Are Southampton proof that more English clubs should have a director of football?
Only Leicester and Tottenham have accumulated more Premier League points than Southampton in 2016, who have 52 points from their last 28 matches. Were this sequence of results to be replicated in a football season rather than a calendar year, the Saints would be in contention for Champions League qualification. The south coast club are arguably the best run outfit in the top flight, and other clubs will look to copy their organisation and methodologies. The secret to Southampton’s success is their ability to maintain consistency and continuity despite frequently changing their manager and selling their best players. The character’s change but the story stays the same; a commitment to promoting youngsters, playing progressive football and picking up some impressive results.
There is an odd paradox at work in the Premier League currently. There has never been such a crop of high profile and charismatic coaches; Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino to name just six of them. However, they are all working in an era when the role of the manager is increasingly transitory. Guardiola and Mourinho embody this trend; taking on two to three year projects before riding off into the sunset. Wenger is the last of a dying breed; a dynastic manager that has changed on of England’s biggest clubs beyond all recognition.
The challenge for football clubs over the next few decades is how to maintain a clear sense of identity without having the same manager at the helm for years on end. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Manchester United have endured plenty of soul searching as to what sort of club they should be. Their recruitment has been patchy at best and establishing a discernible style of play has been difficult. This is perhaps the downside of one pair of hands holding so much power; once Ferguson left there was not the apparatus elsewhere at the club to absorb the shock.
Southampton have such structures in place over and above whoever happens to be the head coach. Director of Football Les Reed and his team of scouts and analysts in the famous ‘Black Box Room’ at the training ground are the one constant over the last few years. They spend a lot of their time lining up replacements for their manager and/or key players should they leave. The club are acutely aware of their status as a mid-sized Premier League team, and now that their best talent will move on to so-called bigger and better things. As Reed himself explained in an interview with Gary Neville last year:
“Whether they are fired or attracted to another club, as with Mauricio [Pochettino], you have to be as far ahead with potential coaches as potential players. So I’m always tracking managers and coaches. What’s their style of play, how successful are they, what’s their personality like – so you can be ahead of the game. So I’m always looking at five or six potential managers who have already impressed me. It’s made it quicker. We’re not having off the wall discussions.”
This strategy has enabled Southampton to be remarkably consistent despite so many changes in the dugout and on the pitch. Of course, finding a good director of football is no easy thing either and it is a very distinct role from that of a manager. In many respects, the model is not unlike that employed by Ajax or Barcelona. At both of those great clubs the ‘system’ is more important than any one individual, but no matter how frequently they change their coach some common themes run through the club. The style of play, the profile of their young players and their methods in the transfer market remain the same.
Brought up on stories about the legendary achievements of Shankly, Clough, Ferguson and other autocratic managers, English football has sometimes been reluctant to delegate duties away from the manager. After all, if the manager is going to be held responsible if results go wrong then he should be free reign to do things his way. However, the job has become ever more complex, particularly when it comes to the transfer window. There is a sea of avaricious agents to be navigated and in no other business would it be considered good practice to leave such a task in the hands of one man. Les Reed and Southampton are giving other Premier League clubs a glimpse of the future; clubs will not be able to rely on one man shaping their identity.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Serg Hoholok