incomings each transfer window. The number of incomings is used as an argument to prove the validity of fans’ claims on which manager is doing a better job given the number of signings. In a sense, the number of incomings is a good indicator — at minimum — of the intention and willingness of the club to support the project. However, nobody thinks of the “how” those incomings came about.

Imagine the club hired a manager like Jose Mourinho and all you see is the club recruiting a mix of players that resembles what a Jose Mourinho player looks like and others who are light and nimble — players who you’d associate more with Dutch or Spanish football. Would you still say he has been backed?

I presume the supposition here would be the manager chose the players so it is his responsibility. The club followed his recommendations and what he wanted so ergo he was backed. The other possibility that isn’t usually considered by many is; what if the manager had no hand or maybe just a little in any of the signings the club had purchased? What if the club and the manager have separate visions? This happened to Liverpool, we’ll explain that later.

For a club like Manchester United and its fans, the notion that the manager is not in control of every facet of the club — at least on a footballing level — is unfathomable. Yet ironically, for the last nine years, they have been calling for a footballing director to take matters away from their ex-CEO Ed Woodward and to aid the current manager in the dug out. The calls, looks as though, it has more to do with stripping Ed Woodward of his influence on the footballing side due of his lack of experience — reasonable — and due to his relation to the Glazer family than the manager getting his targets. To further elaborate on the last sentence, Manchester United fans that say “the manager has been backed” — when things aren’t going well after 2+ years (2 full seasons) with a certain manager — also say “the club doesn’t have footballing people to help the manager and get him his targets”, so which is it?…It’s contradictory because they want the manager to be in total control of the transfers AND they want the club to behave like modern clubs — the fact is you can’t have both.

The root of this collective “the manager must have total control” thinking comes from the SAF days and SMB days. Manchester United as a club has always been a manager club. What that refers to is the manager represents the hero complex for the club and its fans alike. Sir Alex Ferguson took charge of the club back in the late 80s and with an iron fist dragged it from the edge of oblivion to the highest echelons of footballing royalty. Same with Sir Matt Busby — the man who placed Manchester United on the European glory map. Naturally, the fans need that hero figure again and crave it. They are used to it and that’s the only way they see managers.

However, Manchester United football club has not functioned like that since the take over was complete in 2005. Slowly but surely, even SAF lost control of many of the things he had autonomy over — specifically the transfer policies. The phrase “there is no value in the market” became popular for a reason. Luckily for SAF, by 2006, he had already built the team he needed to dominate English football with for the next couple of years — until that team aged. The next logical step for SAF is “exit on a high.”

So the question here becomes, what makes United fans think that the managers that have come since had any control over transfer policies? As many of those managers said, “they had a say” but having a say is not having “control” or “complete support”. Also, what makes the fans think that giving managers total control is a guarantee to replicating the SAF level of success or even anywhere near?

This is what Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho had to say after being sacked by United:

“Manchester United did not have the qualities to become champions and had an outdated selection with 10 players over 30, five over 35,” Van Gaal told Voetbal International.

“So I told them I was going to rejuvenate the team and which players should come. I didn’t get one of those. Then you end up in a different segment and as a coach you have to push your boundaries. You don’t expect that at the richest club in the world. A turnover of £600million and you can’t buy the players you need. You should buy number one and not number seven. Of course, the selling club also thinks: If you are so rich, you also have to pay the highest amount imaginable for a player. That was what happened with transfers. Then you have to do with number seven or eight on your wish list. For which you actually pay way too much money, on which the coach is judged and convicted.”

Mourinho said his second-place finish last season was “one of the best jobs of my career” because of what he described as influences “behind the scenes”.

“People might say: ‘This guy is crazy, he won 25 titles and now he says that second position with United was one of his best achievements in football,” Mourinho said. “I keep saying this because people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. We are not any more in a time when the coach by himself is powerful enough to cope,” he said. “The coach nowadays needs a structure, he needs a club organized in a certain way. The club must have an owner or a president, a CEO or executive director, a football director and then the manager. This is the structure that can cope with all the problems modernity is bringing all of us. A club must be very well organized to cope with all these kind of situations where the manager is only the manager and not the man that is trying to keep the discipline or is trying to educate the players.” Mourinho added.

