ON this week’s “Soccer Report Extra” podcast, available HERE, we gained a glimpse of Damien Comolli’s perception of his methodology and approach to the Director Of Football role – a role he had, of course, filled at Spurs and Liverpool in recent years on these shores.
It’s worth a listen.
Before starting, I should make full disclosure: he worried me. He still worries me. And here’s why.
A Director Of Football, for me, ought to act as the de facto day-to-day custodian of a football club’s ‘system’ of football. Ambassadorial ‘key stone’ roles aside, they should own the way (or ways) that football club plays the game. Sure, scouting methodologies, statistical analysis and research, fee and contract negotiations and so forth ought to be cornerstones of their work. But all that should take place while informed by, and founded on, what the club stands for in footballing terms.
We’re led to believe that Liverpool Football Club, in the penultimate year under Rafa Benitez’s stewardship, put a blueprint in place that crystallised what many hoped would be done at the club: that they’d build on the foundation of 4-2-3-1 at all age groups to first team level (with, as Rafa himself stated, the capacity to play 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 as the conditions of the game dictated). It would form the basis of everything done at the club – a consistent theme and mode of play that Liverpool stood for, and one that had served it particularly well in recent years (and as Sean Rogers so eloquently argued on a recent Anfield Wrap podcast, one that Liverpool used throughout its peak in the late 70s and 80s).
We came to refer to the document Benitez commissioned as ‘McPartland’s Blueprint’, and all the indications when NESV (later FSG) took over were that they and everyone they hired would buy into and work to that blueprint – that everything would be joined up. The coaching curriculum and style of competitive play at all levels would reinforce that blueprint, making the seamless transition to first team football far less problematic. The scouting and selection criteria would be informed by it, with square pegs chosen for square holes, and round ones for round.
Lastly, at first team level, activity in the transfer market would be undertaken with reference to the framework that blueprint provided, taking into account factors such as home grown quotas, age and succession planning, long-term contract value, and salary… but always with the systemic blueprint in mind. Can the player operate in a 4-2-3-1? Does he have qualities the squad is demonstrably lacking that can’t be filled from the reserve or youth ranks? Will his attitude, aggression and team and work ethic reinforce or undermine the squad? But most of all, will he work for our system – our systems, and the broad balance, tempo and emphasis we’re trying to achieve in our play?
Listening to Comolli, while we should always remember that a half hour podcast could never fully encapsulate a man’s entire methodology, one point jumps out – the system was never fundamental to him – it was never at the forefront of his thinking.
Comolli makes a fair point when saying the success of the predominately European model depends on people, not simply on nations. But it also depends on the Director Of Football being capable of filling the remit of a Director Of Football. While the points he made rang true in many cases: that no-one in his position tends to fare better than a 50% success rate and that many of the players he recruited have done well; that when scouting you need to look at positions and their qualities in isolation; that when looking at metrics you need to delve deeper into context and take a more holistic view… they’re all good points. But they all relate to scouting. And a Diretor Of Football ought to have more in his locker than that.
Of course, many expressed issues with his negotiation skills – issues that are already well-documented. But there’s a deeper issue even than that. If you’ve listened to the podcast, listen again – this time asking yourself ‘where’s the acknowledgement of how everything should fit into our system – our philosophy?’. And you’ll maybe arrive at the same worry as I did. Beyond a casual reference to whether a striker’s runs would suit the side’s best passer, there’s no fundamental reference to systems, or to the club’s footballing approach.
I can only hope that when the void created by his sacking is addressed, this point is borne firmly in mind – it’s fundamental to a club’s long-term progress if it has genuine footballing ambition.
Lazy references to Theo Epstein aside, I’d feel much better if a man was in place who wouldn’t overlook a Molby or a Dalglish. Raw pace is all very well in the modern game, of course, but the team’s spine needs regulative players both with and without the ball – players aware of space, and with the brain and technical tools to exploit it, even when very little of it’s available, and when defensive pressure is applied. Players who complement the system. Alonso and Lucas may lack raw pace in comparative terms, but they more than compensate with acute positional awareness and understanding of how to support and make themselves available when others have the ball. And team mates know with both players, even if their pass invited a pressing opponent in for the kill, that their touch and awareness would ‘shuttle’ the ball on to the right man in space. Alonso is phenomenal in this regard; Liverpool are lucky that Lucas has begun to emulate that quality.
Read interviews with managers like Benitez or Mourinho, or with players like Alonso, Davids, Timoschuk… a side needs to work as an integrated system, with as many players who regulate the links between each component ‘part’ as possible. That a Director Of Football can operate seemingly without reference to that kind of insight points at a misunderstanding both of the game itself, and of what the role ought to entail.
Comolli would do well to learn that aspect – it will stand him in good stead in his future career.