Some call it an identity. Some refer to it as a brand. While it’s known by many names, a Football Philosophy is a foundational element for any club that is often overlooked. But the establishment and integration of a proper football philosophy (or lack thereof) can have dramatic effects at all levels of a football organisation, from the board room to the individual choices fans make every day.
A football philosophy is really no different than any corporate mission or identity. And like any corporate entity, the best organisations are often those that not only choose the proper identity, but also ensure it permeates throughout the organisation. While one may debate the merits of famed management consultant Peter Drucker’s famous phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, the benefits of establishing a proper culture is key to any organisation’s success.
Many football clubs already have strong identities. Some identities are born out of historical moments in a club that resonated with its supporters. For example, Barcelona’s well-known style of play was first established through the influence of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and the success of the club in the early 70s and later solidified under Cruyff’s management more than a decade later. Their unique style of play featuring positional exchanges along with higher pressure and dominance in possession captured the hearts and minds of Barcelona supporters and has embedded itself into the club’s DNA ever since.
Some identities have been more carefully crafted.
The various football clubs owned by the energy drink company, Red Bull GmbH, have constructed an identity as aggressive upstarts that disrupt the traditional football status quo. But the catalyst for the establishment of Red Bull as a truly disruptive force in football in line with their corporate brand was the hiring of Ralf Rangnick as Sporting Director of both Red Bull’s Salzburg and Leipzig clubs in 2012.
Rangnick made an immediate impact by implementing his three pillars or C’s (or K’s in German) - Concept, Competence, and Capital - especially at RB Salzburg. While Salzburg had plenty of “Capital” via heavy investment from its parent company, it lacked in the other C’s. Rangnick made sure the Red Bull “Concept” was firmly established and embedded throughout the organisation. The team’s aggressive counter-pressing and direct counter-attacking style of play mirrored the overall Red Bull brand. Even the club’s recruitment was focused on giving opportunities to ambitious young players and coaches that, if they developed properly, could even be willingly moved to bigger and better opportunities at the right price, of course.
The Scouted Hub believes that every club should establish a robust footballing identity. Every club has some unique aspects, whether it’s history, geography, or other unique factors. It should be a source of strength for the club and an ethos that the board, management, and the fans can relate and aspire to and rally behind. It should be resident in everything the club does, from how it interfaces with its community, who it chooses to do business with, and what style the team plays on the pitch.
How do clubs establish a strong football identity?
Establishing a proper identity is not always easy. It may require considerable dialogue with key stakeholders, including the club’s current and potential fan base, both local and distant. It should undoubtedly be clearly articulated and endorsed by the members of the club.
Furthermore, to make the most of it, it should be fully understood by all the club’s major business lines, including finance, human resources, marketing, and most importantly, football operations.
Almost all clubs with strong football identities have several common characteristics. They have clear guidance and endorsement of the identity from the top of the organisation. They hold business lines accountable for executing that identity. They also usually have a football structure governed by a Sporting Director to look out for the medium and long terms pursuits of the club, yet also entrusts the short-term footballing pursuits to a manager that ensures the first team plays a style that reflects the club’s identity.
Most modern football clubs have a Sporting Director for good reason. In the words of successful Sevilla Sporting Director Monchi, “I cannot believe a club does not have this particular position”. Part of his reasoning is that so many resources and time is dedicated to the first team out of necessity, it seems to demand a “specialist who deals with that” in his words. The Sporting Director is truly the football connection to the board. They can oversee and provide information at the proper level about the scouting, analytics, coaching, and other aspects of the club. However, the most important area of focus may be the coaching staff.
The Sporting Director and Manager relationship can be complicated, especially in countries with a long tradition of the manager being in charge of all football areas. Even in America, where General Managers have run sporting clubs for decades, the relationship can still be complicated. A famous example is in the book and movie Moneyball, where the General Manager (GM) Billy Beane has built a team with a very specific idea of how the personnel should be deployed. Yet the club has a Manager, Art Howe, with different and more traditional ideas. It was at such a stalemate that Billy Beane actually traded one of the team’s “best” players in Carlos Pena to force the manager to play the preferred personnel of the GM.
If a club wants to maintain a strong identify, having a Sporting Director that is responsible for hiring (or recommending the hiring) and overseeing the manager is a sound structural way to make it happen.
A good example is at the up-and-coming English club, Brighton Hove Albion, who have a strong Sporting Director in Dan Ashworth who has been tasked with implementing the vision passed down from the board. As he explained to BT Sport, “The chairman here at Brighton has a vision of how he wants the club to play and how he wants to recruit players, and Graham (Potter) was very high on the list of people he thought could deliver that vision.” said Ashworth. Ashworth explains that Brighton would never hire a coach that’s against the direction of the club and how it’s his job to help maintain that identity. According to Ashworth, “if you keep changing the head coach every 14 months or so, which is the average lifespan of a manager nowadays, and then go from one philosophy to another, you have no chance of joining up your loans, Academy, development and player recruitment. You end up having to change 16, 17, 18 players in order to change the principles and philosophy. It is about a long-term plan in order to get the best out of the resources we have at Brighton.” But ultimately, that starts with a strong identity that has been established at the highest levels of the club, and a competent Sporting Director to ensure that all footballing operations reflect that identity.
