Damien Comolli arrived at Liverpool Football Club at the beginning of November 2010. The club had just emerged from the worst financial chapter of its history, culminating in a protracted legal battle, in an attempt to force, then owners, Messrs Gillette and Hicks to allow a takeover of the club, which they’d saddled with an inconceivable amount of debt, by, American based company, New England Sports Ventures.
Upon completion of the £300 million takeover, N.E.S.V., now Fenway Sports Group (F.S.G.), faced the realities of taking over a club that was at its lowest ebb for over half a century. Their arrival at the club coincided with, the Hodgson era; Liverpool’s worst start to a season in Premier League history. In the relegation places in league competition, and having been knocked-out of the Carling Cup unceremoniously by Northampton town at Anfield, the new owners would have some work to do to turn things around.
N.E.S.V. came in to Liverpool with some sporting pedigree, mainly from what they had achieved with the Boston Red Sox, in American Major League Baseball. Following the principles laid out in the movie Moneyball, i.e. using statistical analysis and factual data to identify and sign undervalued players, or as yet unknown young players with great potential; whilst at the same time identifying overvalued, less efficient players, and either avoiding them, or selling them when at their most inflated price, for a large profit, N.E.S.V. were able to create a World Series winning Red Sox team for the first time in 86 years.
In keeping with what they had done States-side one of the first things that the new owners did was to name Damien Comolli as Director of Football Strategy. His job at the club was to assist, then manager, Roy Hodgson with all matters football related, barring training and first team coaching. Results did not go according to plan for Liverpool under Hodgson’s tenure, as Liverpool continued to perform miserably, it was not long before the Englishman was shown the door, Kenny Dalglish was asked to take over as caretaker manager and Comolli had his title revised to the, more familiar, Director of Football.
The Director of Football position originates from the European game. They are supposed to offer some sort of continuity to clubs which often change managers, or head coaches as they’re often referred to. They are the civil servants, if you will, to a manager’s government minister. In a field where the top job changes regularly, and each new boss has different ideas, philosophies and transfer targets, the director is seen as a way of separating powers so that one man’s whim does not always rule the day.
In English football, the director is regarded, certainly by most, as an excess figure, somebody who is unaccountable and gets in the way of the manager doing his job properly. Many clubs have flirted with the idea: Newcastle, Fulham, Tottenham, Chelsea for example, but at all of these clubs, the position has since been abolished, mainly due to conflict between the manager and the director. This often occurs when there is a breakdown in trust between the two and the working relationship suffers, although, oddly enough, it seems to happen most often at clubs who change their managers frequently.
When asked about his new role at the club, immediately upon receiving it, Comolli said in an interview printed in the Guardian:
“It covers pretty much all of the football side. It’s basically a day-to-day relationship with the manager and his coaching staff, it’s also medical and sports science, performance analysis, player liaison, team travel, scouting and negotiating transfer contracts. A big part of it is the academy.”
Probably the most important part of his job in relation to Liverpool is contained in the final line of this statement. It was his job to make the necessary arrangements and handle the lion’s share of negotiations as regards Liverpool’s new signings. Kenny Dalglish had the final say on who the targets were to be, the way it should be, but, it was Comolli who handled the negotiations and sorted out the fees. This is where he fell down, particularly with English players, and he has done so before if you look at his track record.
There is no doubt about the quality and potential of Liverpool’s transfers while Comolli was in charge, however the prices paid are what has come back to haunt him. Luis Suarez was undeniably a fantastic signing for Liverpool, and the £22 million was probably a fair price, which Liverpool should hope to make a profit on, should they sell him in the future. The captures of Jose Enrique and Sebastien Coates, each for £7million and Craig Bellamy, on a free, can all be considered as shrewd purchases, both from a financial and from a footballing perspective. Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll represent excellent long-term prospects, however along with Stewart Downing, Liverpool are unlikely to ever re-coup the money they spent on these players in the future.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Moneyball plays a key role in F.S.G.s thinking. This philosophy relies on; statistical analysis, youth and a canny ability to identify a bargain in the transfer market. Part of the process worked well with Comolli involved, the youth team has been strengthened with the captures of Jordan Ibe and Danny Ward and the average age of the first team squad has dropped, with the signings of Coates, Henderson and Carroll. The statistical analysis behind all the signings was sound, as Liverpool sought to recruit those who created the most chances in the Premier League last season, those with the best set-piece delivery (Charlie Adam) and those who put those chances away most often. However the fees paid for Carroll, Downing and Henderson do not fit into the F.S.G. way of thinking, and even if they all go on to shine in a Reds shirt, the cost of bringing them in, coupled with the lack of instant dividends, weighed heavily on the American’s minds, ultimately costing Comolli his job.
Comolli’s track record at Spurs, where he was Director of Football several seasons ago, working with Juande Ramos and then Martin Jol, was hit and miss. He was responsible for bringing in Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and Dimitar Berbatov, all wonderful signings for Tottenham, along with Kaboul and Assou –Ekottou, who have gone on to cement first team places; all for competitive transfer fees at the time. However he was also responsible for the signings of Hurelho Gomez, Didier Zokora, Adel Taraabt, Hossam Ghaly, Ricardo Rocha, and the club’s record flop Darren Bent (£16.5m).
Comolli’s introduction to English football was in the 1990’s, when Arsene Wenger brought him in as his Chief European Scout at Arsenal. Wenger trusted him implicitly and Comolli excelled in the role, identifying players such as Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy; perhaps his best work was done at Arsenal in that particular role.
It seems to me that aside from relieving a little day to day pressure from the manager, the D.o.F as such, is a confusing and unnecessary role in the English football set-up. Certainly, it is helpful to have somebody who can find and scout the best young talent available, but isn’t that exactly what a Chief Scout does?
It’s hard to say what F.S.G. will plump for next. Will they look to install a replacement, either in the long or the short term? Names such as van Gaal and Johann Cruyff have been doing the rounds in the football press. Or will they opt to return to a more traditionally English approach, with the manager taking more control, working with support from behind the scenes.
My view is that Liverpool Football Club doesn’t need a big name from outside to come and fill a role that’s of questionable value anyway. If F.S.G. does decide to fill the vacancy, much better it be somebody who doesn’t court the limelight, or have an ego to satisfy, somebody who will just quietly get the job done. The most important thing is to make sure that the club is running smoothly, with everybody pulling in the same direction, whether Comolli is replaced or not.
You can catch Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/
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