Through the Wyscout blog, in the last few months, we have taken a look at the inner workings of the football world, showing you some of the things that take place away from the TV cameras. We have heard what the head scout of a major club does by speaking directly to Fabio Papagni of Sampdoria and we have learned what the job of a football agent involves when you work for a major agency like ProEleven.

For this third episode of Wyscout Talks we wanted to analyse and learn more about one of the most high-profile, yet least understood, professions in the Beautiful Game’s world: that of Sporting Director, a role known more for its public dimension – the overseeing of transfers, the appointment of head coaches, the management of relationships – than for the immense amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. Furthermore, Sporting Directors are often judged primarily on the basis of the decisions they make regarding players and coaches – if they choose good ones they are good Directors, but if not… – when the real legacy they leave behind at their clubs is actually formed of all of the other choices they have made. It would be reductive to judge a sporting director solely on the on-field performances of the team yet often this is exactly what happens.

In order to leave no stone unturned when analysing the complex profession of sporting director, we spoke to two men that know the role inside out: Andoni Zubizarreta and Albert Valentin, sporting directors at Olympique de Marseille since 2016. Before moving to France, for four years they formed part of the sports management at Barcelona where they played a prominent role in one of the most influential eras in the Catalan club’s history.

Sporting Direction

So what exactly the Sporting Director does? How do you become Sporting Director and what skills do you need to succeed? In short, how is the life of a Sporting Director? “Let me explain it with an anecdote”, says Andoni Zubizarreta. “In 2014 I was at Barcelona when Puyol decided to retire and work as my assistant for over five months in order to understand how the club was run. He began in September and just over a month later he came into my office one day and said, “Andoni, your job isn’t how I imagined it. You never watch any football.”

“And he was right”, continues Zubizarreta, “because being a Sporting Director means working with agents, looking after the needs of the players and the coach. You have to develop and look after the relationship between the club and the management from a sporting perspective, and also the relationship with the marketing department. In smaller clubs, you also have to dialogue with youth team coaches and parents… You are with the team at all times, you are a spokesperson before and after matches, giving interviews and talking to the media whenever necessary. You do lots of things but watching football is the last thing on the list even if it is the only real thing that we sportsmen want to do.”

 

“Very rarely can you sit down in peace at the side of the pitch and watch the team training. You are very often having to discuss problems and issues with other people. Even when you are at the stadium during a game you are usually there for some other reason. You are there to assess, talk and make decisions, not to watch football. This is the life of a Sporting Director. A lot of the work we do is not often visible as it involves the future development of the team and news on players only comes out when an agreement is reached, as is only right and proper.”

Life at OM

Luckily for them, Andoni and Albert can work both in the office and at pitchside without having to go very far. In fact, our meeting takes place at the Centre d’entraînement Robert Louis-Dreyfus, also known as La Commanderie, a multipurpose sports centre where the French club has numerous football pitches for the first team and the older youth teams, as well as its administrative, media and, of course, scouting offices. Zubizarreta and Valentin arrived at Olympique de Marseille in 2016 following the purchase of the club by American investor Frank McCourt, previously owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. It is a very different club to Barcelona but no less important.

“Olympique de Marseille is a fantastic club”, confirms Zubizarreta. “It has a very strong fan base in France, but also in Europe and the rest of the world. There are OM fans wherever you go. When we arrived here we set ourselves three main goals, two of which closely connected with the football side of things. The first was to get the first team competing at the highest level possible again, in other words qualifying regularly for the Champions League. When we arrived the team was 13th in the league and our aim was to qualify for Europe again. We managed this the following season, reaching the Europa League final – an achievement we didn’t expect so soon – having begun way back in the first preliminary round. Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify for the Champions League but we played in the final with Maxime López and Boubacar Kamara on the pitch, two products of our academy, which was our second main aim.”

 

“Indeed, since we arrived we have sought to consolidate the club’s academy, which has always produced highly talented footballers but without providing them with a clearly defined development path. For example, Zinedine Zidane, the most famous footballer to come out of Marseille, never played for OM. Therefore, the goal was to optimise the structure of the youth sector, creating a pathway that takes young footballers from the academy up to the first team. The third goal, closely connected with the first two, was to begin a project which would last in time. Not a short-term plan aimed solely at qualifying for the Champions League as quickly as possible but a long-term vision designed to make the club efficient and successful for many years to come.”

For the majority of his career – at both Marseille and Barcelona – Zubizarreta has been assisted by Albert Valentin, officially “Deputy Sporting Director”, a role he described to us himself: “Basically I am directly in charge of the OMSA, Olympique Marseille Scouting and Analysis, a similar role to a Head Scout, and I support Andoni in all his duties as Director of Football: first team, academy and women’s football. These roles led to the restructuring of OM’s scouting department following an initial assessment of the situation which also took account of factors like the club’s goals, its cultural identity and, of course, its resources.”