In Brighton’s example of Graham Potter, one of the key tenants of the club, as reflected in its style of play is to possess the ball. However, the board or Ashworth would never force a formation or specific tactics to help ensure that happens. Barcelona is another good example as the club has had different managers, but has enjoyed its most success under managers that have not strayed far from its footballing identity. The hiring of Pep Guardiola from the Barcelona B team illustrates this perfectly. While he did not establish full positional flexibility to the extent Cryuff did, Pep’s still accomplished an aspect of the principle through his fundamental concepts of positional play. He did not disrupt the vision of the club and its style of play. If anything, his success made Barcelona’s identity even more apparent. As a result, the philosophy of positional versatility and on-pitch dominance through pressure and possession can be seen from the first team even down to the local Barca Academy near my home here outside of Washington, DC. Red Bull Leipzig has also been through several managers, but the club still shows varying signs of aggressive pressure and quick strikes with vertical passes and direct play. This style of play is also very similar at its various affiliates in Austria, Brazil, and the United States.
Another significant factor in establishing an identity is the financial capabilities of the club. To go back to Monchi, one of his three pillars is “Direccion unica”, but that singular direction has two components to include the financial restrictions of the club as well as the Sporting wishes. Sevilla naturally has to be more cost-conscious than its rivals in Madrid and Barcelona. But those differences are even more pronounced with other smaller clubs, especially relative to its competitors. A club like Brighton, especially under Financial Fair Play rules, cannot have nearly the same type of investments that Manchester United can. This often has a significant impact on club recruitment strategies.
A unique example is the differences in recruitment strategies between Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam due to financial differences. While both club’s identities were established or refined by Johan Cryuff and share similar preferred styles of play, their recruitment strategies are very different. Due to the massive disparity in Eredivisie vs La Liga revenues, Ajax’s financial limitations force the club to sell players who want bigger wages and more competitive domestic leagues.
There are also other factors that may drive different recruitment strategies beyond financial. For example, Ralf Rangnick believed that a strong club “concept” and “competence” could help generate more “capital” and allow for smaller clubs to punch above their weight. But this isn’t just due to financial limitations that Red Bull Leipzig and Salzburg invest so often in young, hungry, and aggressive players. It’s that these players fit better with the club’s philosophy as manifest in the existing playing styles that require tremendous fitness and pressure.
What actions should a club take?
The Scouted Hub believes that there are lessons that any club can learn from those that have effectively established a strong sporting philosophy. Even clubs that have effectively established a strong philosophy should revisit it on a regular basis. We believe each club should continue to ask itself questions to make sure the club culture is still solid and reflective of that identity.
Is your philosophy the right one?
Ideally, a club would take into account all the different factors that could influence a club’s identity and gain consensus among its stakeholders as to what the “right” footballing philosophy should be.
It can reflect the current state of affairs or can be aspirational, but should energise the club’s fans and employees.
Even after a philosophy has been established, clubs should be asking their stakeholders on a regular basis about the existing philosophy and how well it’s resonating with their staff, fans, and community. They should know if they still feel as though it reflects the club’s current or aspirational DNA. Of course, opinions and feelings can change based on responses to external situations as well - the European Super League, COVID pandemic, etc.
How well has the philosophy been established?
Each club needs an initial strategy to articulate and implement that initial philosophy. Clubs should ask their stakeholders questions to determine if the philosophy is clear and understood by all stakeholders. Even if the chosen philosophy is the right one, it might not have been appropriately communicated or established. Although it seems fundamental, every club’s employees, fans, current and prospective customers should know exactly where they can find it. Beyond that, they should make sure that it is well understood and that it has been properly translated into the individual business area plans. Clubs should be asking the individuals in charge of each business areas if they understand how it affects their day-to-day responsibilities and decision making.
How effective has the philosophy been?
The decisions and communications from the club should be reflective of its philosophy. They should continually reinforce their identity to build camaraderie with their supporters and employees. Over time this can even attract new supporters who identify with the principal tenants of the club. As a result, the club should continually ask its stakeholders if conflicting behaviours or messages come from different parts of the club. The club should also have objectives and goals within each part of the club that is specific to reinforcing its philosophy with performance measures to evaluate progress against them.
Obviously, we at The Scouted Hub are biased, but we believe it can help to have third parties with a sense of independence to help clubs neutrally ask those questions. It’s not always easy for organisations to get objective feedback directly from their employees or customers. However, beyond stakeholder interaction, often just getting an impartial viewpoint on the club’s overall structure can identify significant areas of potential improvements in a club’s operations. But most importantly, clubs should choose it’s 3rd party vendors carefully - they should have your best interests in mind and be just as passionate about your business and its identity as you are.