With the appointment of Marcel Brands as Director of Football at Everton, the Toffees are faced with a new role in their club’s hierarchy that few will be familiar with. For purposes of clarity, the term Director of Football on the continent is largely interchangeable with that of “sporting director” and “technical director”.
Brands arrives at Goodison Park with a credible reputation, built on the back of his ability to transform a club and unearth players such as Dries Mertens, Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman at PSV, whilst recently beating Borussia Dortmund to the signature of highly rated duo Maximiliano Romero and Hirving Lozano.
Outside of English football, there are many sporting directors who are well-respected, Monchi of AS Roma and Michael Emenalo of AS Monaco being prime examples.
However, a large pool of successful sporting directors emerge from Germany. Ralf Rangnick is the brains behind RB Leipzig and the man responsible for bringing the club from Germany’s lower divisions to the Champions’ League, signing and uncovering the likes of Emil Forsberg, Naby Keita and Timo Werner in the process.
Another impressive German example is that of Christian Heidel who is working wonders at Schalke. The club have recently returned to Champions’ League football at the first time of asking under head coach Domenico Tedesco.
But perhaps the Bundesliga’s finest example of a sporting director with a plethora of experience of making consistently genius decisions in the past decade is Michael Zorc, the person responsible for hiring Jürgen Klopp who put faith in young players, lifting successive Bundesliga titles, a DFB Pokal and finishing runners-up in the Champions’ League.
Zorc once said: “Klopp was my best transfer as general manager,” and it is certainly clear to see why.
Borussia Dortmund CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke released a statement following Zorc’s recent contract extension: “The sporting successes of the past ten years are closely connected with the name Michael Zorc. He exemplifies competence, loyalty and identification.”
Two of the most important roles expected to be fulfilled by a sporting director is the implementation and maintenance of a scouting network, alongside the buying and selling players, taking these particular burdens off of the head coach. This is undeniably a balance that Dortmund have struck beautifully in the last decade and also explains their relative top-table stability, despite the arrival and departure of a raft of managers.
Despite just a 2017 DFB Pokal triumph to shout for since Klopp’s departure, there is a sense around Dortmund that the current crop of players could be the next golden generation under the recently appointed Lucien Favre.
Julian Weigl arrived from 1860 Munich in 2015 for just over £2m and has gone on to become a key Dortmund player, while the following year Christian Pulisic was promoted from the academy and Raphael Guerreiro arrived from Lorient.
Renowned for giving youth players first team experience, Dan-Axel Zagadou (Paris Saint-Germain), Sergio Gomez (Barcelona) and Jadon Sancho (Manchester City) arrived for a combined fee of around £9.5m, with the trio all receiving substantial playing time this season.
Part of the negotiating team, Zorc has managed to secure some of the best talents in European football while one of those has already gone on to earn Dortmund an initial £97m. Arriving at the Westfalenstadion following extensive scouting by Sven Mislintat, now of Arsenal, Ousmane Dembélé arrived from Ligue 1 outfit Rennes for £13.5m. An outstanding season resulted in a move to Barcelona for a sum that Zorc and Dortmund couldn’t refuse. Although they’re now missing his quality, Dembélé is just one of a number of calculated moves that have allowed Dortmund to succeed both financially and on the pitch.
But, sticking with the same club, there is also a potent recent example of how a Director of Football -supported structure can go very wrong. Thomas Tuchel had all the right attributes to succeed at Borussia Dortmund, but a lack of communication between the head coach and Dortmund’s hierarchy resulted in a toxic atmosphere.
Tuchel confirmed that he was not involved in the signing of then 17-year-old Alexander Isak, a player whom Zorc forked out more than £7m, with Tuchel only being notified of the move at a very late stage after scouting and negotiations had taken place.
“There are transfers like Alexander Isak now where the scouting staff and Michael Zorc do the groundwork. This means they know the player and he’s on their radar because I did not know the player,” Tuchel told reporters. Ultimately, it was Tuchel’s inability to work with the club hierarchy that led to his departure.
These instances however, at least in terms of the German model, are exceptions to the rule. Another sporting director making waves in Germany is Schalke’s Heidel. With a transfer budget considerably less than Dortmund’s, Schalke have recruited well and they finally have a coach they believe in.
Before Tedesco, Schalke had seen six head coaches since 2011, one of the highest turnover rates in the Bundesliga. The arrival of Heidel from Mainz steadied the ship financially in 2016, but after missing out on European football, the Dane appointed untested Tedesco as head coach in 2017.
A tactician at heart, Tedesco’s arrival has revived Schalke and, in combination with the attributes and knowledge of Heidel, this is a partnership that is certainly paying off. Even with the future departures of Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer, both on free transfers which on the outset appears to be an example of poor management, failings in this scenario puts pressure on Heidel and not Tedesco, who can focus exclusively on coaching the first team, while Heidel is tasked with recruitment and the day-to-day running of the club.
But for a sporting director and head coach to work together, the two employees must have a fully mutual understanding of what they want to achieve at the club, whilst being able to agree on a football philosophy to pursue and perfect. The sporting director, Brands in Everton’s case, can then use his connections to pull off cost effective transfer dealings which suit his side’s style of play. Without an agreement between sporting director and coach on a footballing philosophy, the model because largely redundant.
It has been a successful model used in Germany for over a decade and now it is time for Premier League clubs to follow suit.
By Daniel Pinder.