“Sir Alex Ferguson used to say the day a player is more important than a club, goodbye,” Mourinho continued. “Not any more. The manager ought to be there to coach the players, not to keep the discipline at any cost. You need a structure to protect the manager and keep everything in place, so that the players do not arrive in a situation where they feel more powerful than they used to be … Everything good I did with players is not news any more. News in modern football is when you have problems.”

Mourinho talks about the relationship between the club and the manager.

The most important message LVG and JM were trying to convey here was if the ideals and vision of the manager are not aligned with the club, there’s very little the manager can do to bring about true glory and success to the club. If the structure around the manager is flawed, there’s very slim chance that the manager will succeed. Even if the manager did, it will be due to many circumstances outside of the manager not because of the manager. These circumstances include but are not limited to, luck, other teams, injuries or lack thereof, and then maybe little ingenuity of the manager — among others.

Obviously, many like to delude themselves into attributing all that success unto them. This is why Mourinho flagged second place with United was his greatest achievement. Mourinho was a contributing factor, there’s no doubt about it but there were many other factors that helped or went his way into achieving that. One such factor is, the goal keeper, David de Gea’s incredible shot stopping form that David de Gea, himself, has not since been able replicate to anywhere near the same degree.

“In soccer, pure chance can influence outcomes to a much greater extent than in other sports. Goals are relatively rare, fewer than three per game in England’s Premier League. So whether a ball ricochets into the net or misses it by a few inches has, on average, far more of an effect upon the final result than whether, say, a potential home run in baseball lands fair or foul or an N.F.L. running back grinds out a first down.” Bruce Schoenfeld, The NY times 2019.

In short, this means the number of incomings while on a surface level can seem like a manager is being backed, the reality could be very different. This doesn’t only apply to United. There many examples of clubs where the manager failed or succeeded largely due to the recruitment prowess of the club where they were hired. Conflicting ideas between recruitment and managers can be problematic. The number of signings is far from a good metric to use to verify if a manager has been backed if there no context whatsoever provided with it.

The next part will explore examples of managers that failed or succeeded at their club despite the number of incomings and the money spent. They relied largely on the networking, recruitment and negotiation prowess of their footballing structure (i.e. football directors, recruitment, CFO and his negotiation team). The manager only had to manage the players and the tactics.

The Red Bull conglomerate of Leipzig and Salzburg.

The Red Bull conglomerate, which has a presence in Salzburg, New York, Sao Paulo and Sogakope in Ghana — as well as Leipzig, Germany now has been on a meteoric rise since they bought 5th tier SSV Markranstädt in 2009. A study by the CIES Football observatory in April 2019 found the average age of Leipzig’s signings was 21 years and 156 days, making them the youngest recruiter of any club in Europe’s top five leagues. As well as getting hold of the best talent from their affiliated clubs — like Manchester City do within the City Football Group — Leipzig focus on signing talented young players from Europe to supplement the youngest team in the Bundesliga, who were managed by the league’s youngest head coach.

Julian Nagelsmann, manager of RB Leipzig 2019–21

While clubs like Manchester United, Ajax and Barcelona pride themselves on nurturing players through their academy — that’s their definition of youth focus approach — to supplement the first team, Leipzig took a different approach. No player produced by their academy has ever played for them in the Bundesliga. RBL and RBS have many affiliate clubs under the same ownership. This has extended this tentacles to the far reaches of the globe and in so many leagues. The can get data on young talents fast and cheap. The funny irony here; no one seems to want to address is their recruitment prowess when talking about their success but far more about the money of Red bull as a company and the prodigy manager they hired — at the time.

How was the recruitment process done though?

1. Head of global football and Football director — a team

So how did Red Bull turn a club playing regional football into genuine Bundesliga title contenders? Did they just happen to stumble upon a genius manager and he figured it all out? Simple answer: absolutely not.

After the acquisition of the club by Red Bull, promotion swiftly followed — yes money does help. However, because of Dietrich Mateschitz’s — co-founder and owner of Red Bull interference in footballing decisions and haphazard hiring and firing of managers, RB found it more difficult to escape the fourth-tier Regionalliga Nord — that is until the arrival of Ralf Rangnick.

“Everything started with Ralf Rangnick in 2012,” says Guido Schafer, who has charted RB’s rise as chief reporter at the Leipziger Volkszeitung, told BBC Sport.

