English football was considered the last bastion of managerial autonomy. Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger summed up the resistance to change in May 2017, when confronted with reports the Gunners were planning to appoint a director of football.
“What is [a] director of football? I don’t know what it means,” he began. “Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs play right and left? I never could understand what it means. I am manager of Arsenal football club and as long as I am, I will decide what happens on the technical front and that’s it.”
On the one hand, Wenger’s defiance was his thinly veiled frustration at the gradual erosion of his longstanding authority, justified by decision-makers above him who felt the club needed to modernise in the face of sustained decline. It was an internal tension that ended with Wenger acrimoniously leaving the club in 2018. But on a grander scale, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Wenger was also the last truly autocratic manager in remit. (There is a much-told story that Wenger’s control was so absolute at one point many years ago, that any member of staff desiring a new work phone had to receive sign-off from the Frenchman himself.)
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Arsenal’s story post-Wenger is a prime example of the difficulties English clubs have had in implementing this system. They transitioned away from a manager who oversaw all aspects of football operations to establishing nine department heads, reporting into a hierarchy Wenger was only one part of, only to then strengthen Mikel Arteta’s grip on the club three years later. Wenger’s job title was “manager.” His successor, Unai Emery, was called “head coach” as was Arteta, before he was later “promoted” to “manager.”
The Premier League may be the most lucrative and best-watched division in world football, but there’s plenty of evidence that the game in England is still adjusting to a model long since implemented in Europe and beyond. In the modern era, it’s no longer just the manager who is exclusively tasked with creating a team’s vision and culture. Clubs aim to create an longstanding identity based on values that are intended to be impervious to the vagaries of managerial changes.
David Webb believes clarity is the key issue in that process. Webb has occupied various roles, including Head of Football Operations at Huddersfield, Head of Elite Potential Identification working under Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, and Technical Director at Ostersunds in Sweden.
“I spoke to a big Championship club at the end of last season about a role,” Webb tells ESPN. “They had no idea about the role at all, what it meant, or how it intersected with their current coaching and management setup. And this was a modern-day football club. Some areas are still lacking that understanding of what a sporting director actually does.
“When I was at Huddersfield, for example, the role was ‘Head of Football Operations,’ but it was basically ‘Sporting Director’ or ‘Technical Director,’ just worded differently. I said to them, ‘with the fans, this is where you need to have an open communication with them so they understand who is coming in and what their role is.'”
Other clubs have their own version of these issues. Everton’s director of football, Marcel Brands, left the club on Monday, with speculation rife he did not agree with the appointment of Rafael Benitez as manager and that their working relationship was strained as a result. Tottenham made a hash of bringing in head coach Nuno Espirito Santo in the summer – eventually sacking him after just 17 games — following confusion in their approach arising from Fabio Paratici’s appointment as “managing director, football” to work alongside chairman Daniel Levy.
Manchester United named ex-Scotland midfielder Darren Fletcher as their first technical director in March, but the calamitous end to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as head coach led the club to recognise they needed guidance in long-term strategy. It was telling that Ralf Rangnick was convinced to replace Solskjaer as head coach mid-season in part because of the promise of a two-year consultancy role to follow; in the latter role, he’ll help restructure a club whose decision-making has been heavily criticised ever since Ferguson’s departure.
“If you are transparent with the fans, then it makes the sporting director accountable, you get the connection with the fans straight away. And then, when you’re looking to build a philosophy, it gives the fans a longer-term view to buy into it,” said Webb. “It also takes the pressure off the head coach as well. They are the face of many things — the style, trying to win games — but the overview is they are passing through, helping the club build in a certain way.
“If they do well, naturally they’re going to move on, and the role of the sporting director is keeping the bloodline going with a coach who can buy into those philosophies. From there, the cycle will start again.”
All but five Premier League clubs list a significant role above the conventional head coach or manager on the division’s official website, but the names vary from Technical Director, Head of Football Administration, Sporting Director or, in Marina Granovskaia’s case at Chelsea, Member of Board of Directors in Charge of Football. In the minds of many supporters, this can create confusion over who exactly does what.
“It is just a naming convention really,” Phil Giles, co-technical director of Brentford, tells ESPN. “Sporting director, technical director and director of football are more are less the same role, in my opinion. Every single club will have a slightly different variation on how that works: who reports to that person, who that person reports to themselves, and how that operates in relation to the board. Really, it should be the sporting director who brings in the head coach.
“The advantage you have of something like me and Rasmus [Ankersen] bringing in a head coach is that you can build that relationship and set the expectations before they come into the role, so they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.”
Giles has worked alongside Ankersen for six years, helping take the club from ninth in the Championship to Premier League promotion in 2020. Last Friday, Ankersen announced he would be stepping down at the end of the month to form his own sports agency. It will leave Giles as the club’s sole technical director and although Ankersen departs amid a flurry of praise from the club, Giles describes a division of labour he’s likely to miss.
