TGG Podcast #40 - Damien Comolli: From Tou-lose to Tou-win
Written by Simon Austin — July 7, 2022
DAMIEN COMOLLI has been the Chairman of Toulouse FC since July 2020 and is one of Europe's most experienced and successful football executives.
It was during his time as a youth player and coach at Monaco that he got to know Arsene Wenger, subsequently following the legendary French manager to Arsenal. In his role as European scout Comolli helped the North London club discover stellar talents such as Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué and Gaël Clichy.
The 49-year-old went on to become a pioneer of the Director of Football role in England, holding the position at Tottenham and Liverpool as well as at Saint-Etienne and Fenerbahce. As the current Chairman and Sporting Director of Toulouse FC, he has masterminded a renaissance both on and off the pitch and a return to Ligue 1.
Speaking on Episode #40 of the Training Ground Guru Podcast, Comolli told us about the strategies he has employed at Toulouse and how they were honed during three decades in football.
You can listen via the Player below and read an edited transcript after that.
REDBIRD'S CRITERIA FOR A CLUB
Damien Comolli: RedBird had analysed 70 clubs and visited 50 over three years. One of them was Toulouse. I left Fenerbahce (in January 2020) and they wanted my input about the European football market, because I had been friends with someone at RedBird for many years.
Gerry Cardinale, the Managing Partner, and Alec Sheiner, who is in charge of the sporting side, defined four criteria to pick a club.
One was to be in a very dynamic city, both economically and demographically, and Toulouse is the third youngest city in Europe. They also wanted a club with a good stadium, a good Academy and a local partner that was reliable and that they could work with.
Toulouse fits exactly the four criteria that were defined - and it was for sale with no debt. (RedBird Capital Partners, a private investment company, bought Toulouse FC in July 2020).
We have a CEO, Olivier Jaubert, who does all of the commercial and business aspect, and I am the Chairman and also run the football side with a strategy committee - our Head of Strategy (Selinay Gurgenc), Head of Data (Julien Demeaux) and Head of Recruitment (Brendan MacFarlane) - and we make most of the decisions together, along with the owners when it comes to the big decisions.
Toulouse is owned by RedBird FC, who also own the Rajasthan Royals and Zelus Analytics. Their involvement in Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group, is with RedBird Capital.
IDENTITY AND CULTURE
I was born about 100 miles from here, so I know the culture of the region very well. But I wanted to understand the football culture of the city and region.
So when we came in we did a lot of work on the Toulouse FC identity, culture and DNA. What did people want to see? What were the fans expecting? What was the style of play?
I met everyone involved with the club - coaches, playing staff, the mayor, the previous owner, the fan groups - and realised that the relationship between the city and football club was disjointed. There was no communication, no relationship.
Our campus, with the Academy, women’s team, men’s team and stadium, is on an island in the middle of a river, the Garonne. There are four bridges that connect the campus to the city and I kept saying, as an analogy, ‘These bridges have collapsed and we need to rebuild them, with communication, engagement, a different playing style and ambition.’
Toulouse is the second biggest city in France in terms of University students, so we got the eight biggest student unions and asked, ‘What do you want us to do for you to come to the stadium?’
I meet the fans groups four to six times a year formally and we have a lot of discussions informally too.
We conducted 16 one-on-one interviews with different stakeholders, for about two hours each, and met the whole staff and asked them, ‘What does Toulouse FC mean to you?’
Then, with our Head of Strategy, we spent days analysing this content, from 32 hours’ of interviews, plus all the content from about 200 people working at the club. We wanted to create the culture from the bottom up.
Because the club had been struggling for so many years, some of the stuff that came back was really harsh. They said ‘Tou-lose FC’. They said, ‘We don’t have a playing style, vision, structure or the right people in the right places.’
They wanted to create a high-performance culture based on excellence and to go from Tou-lose to Tou-win; to develop the fanbase of tomorrow; to have a club with a vision; and to have a clear playing style in the first team that is taken from what the Academy is doing, because the Academy had actually been successful for many years.
Slowly but surely we turned the culture around. We are probably at 60, 70% now, but as our Head of Strategy says, we need to be on top of it all the time and constantly fight to make sure the old culture doesn’t come back.
We have two player liaison officers and I always tell them, ‘When a new recruit comes in, he needs to understand the culture and what Toulouse FC is about as soon as he steps into your car.’
Even the part-time people working in hospitality or on the turnstiles need to be ingrained with our culture. It’s the same with the players, so we do some very thorough research on them and their families and background.
I couldn’t see myself managing this club without starting with culture.
STYLE OF PLAY
I had never been in a situation before where I’d had to build a team to win promotion. So I approached this being very humble and trying to understand what had gone before and why teams get promoted.
What we found was that over the last 16 seasons - so 32 automatic promotions - only once had the best defence got promoted. It was consistently the first and second best offence that did.
This actually fitted well with what had come back in our stakeholder interviews, because this is an area in the south of France where people want to see attacking teams.
It’s in my DNA as well, because I worked for so many years with Arsene Wenger. I can’t even think about being Chairman of a club that doesn’t play football and attack.
Our playing style goes all the way from the Under-7s through to the first team. We all build up the same way, we press the same, we keep the ball the same way - there is total alignment.
We match recruitment and culture and playing style, it is very holistic for me. The way we manage the club here is that we control the recruitment, the owners and myself and the senior management.
