After reading Jack Ford’s excellent article yesterday, it’s clear to see that there’s something missing in Sunderland’s hierarchy: a footballing brain bridging the gap between boardroom and dugout.
Sunderland fans will point to the failed appointments of Roberto De Fanti and Lee Congerton as proof that a Director of Football, or a role that fulfills a similar position in the club, doesn’t work at Sunderland. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, for a while now Sunderland have desperately needed someone capable of overseeing football operations at the club. Hiring said individual is arguably more important than our transfer business this January, or even potentially opting for a new manager.
A while back I penned an article arguing the club’s decision to invest £500k into our recruitment department needs to focus in creating a support system capable of developing a long-term strategy for success. Dortmund’s model was used as an exemplar method, but little has been done to replicate that strategy. As Jack noted yesterday:
Like any modern football club, Sunderland needs someone who is technically qualified, experienced, and has a significant network in the professional game to formulate and implement a long term plan for the footballing side of the operation.
Sunderland critically lack footballing nous in their ranks, and as such we’re suffering. But if we did bring someone in... what would they do?
The position of Director of Football, Technical Director, Sporting Director, or Director of Football Operations is one that is individualised to each club who employs someone in that role.
From household names like Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City, to former players like Richard Hughes and Dougie Freedman at Bournemouth and Crystal Palace respectively, the vast majority of Premier League sides have embraced the Director of Football role - and for good reason.
Essentially, football clubs are so complex now that team require additional staff to ensure there is a sense of harmony in terms of strategy, vision, and implementation of ideas. They provide a sense of continuity that helps clubs ensure that their overall direction and growth is guarded against should a new manager or group of key players leave the club.
At Sunderland, the Director of Football would need to focus on several key areas: our identity/playing style, player recruitment, and financial management being three key components.
Identity & Playing Style
One area that Sunderland have really struggled with for years is having a clear style of play, an identity that players and fans understand and believe in.
Jack Ross was said to trust an attacking approach that saw his side play a shorter game, but that was something that gradually faded from last season into this one. Of course, individual games require individual strategies, but by and large successful sides have a specific approach that is identifiable.
Generally knowing how a side looks to play isn’t a negative thing, either. People know how Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s sides play - it’s very much a case of: can they effectively combat that style?
The issue with Sunderland is that we simply don’t have a specific style that anyone can point to. We’ve played both short and direct, wide and narrow, cautiously and haphazardly, slow and fast. There’s no discernible style to Sunderland’s play, and that’s a negative for our players.
Earlier this season, Parkinson talked about his approach to games:
It’s utilising the possession we have during games and being more effective with that. It’s something we’re looking at and trying to address in the short time we have on the training ground. We need to create chances for our goalscorers and I’m confident that if we do we have the players who can put the ball into the back of the net.
I think it’s about giving the lads a big of direction in terms of what we want in certain areas of the pitch. That will come over a period of time because we’ve got players who can produce.
Even Saturday [his first game in charge], at times we turned down the opportunity to deliver from good areas and come back out.
We’ve got to look at that because goals come from quality crosses in good areas, and we didn’t get enough of those on Saturday.
The issue here is that Sunderland hadn’t really played this style of football - this was a new style of play and was never going to yield immediate results, and the people in charge of hiring Parkinson should have had a footballing brain picking up on that and noting this would be a change that required time and effort; they should have had someone who was capable of identifying that Sunderland don’t really have the players to quickly transition into that style of play.
That’s where a Director of Football comes into play and offers his opinions on an appointment that could utilise a similar style to one being used, or advise if the current squad are capable of playing the brand of football a potential manager is offering.
In terms of recruitment, the Director of Football is the link between the boardroom, dugout, and scouting department. They bind ideas together. Working with the owners and manager, the Director of Football helps formulate an identity for the club, and then works with the manager and recruitment team to find the personnel required in order to find success with said tactical approach.
Sunderland’s recruitment has been hit and miss with some impressive signings and some poor ones. The really irritating issue for fans, however, is that clear frailties within the team haven’t really been addressed - athleticism and pace are required for the style of play employed by both Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson, and Sunderland don’t really have much of either.
Add into the equation that we don’t seem to have a strategy in terms of the type of player being bought, and the need for direction and oversight is increased. How many current signings would form the core of a Championship side? On current viewing, very few.
The Dortmund model was mentioned by the current ownership, yet Sunderland haven’t really invested in young, hungry players.
As Dortmund’s Director of Football, Michael Zorc notes:
It would be naive to think that finances don’t have any influence on what happens on the pitch. That’s why we like working with young players who are at a level we can afford and generate money that we can use to close the gap somehow.
Aside from Luke O’Nien and George Dobson, Sunderland haven’t really chased young, up and coming targets. Of course, there needs to be a balance between youth and experience, yet Sunderland don’t seem to be finding the balance right now.
Our recruitment team have likely been doing the best with the resources available, but a lack of clarity in terms of on-pitch strategy, and financial limitations could well have hindered their good intentions. Moving forward the entire club needs to be on the same page - and that’s where a Director of Football should take control.
Money needs to be treated with respect, the ownership have noted that they will financially back the manager this coming January window, but we desperately need to get our signings right. Ideally, we will have been scouting targets for a while, but that’s tough with such a small team.
A Director of Football links the boardroom to the dugout and the dugout to the recruitment team. As a club we need a collective understanding as to how we’re going to find success, the first step is by hiring someone capable of bringing the club together.