Rangnick was brought in by head of global football and former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. The person credited with bringing forward Sadio Mane to Red Bull Salzburg. Ralf Rangnick was appointed sporting director of both Red Bull Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg and successive promotions followed.

“Rangnick is the architect. He is a great man, he did all of this,” Schafer said.

“When he arrived at Leipzig, everything changed. He made the club younger, faster. It’s his philosophy and since this day every functional facet of the club was operating under the pressure of this philosophy.”

Ralf Rangnick, after appointing Nagelsmann, held a wider role in the Red Bull project as head of sport and development, until summer 2020. And Paul Mitchell replaced him as football director.

Youth focus

The work in the transfer market, which has been led by former Southampton and Tottenham head of recruitment Paul Mitchell since February 2018, has given Nagelsmann a youthful, talented and hungry group of players to mold.

“My philosophy is that you need, year on year, new voices, new profiles, just to stimulate the group, just to keep the group competitive,” Mitchell told The Athletic in 2020.

2. Efficiency in negotiation — helped by the power of the owner company.

In their 19/20 CL run, RBL’s first XI included no player acquired for more than £20m. Red bull didn’t acquire club amateurly started throwing money at the project to establish, the east German club, Leipzig among the country’s elite.

They were operating similarly to City Football Group — spearheaded by Manchester City and including clubs across the world such as Girona, New York City FC, Melbourne City and Yokohama Marinos — but arguably with more success at supplying talent to the top of the tree.

James Powell, CEO at Carteret Capital called it a “pyramid of shop windows”, showcasing talent at increasing higher levels and adding to their market value. He added by saying that this is beneficial to realizing each club’s sporting objectives and making a return on their investment. Powell said this globalized player-trading platform enabled the owners, the clubs and the managers to benefit from smart, efficient player trading.

“Especially in today’s football, a good scouting system is the major key to being successful.” adds Markus Krösche.

Note: Markus Krösche is rumored to be the next Liverpool sporting director after Michael Edwards — coincidentally or maybe not?

Only a decade ago Leipzig were making their debut in the 5th tier of German football — now they have participated in the Champions League more times than clubs with a century of existence.

Liverpool and the next gen recruitment

Michael Edwards with Jurgen Klopp

January 2020 Manchester United loses 2–0 to Burnley at home for the first time in their PL history, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær asked for patience and dared to compare Manchester United’s situation to that of Liverpool’s at the start of Jurgen Klopp’s reign — suffice to say nobody liked it. One person in particular took to Twitter to lash out at the absurdity of the comparison and led a stanch defense of Jurgen Klopp’ project and process.

The thread started lashing at the credentials of both managers — CV wise — but a little nugget slipped in there which was a bit contradictory and that was that Liverpool composed a 60-page dossier on Jürgen Klopp while Man United hired Solskjær based on sentimentality. Agreeing with that line of logic means Liverpool — as a club — was far more prepared and structured which gives them the advantage or the higher probability of success with their potential incoming manager even if the manager was not at the highest level.

The thread goes on to trash Solskjær by listing the accomplishments of Liverpool under Klopp then — funnily — doubling down on his greatness by saying “it was not all the manager”. Liverpool had a great structure behind the scenes and “it was with the aid of shrewd recruitment under the guidance of Michael Edwards”. This where I chuckled.

Jürgen Klopp (left), Ole Gunnar Solskjær (right)

The questions that come to mind here is:

  1. How much of it is because of the shrewd recruitment and how much of it is because being under the ‘right man’?
  2. or is it because they ‘backed’ the right man?
  3. Was it Edwards that identified the right targets for Klopp or was it Klopp that identified the right targets and Edwards was just the middle man?

These are project defining questions and need transparent answers but no has the time to sit down and explain them. In addition, no journalist would downplay the significance of a manager. They’d rather tell white lies to make everyone happy. Moving on…

Liverpool were on the brink obscurity a little more than a decade ago. FSG bought Liverpool for 300m — while simultaneously inheriting the £200m debt owed to the Royal Bank of Scotland — in 2010 then promised a plan to take the club to its glory days of the 70s and 80s under Shankly and Paisley. Liverpool were in 18th place in the PL under Roy Hodgson in 2011. After receiving drubbings from Wolves, Blackburn and Everton, Hodgson admitted: “A club of Liverpool’s distinction was not excused from being embroiled in a relegation struggle and potentially being relegated.”

