Football is a volatile industry in which the outcome of the next game can change the club’s entire approach. The problem we often see in football clubs is that the Head Coach is made the de facto leader of sporting strategy.

Once a Head Coach is in place, he has a lot of power to bring in his own ideas about how to play football and the people he wants to work with. This model can work but it is inherently risky as Head Coaches are often only with clubs for relatively short periods of time.

It is advisable then for a football club to separate the responsibility for strategic and operational management. People who are expected to stay with the club for an extended period of time should be in charge of strategy. More clubs have therefore shifted to a Director of Football (DoF) or Sporting Director (SD) model. 

The linked article has a more in-depth explanation of the sporting director model and how clubs can be structured.

The topic of this article is to illustrate how a football club can gain a competitive advantage through the implementation of a long-term strategic approach. 

Before starting this process there is a key question of who gets to decide what the strategy is?

If the club has a strong board of directors they can lead the process but expertise in football is required, along with specific knowledge of the club as a whole. If the board does not have specific knowledge of leading these reviews they should seek independent advice.

This group should ideally create a common corporate thesis. In footballing terms, a corporate thesis would involve imagining how the wider football industry will look in the distant future (> 10 years from now). 

This might sound strange but it takes a long time to fundamentally change a club. The ramifications of decisions made today may take 10 years to be felt. If you have a well thought-through theory of what the industry landscape might look like then you are in a better position to make longer term decisions.

A scenario planning workshop can help a football club to create such a thesis. 

Once the board has a common understanding of the future, it can start the process of planning to compete. 

MRKT Insight’s approach to strategic management

Strategic direction

Before looking at the future direction of the club you need to understand your current position. What are your strengths and weaknesses, what are the opportunities and threats?

Now you have a common understanding of where you think the industry is heading, and where you currently are you can start to come up with a shared mission, vision, objectives, and values.

Vision

  • Desired state of what the football club wishes to achieve or where it wants to be
  • Very abstract, potentially unattainable (think big)
  • Time horizon > seven years
  • Where are we heading?
  • What is our baseline trajectory if we do nothing to change?

Mission

  • Football club’s reason or purpose for existence
  • Why do we exist? What do we do? What makes us different?

Values

  • Guidelines for behavior/decision-making
  • Beliefs, philosophies, and principles that drive the football club
  • What are the values that underpin everything we do?

Objectives

  • Defines the overlaying goals about how to achieve the vision and mission
  • Goals are still broad, abstract, general, and strategic
  • How do we get there?
  • How do we outperform our baseline assumptions?

The strategic direction aids in providing a football club with a clear framework and boundaries for developing a strategy.

Strategy

During this stage of the strategic process, a football club develops a strategy that adheres to the strategic direction’s guidelines. A football club creates not only a business strategy, but also a sporting strategy. The strategy mostly has a time horizon of three to five years.

Business strategy

The business strategy examines a football club’s business departments such as finance, human resources, sponsorship, matchday operations, information technology, and marketing. The strategy’s goal is to make these departments more effective and efficient. The business strategy should support, accelerate, and complement the sporting strategy and ensure that the club can be successful on and off the pitch.

Sporting strategy

The sporting strategy determines how a football club will be successful on the field. A clear playing philosophy is one of the most important aspects of any football club. Because the playing style contributes to the long-term development of all the components that surround it. It helps to have clear guidelines, KPIs, and profiles in place when looking for the right coach and new players. Furthermore, you define the strategy for the scouting and recruitment department, the youth academy, and the science/analysis department.

The goal of the strategy is to outline how to achieve the strategic direction and provide guidelines for the operational level to implement it. The strategic work that has been done up to this point is summarised in a strategic plan. For the success of the strategy implementation, the strategic plan is constantly communicated throughout the whole club. 

Strategy implementation

The strategic plan is then passed from the strategic to the operational level. The operational level is responsible for the strategy implementation. To put strategy into action, they develop policies and programs that specify which activities must be completed in order to successfully carry out the strategic plan. These programs typically have a one to two year time frame.

For the implementation the operational level adds clear functions, procedures, and budgets to each programme. 

Functions

Functions are groups of activities carried out by people. One person can carry out many functions. And some functions can be performed by many people.

Having the best strategic plan as a club is pointless if you do not have people who can do the work.

The functions carried out within the club need to align with the strategy.

Consider a club that has decided to implement a data-driven approach in their scouting and recruitment department in order to improve their player recruitment.

This new approach implies that scouts require new skills such as data analysis and video scouting. So far, their approach to scouting and recruitment has been fairly traditional without use of data and limited video. As we can see, the club’s functions no longer correspond with their intentions of where they want to go. 

To successfully implement the strategy, the club has to take the necessary adjustments and establish a new structure with relevant functions for the scouting and recruitment departments.

In a football club such structural decisions are often in tension with the sporting aspect and the possibility of signing another player. Having a good framework for decision making is key. Ultimately the choice of whereto allocate budget has to come down to what increases the chances more of the first team winning games in the long term.

Procedures

A procedure is a way of working. It is the actual process undertaken to fulfill the function. 

Let us look at the example above again in which a club wants to implement a data-driven approach. The club has now changed its structures in order to find players using data. 

Each function (Identifying players) has a set of procedures (Data Filter – Video Scouting) that serve clear roles and is deeply embedded in the system. 

The output of one function’s procedure becomes the input of the following function’s procedure. This intersection of the two procedures is critical to the success of the strategy implementation. 

Imagine a scenario in which data scouts prepared a short list of players who fit the playing style and all other criteria specified in the sporting strategy. This short list is now being used as input into the sporting director’s procedure for acquiring one of these players. 

The interconnected procedures are only useful if the sporting director now uses this input. If the sporting director does not believe in the value of the information and the entire procedure is worthless. 

This is why although the strategy remains fixed there is flexibility in procedures. If a better way of doing things can be found it should be implemented quickly.

Budgets

The same is true for the budget. A football club’s financial resources should be allocated in accordance with its strategic plan.

If the club strategy focuses on recruitment and scouting performing above league average the budget, functions, and processes need to be given enough time and money to succeed.

Conclusion

Forward-thinking clubs develop strategies that go beyond the next matchday’s results. 

A single club with limited resources can find competitive advantage against their high-spending competitors with a clear and systematic strategic approach. 

A good strategy ensures alignment between the sporting and business aims.

MRKT Insights work with clients across the globe developing sporting strategies.

Categories: MRKT Insights

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