Arsène, meet Ralf: directors of football for the unaware

Arsène, meet Ralf: directors of football for the unaware

There are moments in which answers to inquiries that we ourselves have posed are brought home to us with such acute clarity that we instantly acknowledge the involvement of destiny.

“Director of Football – I don’t know what it means. Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs players right and left?  I never could understand,” was the catty reply of the normally cultured Arsène Wenger in response to being quizzed about the possible appointment of a sporting director. He later added, amidst fevered clicks of camera shutters and furious scribbling: “I’m manager of Arsenal Football Club and as long as I’m manager of Arsenal Football Club I will decide what happens on the technical front. That’s it.”

Indeed it was; the press conference was broken up, leaving bemused photographers with a glowing reminder of Wenger at his mulish best. The Frenchman’s hostile reaction best sums up the stance of the Premier League majority on football directorship.

Perhaps this incepted was birthed in an attempt to negate that particular view. As Newton’s third law of motion states, “For every action, there arises an equal and opposite reaction.” It is no small coincidence, then, that science summarises it so aptly. In the city of Leipzig in north-east Germany sits one such solution to Wenger’s poser, and the man to whom we refer is nothing if not empirical.

The story goes that the then-26-year-old coach of Viktoria Backnang watched with steadily growing disbelief as his team were played off the frozen pitch by Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. Due to like naturally attracting like, in a mirror image of the Juanma Lillo-Pep Guardiola scenario, Ralf Rangnick – a proud academic – spent quality time after the game talking strategy and tactics with the father of tactical evolution himself, a huge figure in Ukraine. This seemingly serendipitous meeting would change the young tactician’s course forever – positively, too, as demonstrated during successful spells at Stuttgart and Schalke.

Lest we digress, however. Let us attempt to educate the professor. Generic in most of continental Europe but except for a few notable exceptions, but largely incipient in England, few issues unite in divisiveness like the role of the football director – often syncretized with the sporting director, technical director and general manager.

Originally devised by continental clubs to shoulder the burden of the supervision of off-field sporting affairs, thus freeing the coach to focus on the pitch, it was the perfect solution to a problem that had long since plagued club management and one that European football found increasingly to its taste. By June 2012, when Dietrich Mateschitz – owner of Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig and MLS side New York Red Bulls – came knocking on Rangnick’s door, football directorship in most of Europe had become a pre-requisite for clubs interested in staying relevant.

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The 53-year-old didn’t disappoint, blowing away the Austrian billionaire with his clear-cut vision, tactical acumen and unquestionable knowledge of the game in a five-hour conversation. Twelve years and six months after being laughed off national television for daring to be innovative, Rangnick walked away with the most audacious job in Germany, namely establishing RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

Fortune has ever favoured the impudent, and three years later, the decision brought promotion, with Rangnick as stand-in coach. Two years after that, RB Leipzig narrowly lost out on the Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich. No one was laughing anymore.

With the assimilation of the director of football in mainstream Europe came the ambiguity that ensues from the incorporation of foreign roles. While there was a general idea of the workings of the office, the specifics were much less pellucid and as such open to interpretation. This flexibility allowed for an imbalanced allocation of influence in the position, granting nominal and middling powers to some while making emperors of others. Yet there remain a select few who regularly buck the trend with little fanfare and plenty of style.

What if I told you that the quartet of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, arguably Europe’s most talented midfield in recent times, was acquired by a certain Turin outfit for a combined €10.5 million? Pull up your jaw and meet Beppe Marotta, the good-times marshal.

If football directorship is a course, then Marotta is its star pupil. Director of football at hometown club Varese by 21 and general manager a year later, soon followed spells at Como and Venezia. The Italian is a superb talent-spotter as well as wheeler-dealer par excellence, and his steadily burgeoning reputation would see him head to Genoa to take over at Sampdoria as new owner Riccardo Garrone sought an experienced hand to guide them from an unsatisfying season in which the former scudetto winners finished 10th in Serie A. 

Possessive of a ruthless streak, disappointing results saw heads roll more often than not, and one such decision led to the appointment of Fabio Paratici as head scout in 2004. It would prove to be a stroke of genius, as evidenced by the shock signing of Antonio Cassano in 2007 and Champions League involvement soon after.

Off the back of yet another forgetful season – their third in a row – Juventus were in desperate need of inspiration and Chairman Andrea Agnelli looked to Marotta to provide it.

A hallmark of the best football directors a la the aforementioned oligarchs is an extensive repertoire of footballing know-how; a factor that has led to a glut of ex-players in the role. This only serves to accentuate the Varesini’s achievements at Turin.

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Backed by a supportive board, Marotta has been as hard-nosed as ever in his dealings, immediately installing partner-in-crime Paratici as head of scouting, while shipping in and out boatloads of players, technical staff and the odd coach in an approach that has predictably yielded dividends at the Juventus Stadium, delivering six scudetti, three Coppa Italia trophies and two Champions League finals in eight seasons.

However, what truly marks the 60-year-old out as a beacon in the business is his combined nose for a deal and ability to strengthen his side at the expense of their rivals, testaments to which were the high profile arrivals of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente, Paul Pogba, Sami Khedira and Dani Alves on Bosman transfers. They were tempered with the recruiting of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Mirko Vučinić, Miralem Pjanić and Gonzalo Higuaín at considerable cost from their closest rivals. The result has been a team whose performances highlight that their general manager is more orchestrator than traffic warden.   

The dizzying financial clout of English clubs in recent years has seen the Premier League become the hotbed of fiscally asinine decisions. Thanks largely to the insular nature of English football and the hype turbine that is the media, sub-standard fare and tin-foil prima donnas are the order of the day. In these economically unsafe times, more than ever, clubs require a shrewd, unbiased head behind fiscal and transfer policies. One club devoid of such trifling worries is Southampton. The reason? Les Reed.

In a league and with an FA that staunchly rejects change, Southampton have defiantly become the most progressive club in England. In fact, they have had a director of football since 1994, when club legend Lawrie McMenemy first took up the role. Then there was George Prost, who established their famed modern academy, and among such icons, Reed surely deserves a place. Whether it’s hiring the more innovative coaches a la Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman or introducing seasonal reviews of coaching policies, the Londoner is a breath of fresh air in the prevalent atmosphere of primitive tactics and dusty dialectic.

In and out of the FA since 1986, the former Charlton manager’s route to the top has been – through no fault of his own – somewhat rocky. Author of the FA’s official coaching manual, sacked in 2004 for “no justifiable reason”, and labelled “the worst manager of all time” during a six-week spell at Charlton, his is the fate of an academic in English football.

Some still recognise talent and Nicola Cortese is one of those, appointing Reed as director of football at St Mary’s in April 2010. With an emphasis on tactical flexibility and attractive football, under his guidance Southampton have romped to their highest league finish in 30 years and the most profitable youth programme in Europe according to the CIES Observatory.

When God tried to spare the city of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, he asked Lot to scour the city for 10 righteous men. Lot failed, so God asked for five righteous men, again Abraham’s nephew came up short. Still God asked for one virtuous man, and predictably Lot once more failed. The rest is history.  Even if all else fails in the Premier League, thank God for Les Reed – an innovator so often brushed aside with illogical ruthlessness.

If Arsène Wenger appreciated what a football director could do for Arsenal, he may want to take a peek in the mirror and realise that he already embodies its heart and soul. And perhaps in that moment, destiny might once again smile on one of its favourites as he salvages his reputation as one of English football’s greatest managers

By Voke Fabikun

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