After dispensing of with the debt and the full takeover, FSG started to change the structure of the club. They sacked Roy Hodgson and hired Kenny Dalglish on a interim basis. It was reveled later that the reasoning for hiring Kenny Dalglish was to restore a sense of belonging to the fans and buy themselves some time until they can move forward with their plans and changes.

FSG announced that they will take a different approach to recruitment. A low-risk high-reward, sub-25 transfer strategy — often referred to as ‘Moneyball’ was the aim. A January 2013 double swoop for Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho proved to be one of the most prosperous windows in Liverpool’s recent memory.

Liverpool’s recruitment is fueled by a data machine that is the envy of the football world. Collected from around the globe and educated from Harvard to Cambridge, sits a data team that have been central to their rise and success.

In Ian Graham, Tim Waskett, Will Spearman and Dafydd Steele Liverpool gained a “moneyball” style advantage over the competition. They hired the best in the business of data and performance analysis. On the pitch, data is a central element to the playing style and has certainly contributed to the marked improvement of nearly every player in the squad. Off the pitch, it has been revolutionary in identifying talent.

The science of hiring is another huge subject and Liverpool were on a journey to master it, asking the important questions that have, almost exclusively in recent years, unearthed gems like Andy Robertson. It has also allowed the team to finance hires by developing young talent and selling them on high — at times even before playing a few games of professional football — affording Liverpool increased transfer budgets.

“This data driven recruitment model has been the fulcrum of the recovery.” Rasmus Ankersen and Blake Wooster, now founders of the brilliant 21st Club.

Nikos Overheul, football consultant, revealed just how much of a joint-effort goes into successful recruitment.

“Generally speaking there will be regular meetings [to determine what areas need to be improved] with the coaching staff, the director and the scouting staff to discuss where the team/squad needs strengthening,” he said.

Klopp has spoken openly in the past about having say in transfers. He credited the analysts with convincing him that Salah was exactly the sort of player Liverpool needed. Klopp, also acknowledged, that he made a mistake at Dortmund that Liverpool have benefited from. He was offered Sadio Mane when he was playing at Salzburg and Klopp refused.

“He didn’t have that spark in him, I wasn’t convinced.” Klopp said.

As revealed in the New York Times in May 2019, the work done by those behind the scenes at Anfield was key in getting Salah to Merseyside. “Graham’s data suggested that Salah would pair especially well with Roberto Firmino, another of Liverpool’s strikers, who creates more expected goals from his passes than nearly anyone else in his position,” it read.

“Basically, the process here is: what do we want this player to do on the pitch? How do we measure that? The analysts decide which metrics to look at on the basis of which qualities you’re looking for in a specific player. This, of course, depends on playing style etc (a full-back for Tony Pulis is not the same as one for Eddie Howe). It’s fine if the data analyst doesn’t watch players (and the scout doesn’t look at the numbers), but at some point further along in the process they do have to be combined. In fact, figuring out how to best combine these different streams of information is a large part of the job of a modern Head of Scouting.” Overhaul explained further.

“Like scouting reports and data analysis, background information is another thing that good scouting departments seek to incorporate,” he added. “Meeting people to face can definitely help with that. An additional benefit is improving the network of your scouts. Obviously, talking to people face-to-face makes that a little easier.” Overheul, again, explained the importance of combining scouting with analysts and not just the use of one.

Nabil Fekir’s saga is a good case study. There were suggestions Barry Hunter, the Chief Scout at Liverpool, had been in close contact with the World Cup winner.

“Missing out on potential stars is a lot less harmful than mistakenly signing players that aren’t as good as you thought they would be or the wrong ones for your project.” Hunter said.

Note: Please read that previous quote again if you are a United fan.

“A risk-averse approach with this in mind would look to avoid signing any players with potential red flags, be that in their performance data (for example, a striker massively over-achieving his xG) or in other areas (their injury record or what scouts think of them etc). Quite how strict this risk aversion is should obviously depend on the cost of the player and the context of the buying club — Nabil Fekir for €20m with a history of knee injuries is the sort of gamble that a club like Real Betis should maybe take, while for Liverpool it was a completely unnecessary risk (and would have cost more at the time). More than just avoiding flops, Liverpool seem to have mastered balancing the risk-reward ratio and diversifying their player portfolio: ‘calculated gambles’ like Andy Robertson contrast with the seemingly resolute certainty they had that Virgil Van Dijk was the man for them at almost any price. This type of thinking doesn’t necessitate using data, but the benefit of using analytics as a backbone in this type of framework is that you can arrive at semi-objective ways of comparing players and ranking them, which is much harder to do with more qualitative information.”

