There were two seemingly unrelated articles published last week that I think are illustrative of a common problem in football, one without easy, ready-at-hand solutions.
The first is by the masterful Sid Lowe on the imminent departure of director of football extraordinaire Monchi from Sevilla (likely for Roma), which may have a devastating effect on the club. Monchi is the man who many believe singlehandedly transformed the LaLiga team with a brilliant recruitment strategy involving a massive network of scouts:
It is natural they fear a post-Monchi era, that the enthusiasm evaporates a little, the future a little less certain. There may well be no single man who has meant so much for a club over the last 15 years. Crisis? This is no crisis, not compared to what it was then, but without him there are concerns that it could be. When Monchi took over, Sevilla were in the second division and in trouble.
Ironically, the man who built his career on his ability to consistently replace departed prospects may himself be irreplaceable. One can imagine the same may be said one day when Southampton’s head of football development Les Reed decides to hang up his boots (though the club to their credit did survive the loss of the much-ballyhooed former exec Nicola Cortese).
The other article comes from Daniel Storey, and in many ways it tells the mirror image of Monchi’s story: Tim Sherwood’s appointment as director of football at Swindon Town this past November.
Though there were reassurances that head coach Luke Williams’ role would remain unchanged, it was clear after a short period that Sherwood intended himself to be a Man for All Seasons, and that included being the manager as well as technical director.
What mattered more however was the perception of Sherwood’s role at the club, how he was welcomed by chairman Lee Power, who happened to be an old friend:
In fact, Swindon treated Sherwood as if he was a mythical, mysterious football fixer, the great sage of the Premier League. He was given remit to train players, effectively placed in charge of recruitment, given responsibility for team instructions and tactics, and to lead the players during matches. If that sounds like two or three jobs rolled into one, you have spotted the flaw in Power’s plan sooner than he did.
Both examples reveal football’s incontrovertible truth: people come and go but clubs (most of the time, in theory) remain forever. Even the clubs that effectively embrace new and different ideas tend to have one or two personalities acting as a driving force behind them—Matthew Benham at Brentford, for example.
This emphasis on individual personalities doesn’t affect every club; more historically established powerhouses like Barcelona and Bayern Munich often see massive figures come and go over time, but still remain at or near the top. Yet even the historically biggest clubs seem forever tied to one or more unchanging personalities, like Juventus and the Agnelli family.
The challenge is this: how does a smaller club like a Sevilla or a Swindon Town maintain a winning system that is bigger than any single person?
Though Swindon’s approach with Sherwood is particularly egregious, it’s just a bad caricature of how most clubs treat similar appointments. And surely Monchi would want his legacy at Sevilla, knowing full well he would not be there forever, to be an inheritable system, one that could continue to flourish under the right successor. Time may yet prove he did, despite the doom and gloom.
All this comes down to clubs striving to function as an organic whole, rather than old institutions in constant need of saving by saviours. I’ve long said that even the smartest director of football, the most inspiring manager, or the most talented data analyst will fail at a club where they are the odd person out (though it does make the public scapegoating process far easier).
There is no one way to go about it. It can be a long, complex, and ever-changing process that affects everything from player development to commercial sponsorships to fan outreach to succession planning. But this should be the goal, lest clubs continue to lurch from one outsized personality to the next, never knowing what they’ll find.