Single points of failure ensure chaos

A single point of failure is a part of a system, that if it fails, will stop the entire system from working.

Everyday life is full of single points of failure. A broken piece of equipment may shut down a building site, a closed road may prevent hundreds of meetings or events from taking place, a software demonstration reliant on a strong internet connection is doomed to failure if that connection fails.

It isn’t possible to prevent every possibility of disruption, some things truly are outside of your control. 

However what should be done is to look at the frequency with which the major failures occur. If the equipment breaks regularly then you buy a backup. If the road is closed very frequently it needs re-engineering. If your internet connection is unreliable then at least have the screenshots saved locally.

Which brings us onto football.

The main function of a football club is to play matches which people pay to watch. Everything that surrounds that such as sponsorship, merchandise, venue hire etc is entirely reliant on the existence of the football team.

As such you want that to be the focus of where the budget is spent. The best players you can afford, managed by the best manager.

We should start by looking at the 6 areas a first team football manager was traditionally responsible for:

Game Strategy: Choosing the team and tactics for each game.

Communication: Talking to the media, representing the club on the domestic and world stage.

Motivation: Working with the players on the training ground, travelling to matches, building the culture.

Recruitment: Making the final decision on the hiring of new players.

Sport Science: Sports science, fitness, analysis, medicine, recovery, nutrition.

Coaching: The sessions that help the players to understand the style of play and work well together.

A manager would traditionally not do all of this themselves of course, they would bring along with them trusted coaches, analysts, scouts, doctors and more. These would be their appointments, not those of the club and they would often follow the manager from club to club.

And sometimes it worked really well, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger had long lasting success. They worked with different coaches, doctors, analysts and adapted to ensure they moved with the times and latest thinking.

However, the average time spent by a manager at a club is 18 months. Even the managers regarded as great at one club, have struggled at others. If the manager does well other clubs want him, if he doesn’t do well clubs will sack him.

Premier League clubs paid out over £150m in compensation to sacked managers from 2016-2020. Getting the choice wrong is a bad move.

If the manager gets sacked, or hired by another club, you aren’t replacing one key person. You are replacing the entire non-playing football side of the club. 

A club-wide coaching strategy, medical services, fitness training, youth development, building a scouting network etc are multi-year projects. Changing the direction and leadership of these departments every 18 months isn’t ideal. 

A traditional manager is a single point of failure. If they leave there are financial implications, and football implications.

More clubs have therefore shifted to a Director of Football (DoF) or Sporting Director (SD) model.

The idea is that you keep certain functions within the club, with usually the recruitment and sports science functions moved out of the responsibility of the manager, now referred to as the Head Coach.

For this system to work well (and it often doesn’t) you need a Sporting Director with the power to hire and fire the Head Coach and to insist on the demarcation of responsibilities being clear. 

If the power of recruitment sits with the Sporting Director then the Head Coach can add their voice to the discussion on players, and perhaps even veto some players they feel they couldn’t work with, but they should not dominate proceedings. 

From a structural point of view this makes a lot more sense. You split the responsibilities and keep the “club” functions separate from the “first team” responsibilities. If the Sporting Director hires the right type of Head Coach, who stays in their lane regarding non-first team activities then it can work really well.

But it still relies on the Head Coach, and their support team, having two sets of distinct skills.

Skill 1: motivation and communication.

Skill 2: game strategy and coaching.

Everybody is fighting over the Head Coaches who can supply both Skill 1 and Skill 2.

This means the “proven” Head Coaches command huge salaries.

And once more we have very expensive single points of failure. 

There are lots of people in football who are very well regarded coaches, they love working with players, their training sessions are excellent and they are tactically astute.

There are also many people who can motivate, communicate, and have very high levels of emotional intelligence. 

But we need both skills and for their, often very strong, personalities to fit in with the club ethos and existing club players and staff.

Often what has worked at one club, in one set of circumstances, with one set of players, is not easily replicated at another club. 

Football culture

Football has always operated with hierarchies. A single great man at the top with complete control.

But just because it has always been like this it doesn’t follow that it has to be.

Would a flatter hierarchy with more of the responsibilities previously given to the Head Coach instead shared around among permanent, long-term club employees be better?

If boards of directors are regarded as the best way to run companies why is the idea of a collaborative team staffed by experts, without a single dominant character at the top, regarded with such suspicion in sport?

Experts in their field would be running the club wide coaching philosophy, motivation, communication, player development, and culture building side of things, documenting it all in the club’s knowledge base. All working to support the club, with a “grow your own” policy ensuring the availability of people ready to step into the roles when required.  

A club wide strategy means we have changed a single point of failure to a situation where we have spread the risk of across six footballing functions. 

Roles in new system

Club philosophy – Football Strategy 

Guiding everything and aligning all other departments the football strategy board has representation from each section. They monitor performance at all levels, document what the club is working towards, and run the projects to support that plan.

Game strategy and Leadership –  First-Team Matchday

The first team coaching staff. Effectively the people in the dressing room who decide on the tactics and report to the strategy board on first-team issues.  

Club culture and communication – Club Development  

Responsible for creating a good working environment. People with great communication and interpersonal skills who work with players and staff at all levels. Depending on the personalities in the first-team coaching staff they could also support media duties and the HR issues surrounding the team. 

Sports Science, Analysts, and Medicine – Analysis Department

Experts in their fields who support the whole club with scientific and data insights into performance and improve on pitch performance through better player development, fitness, and availability.

Coaching below first-team level – Player Development

Responsible for implementing the club philosophy at all levels below first team. It is expected that future first-team coaches will develop within the coaching system.

Scouting / Recruitment / Loans – Player Recruitment

Working closely with the strategy team, analysts, and coaching staff to identify and recruit players who could improve the first-team. Developing individual development plans with the player development team to maximise the player’s potential and value.

And finally all these should be supported by:

Finance / Corporate / Ownership – Corporate

To advise on the budgets for each function, to generate revenue for the club, to be a link with the club ownership and board of directors. 

Lessons

Build a club where the reliance on any single individual is minimal. You do not want single points of failure. 

The functions described already exist in every professional club, the difference is in where the responsibility for them lies.

Long term projects, to make the club better, need to rest with people/partners who are going to be with the club in the long term.  

You can’t rely on finding (or retaining) a brilliant coach/communicator. Find a way to split the roles so that you can use the far more common individual skills.

Dare to be different, not every club has to run in the same way. Sporting Directors were an alien concept 10 years ago and are now seen as the sensible way to do things.

A football strategy board brings together the key club functions and allows the club to focus on the long term, sharing responsibility, and spreading risk.

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