What we can learn from the Nabil Fekir case is that a full recruitment process is a necessity for major European clubs. The data reports, the scout reports, the price must come full circle before committing to a player. Clever recruitment isn’t just about what teams do in the market, it is also about what isn’t done. The greatest value football analytics can currently provide is avoiding false positives in recruitment. That being said, numbers only tell part of the story. Without the insight gathered by those on the ground, Liverpool wouldn’t be able to narrow down which players are perfectly suited to them, both on the pitch and even just as importantly, OFF it.

Well if Liverpool’s structure was so star spangled awesome, why didn’t recruitment convert this into success under Brendon Rodgers? A failed manager example.

Brenden Rodgers unveiling as Liverpool manager in 2012.

Simple. One, the structure was still being formed — he was hired ~1 year after the takeover — in the earlier years of Brenden Rodgers. Two, the conflict of ideas between the manager and the recruitment department was the core of the problem. Let’s explain this a bit more.

A major problem under Rodgers was the disparate vision of the manager and the transfer committee, which led to Liverpool buying stylistically contrasting players.

After being hired as Liverpool’s manager Brenden Rodgers automatically revealed his dislike to the football director model that Liverpool was building.

“I am better when I have control” Rodgers told Andy Hunter of the Guardian on his unveiling, before continuing to detail his managerial outlook:

“I need to feel that I can manage the team and have a direct clear line through to the owners — no intermediary football director. Once that becomes hazy, for me there is a problem. I don’t think it was a model the owners were set on, by any means. I think it is one that people have come to them and suggested. They are still learning about the game.”

“One of the items I brought up when I was speaking to the club was that I wouldn’t directly work with a director of football. I feel that if you are going to do that as a club you have to do that first. That was my recommendation. If you want to have a sporting director, get him in and then you can pick your manager from there but if you do I won’t be the manager.” Rodgers continued.

After enthralling John Henry and Tom Werner —Principle Owner and Chairman of Liverpool — with a 180-page dossier — the manager made the dossier not the club, it was the opposite with Klopp— of his vision of success in management, Rodgers was able to engineer a move away from FSG’s preferred modern recruitment model, with the manager continuing to directly reference one of their targets for the director of football role:

“It’s absolute madness if you are the manager of the club and someone else tells you to have that player. It doesn’t work. I’ve had total clarity with that from the guys so I’ve got confidence that will remain. It was for this reason that I didn’t want to be sat up there, say what I’ve said and then in three weeks’ time Louis van Gaal walks in the door as a sporting director.” Rodgers added.

According to Sky Sports, Louis van Gaal, Johan Cruyff and Txiki Begiristain were all considered as replacements for the departed Damien Comolli, with FSG originally envisaging an all-powerful figure working above their manager to oversee recruitment, scouting and youth development.

Liverpool caved a little to the demands of Brenden Rodgers and they instead settled on a continental, committee-based recruitment structure, with the manager joined by Gordon, chief executive Ian Ayre, director of scouting Dave Fallows, chief scout Barry Hunter and director of technical performance Michael Edwards.

“We have a head of analysis, a head of recruitment, a first-team manager, myself,” Ayre explained to Chris Bascombe of the Telegraph’s in April 2013. “All of those people are all inputting into a process that delivers what a director of football would deliver.”

As Ayre continued to detail just how the committee would work, he emphasized the level of control Rodgers had demanded:

“What we believe, and we continue to follow, is you need many people involved in the process. That doesn’t mean somebody else is picking the team for Brendan but Brendan needs to set out with his team of people which positions we want to fill and what the key targets would be for that. He has a team of people that go out and do an inordinate amount of analysis work to establish who are the best players in that position. I think we’ve had relatively good success since we deployed that ­methodology. We’re getting better all the time. We were very pleased with the most recent window in January with Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge.” Ian Ayre added.

