The news yesterday that Damien Comolli has left his role at Liverpool was surprising only for the timing of the decision. A couple of days before an F.A. Cup semi-final against Everton is not exactly ideal. One would have thought they would have waited until the end of the season, but I think many would have been surprised to see him at the club beyond that. Liverpool’s league form this season has been appalling. The fact that their season has been derailed so much by Lucas’ injury says clearly that the quality of the squad is not what it needs to be. Whilst Carroll, Henderson and Downing (amongst others) have all majorly underperformed this season, most onlookers felt they were vastly overpriced when they were signed. With so much criticism of the signings, it was inevitable that the axe would fall, and in a battle between Comolli and Kenny Dalglish, there was only going to be one outcome.
It seems unlikely that Comolli will work in England again. His spell at Spurs was seen by many as a failure and his spell and Liverpool is unlikely to be viewed any more generously. With hindsight his job at Spurs does not seem so bad – at least nine of Tottenham’s current first team squad were signed during his spell at the club, they made a substantial profit on Dimitar Berbatov and other signings such as Kevin-Prince Boateng have proved themselves to be good players since leaving. Unfortunately for Comolli players like Gareth Bale, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and even Luka Modric took a while to settle into the team, and thus signings that now look like bargains looked like expensive wastes at the time Comolli left. His reputation in England is now so low it’s hard to imagine any big club giving him an opportunity. Though stranger things have happened.
When Comolli left Spurs, many pundits claimed it was a confirmation that the Sporting Director role, so prevalent in European football, simply does not work in England. It’s hard to disagree, though in my opinion the problems arise not from the role itself but a misunderstanding of the factors surrounding the role.
The basic philosophy of the role is relatively simple. In modern football, managers come and go with some regularity. Struggling teams will sack their manager, overperforming teams will have their manager poached by bigger clubs, and so the only teams that can stick with the same manager for a long time (with the odd exception such as Everton) are the very biggest clubs. The English interpretation of the Sporting Directors role is to maintain continuity at the club by controlling transfers (ensuring that every new manager doesn’t overhaul the squad, which is extremely costly). It’s partly right, but it only works if each new manager shares the club’s philosophy of how the club should be run and how the team should play.
Earlier this year, I read ‘Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’ by Graham Hunter. It really is a must read for any football fan http://www.amazon.co.uk/Barca-Making-Greatest-Team-World/dp/0956497128/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334240065&sr=8-1 . One of the most intriguing parts of the book was the appendix at the back, which reproduced a club document detailing the criteria for the club’s coach used prior to appointing Pep Guardiola as manager. The club realised that in order to maximise the strengths that the club had available (most notably La Masia, the club’s academy), it was important to select a manager whose philosophy closely matched those of the club. This way, the entire club would be pulling in the same direction. Although, unusually for a Spanish club, Guardiola has full control over transfers involving the first-team squad, the club uses the same criteria for signing a player, whether it be signing a player to go straight into the first team like Alexis Sanchez or signing a 13-year-old to the academy.
At the English clubs that have utilised a Sporting Director, this hasn’t been the case. Newcastle went from Sam Allardyce to Kevin Keegan, two managers whose preferred style of play could scarcely be more diverse, and ended up getting relegated. I’m at a loss to describe Liverpool’s style of play this season, because every time I see them play they’ve got a different formation or players playing in different roles. Was Downing signed to play on the left or the right? What role did they foresee Henderson playing? Whatever the thinking was, it appears muddled. The reason Spurs’ fortunes improved so much under Harry Redknapp is that, although he is completely different from his predecessor Juande Ramos when it comes to communicating with his players and the media, the passing style he favours is remarkably similar to Ramos’.
A sporting director can work in English football, but only if the club is clear about what their philosophy is and are faithful to that when it comes to appointing a new manager. If that’s not the case, the Sporting Director will only ever be a source of frustration for the manager who inevitably would like as much control as possible. As for Comolli, will time judge his signings at Liverpool more positively, as it has done from his spell at Spurs? Liverpool fans will be hoping so. I won’t be holding my breath though.