 

“One of our objectives was to create a diversified team that would underline the importance of the French scouts and not make it seem as if a Spanish invasion had taken place. We are really pleased with the team we have assembled because cultural differences enrich our work and provide us with new and different perspectives all the time. We then started work on the operational side, choosing our reference markets based on the resources and competitiveness of the club. We divided the profiles into three groups: A, B and C. “A” were the most relevant, for which we would carry out a complete follow-up also at the stadium. “B” was the group of players seen on video. Finally, “C” was the group of players we only knew about through external tip-offs. In short, we attempted to find the most suitable profiles for Olympique de Marseille.”

Technology and Scouting

It is inevitable that every process, whether short, medium or long-term, is supported by the constant use of technology, especially in the scouting department that Zubizarreta and Valentin have co-managed since their Blaugrana days. “First of all, technology has drastically changed our way of communicating, allowing immediate interaction as opposed to the face-to-face meetings that were necessary in the past”, says Zubizarreta. “Today we can explore markets and learn about players that we would never have discovered once upon a time. Technology is essential for everything that has to do with data, information and tracking, all of the factors that can be assessed during a match and that enable us to analyse, compare and evaluate, and later manage, player profiles.”

However, as Albert Valentin points out, at the same time “professionals need to be careful with Big Data, that we should consider as a tool, not as an element of the decision making. Nowadays we tend to try and use big data continuously in all areas, from marketing through to football and performance. But in my opinion, the key is to find the right data and use it to back up your decisions once you have a clear idea. Also because, in some situations, statistics can exert a lot of pressure on professionals when they are used out of context by agents, the media and in some cases even coaches and directors.”

 

Football technology also means, above all else, Wyscout, a platform that Zubizarreta and Valentin have used for a long time and fully integrated into their working processes. According to Barcelona’s former Sporting Director, “all departments use Wyscout according to their own requirements. More specifically, the first team uses it to analyse its own performances and those of the opponents. Particularly at European level, in just a few hours Wyscout enables you to get a complete overview of your opponents, teams that normally you don’t come up against very often. You are able to analyse individual roles and prepare lots of team and individual strategies.”

“Players can also analyse their matches and we are able to show them what they did on the pitch. Reassuring the most self-critical players, showing them the good things that they did, and showing others the things they need to improve. Personally, Wyscout enables me – and the entire team – to keep up to date with my scouts, and this allows all of us to have a clear overview of our objectives. Also, when an agent suggests a player to me, it enables me to check him out very quickly and get a basic idea of the type of player we are talking about. Another essential thing that Wyscout allows us to do is to find what we call “future markets”, where we seek to identify highly promising youngsters or players that are not yet widely known”.

 

Methods and philosophies

The workflow between Zubizarreta and Valentin has always followed a clear method, one which they developed during their time at Barcelona before taking it to the south of France. This method has included the C.O.R. – short for Conocimiento, Organización y Rendimiento – a working model developed for many years and fine-tuned over time. “C.O.R. was based on an idea by Raul Peláez”, explains Albert Valentin “with whom we worked at Barcelona and Espanyol prior to that.”

“C.O.R. was essentially developed because when Andoni and I arrived at Barcelona we realised that the Blaugrana sporting model was clear and well known to everyone, but was not integrated into the club. It was in the people, but not in the club’s organisational processes. C.O.R. tried to change things, creating a single box of knowledge where everyone could contribute with their own expertise and access the expertise of others, a total knowledge-sharing process which became part of the club and not just the people that work there. A model also able to survive and thrive after we had left”.

 

Together with other working processes, the C.O.R. was therefore also taken to the Stade Vélodrome, even if there are some understandable differences. “Two clubs are never completely the same”, explains Zubizarreta. “Barcelona, for example, has a style of play that was developed long before we arrived at the club, back in the 1950s when the Blaugrana’s ball movement revolutionised the more physical game of the time, and in the 1970s and 80s during the Dutch Total Football era of Johan Cruijff. This philosophy became an integral part of the club, later spreading across Spain and outside the country.”

“Olympique de Marseille has some things in common with Barcelona, but here we had to respect the past of the club which has always been competitive and dynamic, as encapsulated by its motto: “Droit au but”. While Barça’s game is based on possession, here the style is more vertical, more direct, more high-tempo. Our aim was, therefore, to consolidate this approach in the process that will take players from the youth team to the first team, making it a natural transition. However, at the end of the day, the philosophy you adopt must be one that your fans can identify with otherwise, it will be seen as an artificial product. The players and the fans must sing from the same hymn sheet.”

Watch the complete interview here!