1. Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig)
Rangnick appears to get better the further he moves up the footballing hierarchy. He was a journeyman player, regularly moving around Germany’s lower leagues, but achieved greater renown as a manager, winning promotions at various levels and taking Schalke to second place in the Bundesliga and Champions League semi-finals over two separate spells.
In 2012 he left coaching for the sporting director role with Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig where, fuelled by the concepts he had worked on as a coach, he was able to institute a wider strategy built on his tactical expertise. These ideals included exciting, offensive football, high pressing and quick transitions.
Rangnick has made excellent coaching appointments, such as Roger Schmidt at Salzburg and more recently Ralph Hasenhuttl at Leipzig, and has prioritised signing players of a specific age profile to suit his clubs’ long-term aims. “We [are] only interested in players aged between 17 and 23,” he told The Blizzard in 2015. There are certainly some noteworthy names among his list of signings, including Sadio Mane, Joshua Kimmich and Naby Keita.
2. Marcel Brands (PSV)
There doesn’t appear to be anything scientific about Marcel Brands’ philosophy, but he 's enjoyed success wherever he's been. As RKC Waalwijk’s director of football he brought in Martin Jol and the club rose to mid-table in the Eredivisie, while at AZ he signed quality youngsters in Sergio Romero, Ragnar Klavan and Mousa Dembele to guide them to the title in 2009.
Brands’ time with PSV has been up and down. Arriving in 2010, his first few years were deeply underwhelming, with a lack of clarity over his strategy. Initially set on buying up domestic stars, the club were nonetheless unable to overthrow Ajax.
But after hiring the respected Art Lengeler as head of youth development and tweaking the club's transfer policy, Brands armed manager Phillip Cocu with a hungry squad capable of winning PSV’s first Dutch title in seven years in 2015. He followed that up by wisely reinvesting the proceeds from Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay’s sales to enable the Eindhoven-based outfit to retain the championship.
3. Giuseppe Marotta (Juventus)
The role of sporting director is absolutely fundamental within Italian football, and there's a strong argument to be made that Giuseppe Marotta is the best of an astute bunch. After positive spells with Atalanta and Sampdoria, he was hired in 2010 by a Juventus still feeling the aftershocks from Calciopoli. The results since have been exceptional.
The Bianconeri won five successive scudetti between 2011 and 2016, and are on course for a record-breaking sixth in a row this term. Much of this has to do with Marotta’s negotiation skills and bold appointments: it was his call to bring in Antonio Conte in 2011 – something that was seen as risky at the time due to the manager’s lack of top-level coaching experience – and replace him with Max Allegri three years later.
Marotta’s transfer policy has been punctuated by signing up quality, undervalued players. Andrea Pirlo, Sami Khedira and Paul Pogba were highly profitable free transfers, while Carlos Tevez, Patrice Evra, Andrea Barzagli and Arturo Vidal all joined for a remarkably low combined cost of under €22 million. These deals not only enabled Juventus to dominate domestically, but also to compete with the continental elite without being financially reckless.
4. Monchi (Sevilla)
Sevilla’s greatest period of achievement could easily be titled ‘the Monchi era’, such is the impact that the 48-year-old has made since taking on the role of director of football in 2000. Appointed at a time of great financial uncertainty following the club’s relegation, his judgement helped guide the Rojiblancos to five Europa Leagues, one European Super Cup and a Spanish Cup.
Having graduated from Sevilla’s youth system as a player, the academy has been core to Monchi’s plan. Under his auspices, a vast array of talent has been developed and broken into the first team before leaving for substantial fees, including Sergio Ramos, Alberto Moreno, Jesus Navas and Jose Antonio Reyes.
He's also expanded the club’s scouting network, with Sevilla's transfer policy not only adding value through the resuscitation of careers – as was the case with Ever Banega, Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute – but also bringing huge profits through the buying and selling of stars like Dani Alves, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Ivan Rakitic, Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro. Simply put, there's no production line quite like the one Monchi's built with Sevilla over the last 16 years.
5. Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City)
When a football club opts for a specific philosophy, it’s always helpful to involve someone with first-hand experience of the modus operandi in question. This is what Txiki Begiristain brings to the table as director of football, a role he has occupied at both Barcelona and Manchester City.
Begiristain was a key member of Johan Cruyff’s 'Dream Team' at the Camp Nou, and so he has a good understanding of the ingredients required for fluid and attack-minded football. This idealistic clarity comes with the bonus of valuable connections; he played alongside Pep Guardiola and had a hand in his appointment as Barcelona coach in 2008, as well as being influential in his decision to join City last summer. “It was so important to me that Txiki was here [at City],” Guardiola admitted. “Txiki convinced me about the club… that’s why I decided to come.”
At Barcelona, Begiristain helped to build a dynasty, bringing in a number of iconic players such as Dani Alves, Eric Abidal and Gerard Pique. He has the long-term in mind at City, too: the former winger has expanded the club’s scouting network and focused on the identification of talented youngsters both locally and from abroad.
However, one criticism of Begiristain is that his first-team recruitment with City has been inconsistent – several of his more expensive additions, including Eliaquim Mangala (£32 million) and Wilfried Bony (£25 million), have not worked out.
6. Les Reed (Southampton)
Southampton’s decision to replace Nigel Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino in January 2013 was questioned by fans and pundits. Adkins had led the club to consecutive promotions and, at the time of his dismissal, his side were three points above the Premier League’s relegation zone. The change appeared senseless to outsiders, but it was all part of the plan for Les Reed.
Since joining Saints as director of football in 2010, one of Reed’s main priorities has been establishing a managerial succession plan. “We put so much effort into tracking and profiling players all over Europe but never do it with coaches and managers,” he told the Daily Telegraph last year. “So we built up a database of potential bosses.”
Reed’s managerial planning has not only led to improved results, but also philosophical continuity. Pochettino was succeeded by Ronald Koeman and then Claude Puel, all of whom bought into a progressive style of play. Having a clear identity has also helped the club overcome constant player turnover, with Reed overseeing the introduction of a ‘Black Box’ room that allows for the analysis of academy players and potential signings to replace those who inevitably leave.
7. Michael Zorc (Borussia Dortmund)
Zorc captained and scored frequently for Dortmund before becoming their sporting director upon his retirement from playing in 1998. He would go on to become a key part of the club’s rejuvenation following near financial collapse in the early 2000s, helping to refocus the German giants into a model of efficiency.
Youth has been at the centre of the project, as Zorc readily admits. “Our strategy is to work with highly talented players, develop them… and introduce them to the professional level,” he stated in 2008. His words have been backed up not only by the introduction of state-of-the-art facilities and dormitories at the club’s academy base, but by the progression of graduates like Mario Gotze.
And, having learned important economic lessons, Zorc has pursued a less costly transfer policy, bringing unknown youngsters such as Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Robert Lewandowski to Dortmund for relatively small fees before watching them grow into stars. More recent additions include 19-year-olds Emre Mor and Ousmane Dembele, and 20 year-old Mikel Merino, who will all hope to follow the same path as their predecessors.
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