When we hired our current Head Coach (Philippe Montanier) last summer he said, ‘How does it work? I’m not going to have a say.’ I said, ‘Look, first of all we will tell you the players before they come. Secondly, this is what we want to implement as a playing style, so we are going to bring players in who perfectly fit the style we expect you to implement.
‘The reason we are appointing you is because the data is telling us that the playing style you have been using over the years matches what we want to achieve.’
DATA INFLUENCES EVERYTHING
Alec Sheiner, who is in charge of the sporting side of the RedBird Capital Partners, was over recently and said, 'You guys have built an incredible culture at the club in a very short period of time.'
I said, 'We are at the same time extremely data-driven.' He said, 'Then you have the perfect balance.'
I think both can work easily together. Part of our culture is the use of data, we don’t hide from it. Data defines our playing style and our playing style defines our culture. It’s a full circle and it works.
Luke (Bornn) created Zelus Analytics with his business partner and RedBird Capital Partners purchased 50% of the company, so they are within the family of RedBird. We buy raw data from three different providers and have our own algorithm and website where we can analyse players.
I think Zelus have eight or nine analysts based in the US, PhDs, who work only on Toulouse. Then we have a Head of Data here who links with Zelus and the rest of us at the club.
They talk on a weekly basis, so it’s very easy. They look at projects too. At the moment we are working, with data, on how do we improve our throw ins. Data helped us to define our strategy on set plays.
We also use data to analyse our own players, the opposition, identifying the head coach, contract management and recruitment. If we see a player who is a great opportunity we will go for him almost regardless. The starting point, the model, is massively focused on offence, so we give a lot more weight to offence.
The model helps us fine tune our playing style and be even more precise in what we want to achieve. Last season we scored 35% of our goals on set plays, which is very high.
Our Head of Strategy and Head of Data have spent many hours since September 2021 thinking how we need to prepare if we go up. We use data a lot on optimising our resources in terms of transfer fees and wage bill.
Next season we are probably going to be the 15th/ 16th wage bill out of 20 teams in Ligue 1 and there will be four relegations. We say we can lose, but not because we aren’t prepared.
ALIGNING COACHING AND ANALYTICS
Our Head of Data links up with the coaching staff on a daily basis and also with the Head of Analysis. The Head of Data and the Head of Analysis, we often say they are one. It is not two people.
Therefore when we work on set plays we mix the data and video and get the coaches and players in as well. Then there is a full alignment.
Pre-season in 2021 we said we need to be more precise and efficient in the way we communicate information to the coaching staff, because we didn’t feel we had done a good job of it the previous season or got feedback from the coaching staff.
The Head of Data looked at the last 34 teams that had been promoted and came up with 10 KPIs that would enable us to win promotion.
We looked at that after every game in the post-match report. Then at every international break we got together with coaching staff and showed them where we were. Of those 10 KPIs we beat all the 34 previous promoted teams on all but one - goal opportunities for the opposition on counter attacks.
The best teams, like Manchester City, do that fantastically. For that KPI we were 18th. Luckily it was the least decisive KPI, but our Head Coach said it was not acceptable and we went from 18th to 8th by the end of the season.
DEVELOPING THE LEADERS OF TOMORROW
In my first press conference as Tottenham Technical Director (in 2005), they said, 'In England it doesn’t work.' I remember saying, 'In 15 years every club will have a Director of Football.'
On Linkedin I get constant requests from people in League One, League Two, saying, 'I am a Sporting Director, can we connect.'
I remember I was part of a working group on youth development as a representative of the Premier League and Howard Wilkinson was chairing the group. He said, ‘Everyone says Director of Football doesn’t work. I was working with one at Notts County in 1978!’
There are top clubs on the Continent where the manager will say, 'I need a right back' and they say, 'Here is the right back.'
Sometimes the manager has the last say, sometimes the club will not allow that to happen. It depends on the culture of the club, the country, so many different things. I respect every culture.
(Tottenham Chairman) Daniel (Levy) was very clear in how he wanted the club to be structured and has been very consistent through the years. Now Fabio (Paratici) is Tottenham's Managing Director of Football, which is an even more prestigious title than I had and gives him even more weight in the football club.
The Sporting Director is the safeguard of the culture and alignment and is there for the long term. The manager needs to win every game. So it’s two different roles.
At Tottenham I was under strict instructions to sign only players who were under 24, 25, and to get into the Champions League. And people kept saying, ‘He’s not ready’ when we signed players. But you can’t be young and ready at the same time, unless you’re Messi or Ronaldo!
You have to wait for them and be patient. In two, three, four years we think he is going to be world class. Coming back to Jordan Henderson at Liverpool, it was exactly this.
In the NFL they talk about a Head Coach coaching tree. I have always felt that part of my role is to grow leaders. If I didn’t create an environment for the leaders of tomorrow to grow, I would be a failure. I always try to appoint people who are much brighter than me and I want them to grow.
I also need to give back to the industry, to football. The experiences I have, I want everyone to know about them. And I have worked with Stuart Webber, Steve Hitchen, Michael Edwards, Riccardo Pecini at Spezia, who have all gone on to have senior roles.
It is fantastic what Liverpool have achieved. At one point they had perfect alignment between Michael Gordon, Michael Edwards and Jurgen Klopp, which has created that success.
I don’t know the person who is taking over from Michael (Julian Ward), but they still have Michael Gordon, who is key in what they do from FSG on the day-to-day running of the club. And they still have Jurgen.
So there is no reason why the person they picked to replace Michael cannot step up into that environment.