Employing Rodgers saw Henry and Werner effectively sacrifice their ideals in order to appease their ideal candidate. Compromising the recruitment structure and catering to Brenden Rodgers needs as much as they can afford was like signing a death warrant to their project before it reached its final stage. It foreshowed the things to come. Example:

In the Rodgers’ first summer at Anfield, he asked for a caravan of his former Swansea City personnel, including Leon Britton, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Neil Taylor and Michel Vorm. These purchases were restricted to an inflated £15 million fee for Joe Allen. The club had a set price that they wouldn’t go above.

Another example, Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino arrived in the same window. The Northern Irishman manager believed the former would be Liverpool’s ideal 9 while the recruitment staff thought exactly the same of Roberto Firmino. The disagreement between the recruitment committee and the manager created an unhealthy and frustrating environment. Then it’ll started to unravel with disputes over signings and constant rebuilding.

In a column for the Telegraph in January 2015, Gary Neville discussed the demise of “the gaffer,” focusing on a discussion between himself and Southampton director of football, Les Reed. Rodgers is very much of the mold of Neville’s own gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson. This kind of manager is very much of its time, with the reprieve that United granted Ferguson during his poor start to life in Manchester an impossibility in the hyper-demanding world of modern football.

Clubs can no longer afford to give managers the level of control FSG allowed Rodgers, as Reed’s approach on the south coast attests:

“Initially my job is to identify coaches who will buy into it [the club model] because of the track record they’ve got and the style they play. We look for evidence that they’ve brought young players through before. Someone’s not going to come in here and say — ‘Scrap all that, I don’t want all that, this is the way I do it.” Les Reed Southampton Sporting director.

Now, the model is KING— and FSG have focused on this since Rodgers’ departure. They returned to the director of football hierarchy, as they studied, identified, and targeted Jürgen Klopp as the perfect match for their approach and the club’s ideals. The German ticked all of the boxes in terms of playing style, approach to youth development and willingness to work within a modern footballing recruitment model.

Since late 2015, sporting director Michael Edwards and Klopp worked off the same blueprint, which is instructive to Liverpool’s progress. The pair, along with Dave Fallows, the head of recruitment, chief scout Barry Hunter, and director of research Ian Graham — all supported by Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon — have turned Liverpool into esteemed transfer operators.

Edwards is a specialist at finding players with the attributes to properly implement the manager’s “fighting style football” and is incredibly shrewd in negotiations. He manages to identify the points of failure and separation in a team’s collective then discuss it with the manager and proposes his identified targets to fill the gaps.

Hunter, Fallows, and Graham, meanwhile, combine to provide comprehensive dossiers on all targets. Klopp and the recruitment team do not dwell on what players have done elsewhere, but assess just how much their skillset can enhance Liverpool’s aggressive approach. The bulk of the assessment is provided by the team under Dave Fallows, the head of recruitment, and chief scout Barry Hunter as well as the research group headed by the revered Ian Graham.

They present their shortlist to Gordon, who not only underwrites their wishes, but provides whatever support may be necessary to concluding business. This was illustrated when he stepped in to rehabilitate Liverpool’s relations with Southampton, which was critical to completing the Van Dijk deal in January 2018.

There is trust, esteem and appreciation among the trio of the distinction of each: the right players are pinpointed by Edwards, they are sold on Liverpool by Klopp and are brought in on Gordon’s backing/negotiation team.

Liverpool’s case study underpins the importance of recruitment in signing the right players. It’s about the right quality not the quantity or the wrong quality. It also highlights that the modern model clubs follow and the way transfer market has been shaped by globalization, shifted the reliance on managers to find players to the recruitment departments for efficiency and cost effectiveness. It necessitates that managers no longer have autonomy on transfers. They no longer have the time or the knowledge of what players are available and which fit their style exactly. Modern football is all about efficiency and gaining slight edges over the competition at the very top.

The Bees and The Seagulls.

Brentford owner Benham was the catalyst for change in philosophy for the club when he purchased the Bees back in 2012. Instead of focusing on heavy investments on marquee players or facilities, or a high profile manager, he wanted to place his funds primarily into recruitment and analytics.

These “moneyball” recruitment strategies allowed the club to triumph on a shoestring budget and to overcome other clubs in the Football League with considerably larger budgets. The Bees owner spent nearly $10 million testing out his theory with another club he owns — Danish side FC Midtjylland — and then adjusted accordingly with Brentford.

