This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we are trying to achieve. Three basic statements that no serious football club should have trouble in answering. But that’s not always the case. Plenty of the current issues faced by numerous Premier League clubs would appear to come back to an inability to think straight around those three statements.
How are Arsenal in a situation where their most expensive and most creative player Mesut Ozil only plays 50 per cent of the matches because head coach Unai Emery cannot find a place for him?
Why is it that Chelsea’s players are resistant to the measures implemented by Maurizio Sarri? And, for that matter, why is it that the coach’s methods would appear to depend entirely on the form of one individual, Jorginho?
Where to start with Manchester United? How did it come to pass that previous coach Jose Mourinho was hellbent on removing one of their most promising forwards in Anthony Martial and could not accommodate a World Cup-winning, superstar midfielder in Paul Pogba?
These kinds of questions appear difficult to answer at most teams, save a few notable exceptions. Exceptions like Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, for example, the three best teams in England. Ask the head coaches and chief executives of those teams and they’d be able to tell you who they are, what they are doing and what they are trying to achieve.
If a club is failing to hit its potential, it’s sometimes because there is an identity crisis somewhere within the structure. To succeed, whatever the ambition, requires a strategy or a philosophy. A club has to first decide what it wants to be, how it wants to play and how it’s going to achieve it.
“This is where most clubs fail,” Mads Davidsen, who has just left his role as technical director at Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG, tells Goal. “They don’t connect the vision to the philosophy. Even internally in the club they are not very clear on what are they exactly as a club.
“Are they a mid-table team who aims to go higher? Are they just a survivor who aims to be permanently in the best league? Or, are they actually challengers for the title in a few years?
"They need to be very clear on their own DNA but this is a problem for many football clubs. The setup internally is wrong. They give the power to the coach or the manager and then they let him decide how to play, which players to bring in. Whereas you should do the opposite; that the club decides what we are.”
When Davidsen arrived at Shanghai SIPG alongside Sven Goran Eriksson in 2014, following a fruitful partnership at Guangzhou R&F, the club knew what it wanted to be.
“You have to describe what you are aiming to do,” Davidsen says. “The president and owners wanted SIPG to be one of the biggest teams in Asia. That was the mission.
“The next sentence from them was they wanted to do it with local players, our own players. Then you go to the next step to describe your strategy or your philosophy.
“I started to really make the methodology, and the philosophy, describe everything. I started to push the president and the general manager to get younger and younger players in, and to set up the coaching.
“In 2015, I presented the SIPG Way, which was the club’s DNA, the club’s philosophy and everything was basically described through it.”
The Chinese Super League has attracted worldwide attention due to the mammoth sums paid by its top teams for elite foreign talent like Paulinho, Alex Teixeira, Cedric Bakambu and the recently arrived Belgian pair Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini.
Shanghai SIPG could spend with the best of them – with Hulk and Oscar two of the most expensive signings in the league’s history – but, when it came to gaining the edge over the opposition, SIPG looked in-house. SIPG were crowned 2018 champions despite not signing a single player since January 2017. One of their local players, Chinese megastar Wu Lei, has since signed for Espanyol in La Liga.
“The view of China is it’s a buying league,” says Davidsen. “I said to the president the buying stops because we have foreigners the right age who can help the team for some years and now the academy staff are producing players at the right level also.
“Our U23 team won the league, our U19 team won the league, our U15 team won the league. The big effect is we won the Chinese Super League, but the smaller effect is we start to have the best youth players in the coming generation. The club is healthy in the long run.”
Vitor Pereira is currently head coach and performs in line with the club’s vision. “Vitor Pereira, the whole coaching staff and all the players are the main reason we won the title,” says Davidsen.
“They did all the work that year, maintained the strategy, the ideas and the concepts. We didn’t change or become afraid.”
Pep Guardiola has been successful at Manchester City because he was, in a sense, the final piece of the jigsaw. The club had appointed the right CEO in Ferran Sorriano, the right technical director in Txiki Begiristain and Guardiola was the hand-picked head coach for the systems the club had brought online.
Contrast that to Manchester United, still working without a sporting director. They went from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to Mourinho and now to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
What is the club’s style of football? What is the method of promoting young talent? What is the United way? Solskjaer was successful under Ferguson and speaks of it as a concrete concept but that is merely his own version of the United way. It appears the identity of the club is still bound up in the prejudices of whatever coach is in charge.
“Manchester United suffer from not having this in place,” Davidsen says. “One of the biggest clubs in the world, with the most fans, most finances and they don’t have a sporting director, don’t have a prescribed philosophy, or style of play within the club.
“You could say they had that under Sir Alex Ferguson but this is one of the key issues, you cannot depend on individuals in this perspective. You must depend on the formalised strategy, make a blueprint, implemented all over the club in every department.
“Ferguson had all this in his head but, as soon as he left, they lost their identity. They were not very clear on who they were and why they were doing stuff. Therefore, they are an example of how you can suffer despite a high amount of resources.”
With the sums at stake, it is madness and not a methodology you’d find in any other well-functioning business environment. And, as Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho have found out to their cost, it is always the head coach who ends up carrying the can. But to what end?
“It’s a little bit like peeing in your pants,” says Davidsen of the sacking culture. “You will feel warm in the beginning, but you will be cold along the way. Then you will start again when the clothes are dry.
“You can be lucky, of course, in that one season you might find the right manager or something just clicks. But it will not be sustainable.”
There has long been the idea in British football of the manager as the boss of a club, stretching back to the days of Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United and Bill Shankly at Liverpool. Those were different times when the manager really did rule the roost. Ferguson was a remnant of that bygone era but precious few legacy builders exist elsewhere. However, the desire to find one, and to keep churning through managers until it happens, persists.
“I see how football is run,” says Davidsen. “The model we have is there because it’s been there for a long time. It’s not there because it makes any sense.
“We gamble instead of planning. We gamble on who is the head coach, we throw the keys to the head coach and then we just pray that he will solve all our problems. The clubs need to take back the power.
“When the club takes back control, its own strategy, then you can much easier hire a manager who fits to your club. Before hiring you are clear on the expectations, where you have power and where you cannot change anything.”
Davidsen is now striking out on his own, running consultancy firm Optima Football. He is currently working with one national football association and spent January as a recruitment consultant for a club in southern Europe.
“I have developed myself a model, called the Sustainable Model, where the club’s vision and strategy and philosophy and the methodology is decided before you hire the head coach,” he says. “So this is a different set up than many clubs are used to.
"Today the managers and, through them, the agents have way too much power in football. And when the manager fails, time after time, he is replaced and we go again. Another one tries and asks for new players.
“Clubs must stop wasting money, thinking short term only and start controlling their own business again. It will not only save them money, but also help them towards winning over time.”