The most important signing at Manchester City in modern times was made in October 2012.
The Premier League side have played some of the most sumptuous football ever seen on English shores in the last couple of seasons under Pep Guardiola. The Catalan had been courted by the club’s Emirati owners for a long time before he eventually joined in 2016 and his arrival has elevated the club’s performances to another level. The framework for these displays, however, have been in place since 2012 when Txiki Begiristain joined as technical director.
Along with Ferran Soriano, the new CEO who had brought him to the club, the decision was taken to replace Roberto Mancini who had only recently delivered a first league trophy in 44 years. The need to develop a holistic approach towards all aspects of football at the club was referred to in the statement announcing Mancini’s departure and Txiki, a former Barcelona legend, has since gone about doing just that. City have had a very distinct footballing philosophy since 2012 and while the financial side of things has been rightly questioned, there is no doubting the DNA of its teams, from the academy right through the first team.
Liverpool are on a similar path with the appointment of Michael Edwards as sporting director in November 2016, putting an end to a shambolic recruitment policy that had weighed the club down. A ‘Liverpool Way’ isn’t as pronounced through the ranks as it is at City and Edwards does not have as much of a say on the footballing side as Txiki does, but he has a positive working relationship with Jurgen Klopp, which is key to such an appointment. While his footballing career ended prematurely when he was released by Peterborough United, Edwards cut his teeth as head of analysis at Portsmouth, Tottenham and Liverpool before being made the director of technical performance and then technical director at Anfield before moving into his new role. A keen understanding of what Klopp needed to implement his plans for the club have led to Liverpool striking gold in the transfer market recently.
This cannot be said about the four teams below them in the title race this year. Manchester United have been crying out for a technical director for years. At present, they have Matt Judge, who is the head of corporate development with thirteen years of experience in investment banking and negotiates transfers, but that is the end of his brief. Arsenal’s search for one has been messy with both Monchi and Marc Overmars turning them down in recent weeks. To make matters worse, an astute appointment in Sven Mislintat, who was head of recruitment, has left the club after being overlooked for the role. Tottenham has a director of footballing operations in Rebecca Caplehorn, but her remit is in assuming day-to-day responsibilities at the club. Chelsea have not had a technical director since 2017 when Micheal Emanalo resigned to take up a similar position at Monaco.
Once considered a ‘continental’ idea on British shores, English clubs have slowly warmed to the possibility and fifteen clubs in the Premier League have a variation of the technical director currently. The devil is in the detail, however, and it is imperative that the right people play the right roles. At Fulham, for example, it is Tony Khan, the son of the owner who is director of football operations and oversees the identification and recruitment of players. They became the first promoted club to spend more than £100 million in a transfer window during the summer and are now on the verge of relegation. Khan splits his time with other roles at NFL franchise, Jacksonville Jaguars, and as the president of All Elite Wrestling and it fair to say that he got the Cottagers’ signings mostly wrong this season.
With footballing clubs increasingly being run like corporate entities, many of them have key personnel to drive commercial activities, run operations and even close transfer deals. The one who makes a difference on performances, however, is the person with a strong footballing background who acts as a buffer between the manager/coach and the boardroom. The four teams currently fighting for Champions League spots rather than the title do not have this person within their ranks.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino reportedly stopped Tottenham’s search for a sporting director last year to retain a strong influence over transfers. If he leaves, and the possibility has arisen multiple times over the past few months, the club would have shot itself in the foot by not pursuing that path. Similarly, Manchester United have stalled on appointing a technical director and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as permanent manager seems to be another in a long line of decisions rooted in short-termism. Mauricio Sarri’s current troubles at Chelsea stem from an ideological mismatch between him and the club and while Unai Emery has made an impressive start to life at Arsenal, a delay in appointing a technical director could throw a spanner on his plans for next season.
Sustained title pushes are based on lasting philosophies regardless of the manager at the helm of affairs, as Manchester City have shown this decade. With the summer transfer window only weeks away, talk has already begun in earnest among fanbases about potential signings. For this season’s also-rans to maintain a challenge next year, the first major signing has to be that of a technical director, or it won’t be long before their plans unravel during the next campaign.