The role of a technical director is one of the most ambiguous jobs in football – many clubs have one, but what exactly do they do?
Successes in transfer markets are often attributed to this person, with Manchester United’s poor transfer strategy post-Ferguson often blamed on their lack of someone who acts as an intermediary between the coaching staff and the board of directors.
Ex-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger didn’t have a clue what one was. “I don’t know what director of football means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left? I don’t understand and I never did understand what it means.”
If Wenger doesn’t know, not many people can define one for sure, but we’ve had a go regardless:
A sporting director acts as an intermediary between the on-pitch staff (the manager, players, coaches) and the off-pitch hierarchy (the board, the senior figureheads). (S)he will handle matters on a day-to-day basis off the field allowing the manager to focus on the field. The sporting director is key in transfers, both in and out, as well as contracts and other matters. This allows for the manager to put all of their efforts into the on-pitch matters. The director of football is often an experienced football figure that will remain constant throughout managerial and even ownership changes.
So, we’ve loosely defined what they are, we’ve established what they do, now let’s give some examples.
Here, we’ve listed five of the best sporting directors in world football…
Luís Campos (LOSC Lille, formerly AS Monaco)
Currently at Lille, who finished second in Ligue Un this season, Luís Campos is perhaps the most underrated sporting director in the game, and we could well see him move to AC Milan to replace Leonardo who departed the club last week.
After stepping down from his role at AS Monaco, Campos vowed to replicate the “masterpiece” he created at Stade Louis II. There, the Portuguese director boasted the ‘discovery’ of the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Fabinho, as well as the huge profits he turned in sales of James Rodriguez,
Capital gains are seen off the pitch, but Campos has thus far brought results too, with Monaco winning the Ligue Un title in 2017 and reaching the Champions League semifinal in the same year, with many of that squad signed or discovered by him.
Lille finished second to only Paris this season, with Campos’ latest jewel Nicolas Pépé, set to sell for north of €75m. His work is not limited to finding stars and selling them for huge profits though, he has an eye for transfers that will impact the squad, demonstrated with his deal for Rafael Leão – who was linked with some European giants – as well as an ageing Jose Fonte and a relatively unknown Jonathan Bamba, both of whom excelled this season.
If Milan can tie down a deal for Campos, they are getting a star that can guarantee them results and hopefully return them to the elite.
Michael Zorc (Borussia Dortmund)
One of many sporting directors that fall into the category of ‘Arsenal tried and failed to hire’, Michael Zorc is perhaps the figurehead of the role, that many failing clubs on and off the pitch should try to emulate.
Born and bred in the city of Dortmund, Zorc played his entire career as a midfielder for BVB in the 80s and 90s, and rarely blinked under the pressure of playing in front of the raucous ‘Yellow Wall’, a skill which he has seemingly transferred to the negotiating table.
Just this month, news of Dortmund’s trio of signings – Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt and Nico Schulz – went viral on social media due to the (lack of) expenditure. For little over the fee they received for the American star Christian Pulisic, Dortmund had signed three players who have proven themselves in the Bundesliga, all of whom of an age where they are entering their best years.
He has overseen a memorable decade at the club, signing unknown youngsters such as Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan and others to the club, as well as recent sales in Ousmane Dembélé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both of whom were bought for nominal fees from the French leagues.
Zorc won the Champions League as a player, as they toppled Juventus in 1997, and he has rejuvenated the club back to a position where it can regularly challenge for top prizes domestically and continentally.
Michael Edwards (Liverpool)
So far on this list, we have seen directors able to spot youngsters and sell them for profit, or those to pul the strings from above, but Michael Edwards at Liverpool does a bit of everything and he is the king of extracting value for players deemed surplus to requirements.
For example Fabinho, who is crucial to Jürgen Klopp and will no doubt grow further next season, was signed for the same value that Edwards managed to gain from the sales of Danny Ings (Southampton) and Dominic Solanke (Bournemouth). Both of the latter were surplus to Liverpool, and have gone on to have poor seasons on the south coast.
It was Edwards who negotiated the £142m sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018, with it being rumoured that those talks placed a clause that would put an additional £100m fee on any future Liverpool player Barcelona try to sign. While no one doubted Coutinho’s talent, he has flopped at Barcelona and the deal looks a huge success for Edwards now, with Van Dijk and Alisson Becker costing around that price when combined.
By using data, Edwards and his team find undervalued players like Mo Salah and Andrew Robertson and sign them for a lot less than they are worth.
Monchi (Sevilla, formerly AS Roma)
Now back in Andalusia after a two-year spell in Rome, Monchi is one of the most well known sporting directors in the game, with Manchester United and Arsenal both targeting him at times in the past.
Sergio Ramos, Jesús Navas, José Antonio Reyes, Ivan Rakitic, Dani Alves, Federico Fazio, Seydou Keita – we would be here all day if we listed all of Monchi’s success stories, but to cut it short, he knows his way around a transfer window and is the undisputed architect of Sevilla’s recent glory that saw them win three Europa Leagues amongst other domestic .
When Monchi took over at Sevilla, they had just been relegated and were deep in financial trouble, but the ex-goalkeeper transformed their fortunes and made them a regular top four-six club in La Liga.
The project in Rome didn’t go quite as well, with him leaving the club prematurely, before returning to Seville where he will look to emulate his previous successes.
Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City, formerly FC Barcelona)
The successes of most on our list has been in the sales department, but Txiki Begiristain’s role at Manchester City has been slightly different, as a stubborn negotiator used to get City the best players in order to fight for the Premier League.
Joan Laporta, once president of FC Barcelona, appointed Begiristain in 2003 on the back of a spell of four years without a trophy after Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ and the spells of Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal. Barça were in trouble, but Txiki oversaw a new era at the Camp Nou, that included perhaps the greatest club team we have seen in recent history under Pep Guardiola.
He then moved to Manchester City, and he is often dubbed the man who helped City confirm the acquisition of Pep Guardiola, which is Begiristain’s biggest achievement so far.
Not all signings have worked out, but the transfer policy Begiristain has implemented has held City in good stead: rather than spend £100m on one proven talent, City often spend less on two or three talents not at the ‘top of the market’, who they nurture into top players.
City may have the money to spend, but Txiki Begiristain is the intermediary between Guardiola and the board, and as we have seen with Manchester United, having money does not guarantee success unless there is an order and strategy in place.
Honourable mentions go to: Fredi Bobic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Andrea Berta (Atletico Madrid), Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig), Les Reed (ex-Southampton), Marc Overmars (Ajax).