Speaking before the announcement, Giles said: “We have pretty clear responsibilities. For example, Thomas looks after the day-to-day at the training ground, team selection and all the rest of it. Rasmus and I are working more on building the club up. We’re also very different. Rasmus is much more out there, speaking to people, making contacts and thinking about the long-term — new coaches we could bring into the club, or whatever it might be. I’m much more doing the day-to-day management of the whole operation.
“We’re really chief executives of the training ground. Outside transfer windows, we are much more focused on building the foundations of the club, making sure [Matthew Benham] the owner’s ideas are integrated into the club and he is happy with the way the football side of it works.
“[The owner] has got some pretty clear concepts and we are the architects of putting that in place. For example, at the start of the season we’ll put together a football strategy document outlining our aims and targets for the coming season. We’ll work with our staff on that to make sure we set the targets appropriately so it is stretching enough for everyone.
One consequence of English football’s slow transition has seemingly been a lack of homegrown talent entrusted to perform these roles. Paul Mitchell, formerly of Southampton and Tottenham, is now at Monaco and Michael Edwards has enjoyed great success at Liverpool, but prominent British technical directors are still in relatively short supply, less still those with the same profile as ex-players such as Leonardo at Paris Saint-Germain or Marc Overmars, director football at Ajax. Even Dan Ashworth, something of a pioneer in England, left the Football Association in 2018, after the England team he oversaw reached a World Cup semifinal, and joined mid-table Brighton.
Edwards will be replaced by his deputy, Julian Ward, when he steps down at the end of the season, but the top Premier League clubs still favour overseas options with more experience as part of a technical director structure: of the traditional Big Six, Arsenal employ Edu as technical director, Granovskaia is in control at Chelsea, Tottenham’s transfer activity is driven heavily by Paratici, City have Txiki Begiristain and Rangnick will soon join Fletcher in moving United forward.
Webb came to prominence in 2013 as head of recruitment at Bournemouth, who accelerated through the divisions to reach the Premier League in 2015 and stay there for five seasons. “When I started, there was a stigma towards English people doing it to be fair because the European culture — Germany, France, Holland, Spain — they had the process in place for a number of years,” said Webb. “Culturally in England, we were and still are in some areas, shifting away from the manager’s role having the full control over the club.”
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Webb is expected to re-join the growing British contingent. He is weighing up interest from several clubs including Lazio, Celtic and PAOK in Greece. Another unnamed Premier League club could also be an option. “For me, is about having that clarity I mentioned earlier and the project, working where a club has a vision of where they want to be and how exciting that is,” he said. “Also, my skill-set needs to fit them and vice-versa.”
Neither Webb nor Giles had a conventional route into the sporting director world. Webb had an advertising sales job and also worked in a school, spending time off travelling Europe to learn different coaching methods. He had 15 job interviews before catching a break at Crystal Palace in 2002. Giles had an interview at a hedge fund before joining Brentford owner Matthew Benham’s company, Smartodds, where he analysed sport through a data lens.
“I have years of experience outside football and I bring that,” said Giles. “You hear a lot of talk about making sure clubs now have really strong processes in decision-making at the top level.”
Formal qualifications are not required for the job, but some do exist. There is a two-year course run by the Football Association, a “Level 5 for Technical Directors” that invites applicants already in a technical director role or individuals who clubs or the FA identify as having the potential to take up a position within three years. The last course ended in October, with 12 graduates all holding positions at clubs ranging from Forest Green Rovers to Chelsea.
Inevitably, however, the success of technical directors, sporting directors — or whatever title they’re given — is largely judged from the outside through the lens of the transfer window.
“Myself and Rasmus are actual directors of the club so there is an inherent accountability that comes with that in terms of fiduciary requirements, financial requirements,” said Giles. “We’re the ones on the line if there is anything untoward about what we do.”
Transfers are always fraught with risk in that regard. The proliferation of technical directors is grossly outweighed by the explosion in agents since FIFA deregulated the industry in 2015. It is estimated that there were around 400 to 500 agents working in England before FIFA decided that no entrance exam or formal qualification was required. Within a year, the number was estimated to have risen as high as 2,000 and last month, the FA published a list of intermediaries registered in England. It stretched to 54 pages.
Giles says: “It’s fairly easy to see where it is getting complicated. What needs to happen is, you need to deal with one agent who represents a player and the players pays his agent to represent him. That’s the cleanest way. It gets a lot more complicated when you get a lot of agents getting themselves in on a deal.”
Webb recalls a specific incident. “There was an example at Tottenham when we were after a top French talent,” he said. “I can’t say the name but it came to the point where we had done all our technical, scouting and profiling work and we thought based on the paperwork we had the player’s actual representative.
“It turned out he’d given out four different mandates. There was a family member claiming to be one, a big agency, one of his friends and then another smaller agent. In the end, all of them wanted an agency fee. We had a very strict criteria of what we’d pay as an agent fee as a percentage, and it wasn’t enough split four ways. So it became too messy.
“As much as we really wanted the player, the best option for us was to walk away and go for another option. The life of a technical director is rarely straightforward.”