His goal was to simply find out the dos and don’ts of sabermetrics and apply the best practices to the English club.

Instead of judging success based solely on wins and losses, Benham started using KPIs, or key performance indicators, to establish Brentford’s progress.

“For David to beat Goliath, he needed to use a different weapon. If David had used the same weapon, he would have lost the battle. You’ve got to find your weapons. That’s what Brentford is about.” — Brentford Co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen in 2017

​​”Brentford can’t win by outspending the competition so we have to outthink them. And the question that comes from that is how can we be different? How can we do things in a different way? So, what are the inefficiencies in the system in football, and how can we exploit those?” Ankersen said.

By using Benham’s approach to recruitment, The Bees purchased a number of undervalued players like Said Benrahma, Ollie Watkins and Neil Maupay for a combined $8 million. Then, they turned to the youths academy and scrapped it off and all its unnecessary resources, instead the bees relied/are relying on young players that other clubs throughout England had let go.

In just 12 years time, Brentford went from league two (England’s 4th division) to the Premier League. Benham initially invested nearly $700,000 in the club and now he stands to earn 250$ million guaranteed just for participating in the Premier League. If Brentford manages to stay in the Premier League for another season, the club stands to make 400$ million in returns.

When Tony Bloom bought Brighton in 2009, Brighton had never been in top flight English football in their history. They have only ever played Championship football twice and the rest of their history languished around League One (3rd tier) and League Two (4th tier). Brighton are also successfully using these methods — same methods as the Bees — and despite a number of high profile sales in the form of Benjamin White, Leandro Trossard and Marc Cucurella, they continue to find excellent replacements.

The Seagulls currently occupy seventh in the Premier League table with 2 games in hand on the teams above them. They are able to churn out high-quality players, despite many of their key players being poached by more affluent clubs. The likes of Pervis Estupinan, Kaoru Mitoma and Moises Caicedo have all been recent acquisitions using the data-driven strategies, proving that it can be an endless cycle of identifying elite talent.

The current recruitment models that are setup at both clubs allows them to keep identifying talents and areas where they need to maintain their level of performance or take it up a notch, despite losing their best players to richer rivals and change of managers. They almost created a conveyor belt of talent that is allowed to continuously filter into the club.

Both The Bees and The Seagulls have had several changes of management — 4–6 managerial changes — on their rise to top of the football pyramid, which the premier league promotion and sustainability. It further indicates that if the structure and the philosophy of the club are set and they are sustainable, the manager’s influence becomes incredibly insignificant by comparison. Watch this interview of Dan Ashworth, the ex football director of Brighton Hove Albion and the current football director of Newcastle United — describing that the philosophy and the vision is set by the club and then clubs look for the manager that aligns with those ideals and not vice versa.

The modern model of club structures is one which is having overwhelming success as ex football director Les Reed said: “Model is KING”. There are more and more clubs in Europe that are adopting these models. Up until 2021, Manchester United were still functioning on the 90s model and to top it all off — with owners and CEO interfering in football matters.

I mean, Mourinho was given LVGs’ pre-season plans because they didn’t have time to plan another. Some of the targets Mourinho wanted he was challenged on. Solskjær was given some of Mourinho’s targets and all the targets he wanted he couldn’t get. Ralf Rangnick was told that they’ll not purchase Julián Álvarez because he might not suit the permeant manager coming in the summer. The list goes on for the lack of coherent planning, recruitment strategy or philosophy set by the club.

Under Erik ten Hag, the club is solely relying on the manager’s own experience to set the “targets” and while that has worked out fine so far — with some luck — United can’t keep relying on the manager to be the lighthouse to guide its lost ship. At some point, ten Hag’s well of knowledge of players will dry and he’ll eventually have to rely on the recruitment department. Have you noticed that most of ten Hag’s targets are players that have played for him before? or in Malacia’s case he played for a direct competitor at his previous club?

Solskjær, when he was first hired, wanted Håland— a player that played for him before. Brenden Rodgers wanted his Swansea players at Liverpool when he moved there. Mourinho bought Matic at United and at Roma and re-bought Lukaku after having him at Chelsea then selling him to Everton. Klopp tried to get İlkay Gündoğan from his Dortmund team then settled on Emre Can, who played against his Dortmund team during his tenure there. And as mentioned Erik ten Hag bought all the players he knew. Managers are not recruiters or scouts, they don’t have the database or the knowledge of all the players, they select based on first hand experience.

