x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Far from an exact science

With the transfer window in full swing, Gabriele Marcotti looks at how clubs conduct signings.

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger, right, watches a training session at London Colney. The Gunners have a wide scouting network providing players for Wenger to choose from.
Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger, right, watches a training session at London Colney. The Gunners have a wide scouting network providing players for Wenger to choose from.

There is no such thing as best practice when it comes to running a football club. Nor do the business schools at places like Wharton or Harvard offer courses in such matters. Players are, at once, employees, capital, machinery and product. They are almost entirely responsible for a club's performance on the pitch and largely drive performance off it. In this respect, little has changed over the past 100 years: attracting and retaining talent remains paramount to a club's success. And yet there is no generally accepted procedure on how this is best achieved. A century of footballing know-how has yielded very little in that regard.

"You can say that there is a continental model, with a director of football figure who makes the buying and selling decision and a British model, where the responsibility rests with the manager," says Seb Ewen, an agent with the SEM Group. "But, in fact, every club operates differently, because the dynamic is different." The idea behind the continental model, which is widespread just about everywhere in Europe except Britain, is to free up the manager to work with the players on the training pitch.

The manager takes a much more active role in training, tactics, player selection and scouting opponents. "When I worked in England, I left all the transfer and contract activity to others," says Gianluca Vialli, the former Chelsea and Watford manager. "I would express an opinion of course, but most of my time was devoted to the squad, because that's what I was comfortable with. That's what I knew best."

In the continental model, the boss specialises in nothing other than managing. They are the guys picking the team and making the matchday decisions, so the more they can teach their players and the better they know them, the better off the team will be. And, when you are doing that, there is not enough time to deal with transfers and contracts. "When I was managing Nottingham Forest, I made it a point to take training every day," says David Platt, the former England midfielder.

"What I found is that it quickly became impossible if I wanted to be a British-style manager. "I had meetings every day: with the chairman, with the commercial director, with the communications director, with the ground staff, with the head of the youth academy and so on. "Then we had external commitments, with supporters' groups, with football-in-the-community and with the media. And then I had to meet with my scouts, talk to other clubs about players, talk to agents and know what was going elsewhere.

"Something had to give, even working 16 hour days you couldn't do everything. So I ended up leaving training to my assistants far more than I would have liked. It somehow became less of a priority than the other commitments, though I know it shouldn't be that way." In a nutshell, that's why the continental model is so popular. In fact, the figure of director of football - sometimes known as general manager - exists in most sports clubs around the world.

There simply is too much for a single person to do. But, equally, it's a question of specialisation. "Coaching your own players, working on their individual technique, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and forming a cohesive unit is one skill set. Evaluating other people's players from afar is an entirely different matter," says Franco Baldini. Baldini is a part of Fabio Capello's England staff. Prior to that however, he has been involved in football as a player, scout, agent and sporting director, both at Real Madrid and Roma.

"Most managers are inwardly focused, their attention is entirely taken up by their own team and their own players. "They don't often see opposing players and, when they do, it's usually against their own team, which means that's where their attention is. What's more, they generally see the opposing players from pitchside. And you can't really see anything from there." Baldini's point is that, to accurately judge a player, you have to watch him repeatedly. And you have to do it in person.

There's another factor which comes into play. Football is globalised to the point that, to succeed, clubs have to be comfortable calling upon talent from every corner of the globe. Which means whoever does the buying and selling for a club needs to have a clear handle on leagues across the world. And that is impossible for a British-style manager to do. "That's why, if you want to be a training ground manager, you have to be good at delegating and placing your trust in others," says Ewen.

"You have to have a chief scout who you trust and who's on your same wavelength, coupled with a good scouting network. Most pick their players from the guys who are pre-selected by their scouts. Or, in many cases, agents." Of course, relying on agents to bring you players is fraught with peril. Not least because they will try to push footballers in whom they have an interest. "It can be tricky sometimes," says a high-profile agent who asked not be identified, but has worked between England and the continent for more than 15 years.

"Some clubs only want to deal with two or three agents. "I'll give you an example of a player who moved to the Premier League: first the player had two agents, one of whom had known him since he was a boy, the other was a senior guy who began looking after him when he made it big. "These agents wanted him to move to England, so they hired a British agent to help find them a club. That club had also instructed an agent, a guy they trusted and who they always worked with, to act as the buying agent.

"The selling club, sensing that their player wanted to move, had instructed a local agent to act as the selling agent. "This guy, knowing there would be interest in England, teamed up with an English agent, me, to do the deal. So when we actually hammered out the contract, there were six agents involved." Six agents means six commissions, which sounds like the acme of inefficiency. In many ways, it is both inefficient and expensive to do business this way. Would things have been different with a director of football in place?

"Maybe a bit," says the agent. "The club felt they needed a buying agent because they simply weren't equipped to deal with foreign agents or clubs. The manager scouted the player, but, beyond that, he did not know how to approach the player or the club. A director of football who is comfortable on the international scene could have moved more efficiently, going to the club direct." An over-reliance on agents in the transfer process can bring a lack of transparency.

This is especially true in the British model, where a number of managers have agents themselves, a situation which one Premier League director of football describes as "a walking, talking conflict of interest that nobody talks about". But that is what happens at the top. Before a potential transfer reaches a director of football or manager, there are dozens of people involved further down the food chain. And it is here that scouts rule supreme.

"If you're an agent who wants to place a player, unless it's an absolute superstar, you're going to have to go through the scouts and, ultimately, the chief scout," says Ewen. "And this is where the personal relationship between the scout and manager becomes almost as important as that between manager and director of football in the continental model." Scouts are inundated with offers of players at every level. Their job is to pre-select and rank them.

They too can be influenced by agents, of course, but ultimately they are the guys who will watch a player half a dozen times and advocate his case. "When you scout, you try to get as complete a picture of a player as you can," says Tor Kristian Karlsen, director of football at Fredrikstad, in the Norwegian top division, who has previously scouted for Bayer Leverkusen (where he sourced Lucio and Dimitar Berbatov), Parma and Watford.

"If you think the player may have a future you put him forward." This process takes place even in those situations where agents go direct to the manager or director of football. Ideally, the player would then be scouted more. In practice, it does not always happen. When Sven Goran Eriksson took over at Manchester City in the summer of 2007 he signed half a dozen players having not seen them play.

He was lambasted for this in the English press: in fact he relied on contacts and reports from people he trusted. Many of his signings did work out. Still, you cannot help but notice just how unscientific a process this is. Opinions, rather than facts, rule the roost. That is why the one thing everyone agrees on is that there can be only one person with the final say. In some cases it is the manager, in others the director of football, in others it is the chairman.

Conventional wisdom in England has it that the manager must have the final say since he is the one who will be working with the player. On the face of it, it makes sense. But proponents of the continental model raise two objections. The first is specialisation. The second is that directors of football can take a longer view since they are not judged by results on the pitch Ultimately it is about personality and credibility. A strong-willed, successful boss like Capello tended to get his way even at a club like Real Madrid. A novice manager, particularly when leading a club in a precarious financial state, will necessarily have to defer.

And perhaps that is why there are no courses in football transfers. It is not a science, but an art. And a rather rudimentary one at that. gmarcotti@thenational.ae