I asked the following before: Do fans really think Solskjær knew who Facundo Pellisitri and Amad Diallo are? It is the same with Erik ten Hag. Before Ajax scouted Lisandro Martinez and Antony Matheus, who played in
Defensa y Justicia
FC and São Paulo FC respectively, Do fans think Erik ten Hag knew who they were? Absolutely not. Ajax’s recruitment department scouted them.

Recall Klopp’s experiences with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and I’m sure if we researched his time at Dortmund, we will find more of the same. There are many many examples of how managers recruit based on first hand experience or market reputation but no proper identification and scouting, that has never been a manager’s job even during the late Fergie days.

Conclusion

The majority of top European clubs are adopting a recruitment and data driven model to forge their way into success. This is the new form of managerial backing. Tottenham hired two elite managers in Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte and still failed with both of them (Conte looks set to leave at the end of the season) due to the model Levy is running at the club. Managers normally — if they are good — give the results that reflect the collective talent of the squad available to them. They sometimes overachieve that collective quality in results or underachieve it — that’s when they are sacked. However, managers never take a team to a level that the collective quality can’t sustain. We sometimes say that team “pushed above their weight” and some do, nonetheless, sooner or later they’ll go back to their collective level.

Pep Guardiola emphasizing the stability and the process of the club before choosing them:

In other words, if the team constructed by the recruitment and/or the manager is of a talent level that’s worth a 4th position finish then an average to good manager should get them to that 4th position. A bad manager will take them below that level — maybe 5th or 6th — and an elite manager will take them top 3rd-2nd, and they may fluke a 1st place finish, if all circumstances falls right for them. However, just like Leicester in 15/16, when all the circumstances fell into place for them, they might be pull off a league win but they’ll never be able to sustain 1st position on a longer stretch than one season — i.e. Man City under Manuel Pellegrini.

Guardiola slams the media again for overrating managers:

This discussion is needed in mainstream football but the fairytale of a savior manager that came into a club and did it all is much more appealing and sexy. It plays on the heart strings of the fans that are emotionally attached to their club, as such success or failure is reduced in so many ways. Backing isn’t straightforward and there are many hurdles, it isn’t just the number of signings or the money spent. It is the operation and process brewing at the back end of the club. It similar to when we look at the destination, which is success, but not the journey, which the years of building the process behind the success. Because managers are the front-end of the clubs, they get accredited with everything when in reality it is the back end process that should receive most, and in certain situations, all, of the credit.

Thank you.

Abdel Rahman

Note: If you want further examples on the importance of building the club’s from the roots — the recruitment, player identification and a clear club vision. Look at Bayern Munich and German football’s rise after a slump at both club and international level in the early 2000s. Also the obvious example of Manchester City.

References:

Flint, S.W., Plumley, D. and Wilson, R. (2016), “You’re getting sacked in the morning: managerial change in the English Premier League”, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Vol. 34 №2, pp. 223–235. https://doi.org/10.1108/MIP-09-2014-0189

Stuart W. Flint, Daniel J. Plumley & Robert J. Wilson (2014) You don’t know what you’re doing! The impact of managerial change on club performance in the English Premier League, Managing Leisure, 19:6, 390–399, DOI: 10.1080/13606719.2014.910000

James Reade. January 2021 “How Good Is A Soccer Coach? Can We Really Ever Know?” https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesreade/2021/01/19/how-good-is-a-soccer-coach-can-we-really-ever-know/?sh=4c1dbd343414

Bruce Schoenfeld. January 2019 “How Data and some breath-taking football brought Liverpool to the cusp of Glory? — The New York Times” New York times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/magazine/soccer-data-liverpool.html

Andy Hunter. November 18 2016 “Jürgen Klopp says his Sadio Mané mistake at Dortmund is Liverpool’s gain” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/nov/18/jurgen-klopp-dortmund-sadio-mane-mistake-liverpool

Matt Reed. November 2021 “How Brentford used ‘MoneyBall’ to return to the Premier League?” One37 Sports via Bleacher Report Interview.

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