How do Liverpool replace a manager like Jurgen Klopp? Football search firms help top clubs recruit

Jurgen Klopp’s impending departure from Liverpool puts the Reds in a position of great risk.

Having spent eight and a half years at the Premier League giants and returned Liverpool back to their former glory with stars and silverware, Klopp’s exit will put extreme importance on the hiring process of his replacement. If the club swings and misses here, they risk dismantling much of the glorious work Klopp has accomplished.

So, how exactly do you go about replacing a manager like that?

Like many clubs in this position, Liverpool may hire a search firm to help conduct the appointment process, with so many moving parts in such an undertaking. After all, it’s not just Klopp for whom they need a successor: sporting director Jorg Schmadtke is also leaving in 2024, along with Klopp’s assistant managers Pepijn Lijnders and Peter Krawietz, plus elite development coach Vitor Matos.

The Sporting News spoke with Stewart King of search firm Nolan Partners, a major player in the European and U.S. football landscape, to gain a further, more general understanding into how search processes play out.

While Nolan Partners is vastly experienced in finding sporting directors for European football clubs, having worked with nearly half the Premier League including multiple ‘Big Six’ sides. The firm also has recent forays into managerial or head coach searches in global football, so far largely in women’s football in the NWSL.

Nolan Partners has carved out a niche with clubs who feature American investors, and while their specific knowledge of the Liverpool search will be limited as they have not been hired to aid in the search for Klopp’s replacement, they have experience to lean on in similar environments.

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Liverpool manager search a rare situation

With Jurgen Klopp beloved at Liverpool, and his departure a shock to many in the world, the impending vacant space of men’s first-team manager at Anfield presents a unique and special situation.

Most often, search firms are brought in for one of two more common situations: either to replace a manager or sporting director who was fired, or find a successor to an individual who moved on to another employer.

“There’s a few different scenarios that we get brought in for,” King told The Sporting News. “One, there’s someone in the role at the moment, and [ownership] doesn’t believe it’s going in the right direction, but instead of terminating things there and then, they want us to have done as much as we can before they potentially terminate that contract to make sure we use time efficiently and we can turn things around quicker.

“Or, [the club has] already terminated someone. Or, [the club] has had the person they love poached by a bigger club, which is a very real situation for most clubs aside from one or two in the world.”

At Liverpool, Klopp informed the club of his impending departure last November, so it presents a rare chance for ownership and their hired hands to not only have time to conduct a thorough search, but cast a wide net.

“We never just put one [candidate] up. Our job is to give our clients a menu of different options,” King said. “We will agree on what we call the ‘acid test’, which will be what we agree to be the three or four most important qualities, whether that’s technical, experience, personality… the absolute non-negotiables. Then, we’ll go and build a long list of eight to 10 profiles, which we come back and present to the owners, who fit the brief of the asset test plus consist of a variety of backgrounds, leagues, et cetera.

“So much of the skill in our job is getting to know the owners at a human level. It’s about what people are going to work together — they don’t have to be best friends and agree on everything, but what personality and skill set are going to be the right fit. For every search we do, we put a research paper together, which outlines every club and every league we believe to be broadly relevant for the particular role, and we then make a recommendation to the owners whether we think the individual at that club is someone we should approach.”

‘Are they a good human?’ Why search firm process goes beyond style and tactics

While many fans believe a search firm is retained to conduct the entire hiring process, that’s not always, or even usually, the case. Search firms are employed largely to compile information, narrow the scope, and present their findings to a club or entity without themselves putting one individual candidate up for recommendation or hire.

“In men’s head coach recruitment, agents play a very active role, plus the bigger the club, the higher profile the manager — they don’t necessarily need us to tell them who the good managers are, and they’ve all got their own data and performance analysts,” King said. “For a sporting director, there’s so many other elements to that job beyond first-team success: you’ve got player trading, academy, youth development, how the medical team performed, culture, did they work with the owners well, do they understand budget and forecasting?

“Our role on head coach appointments has become more to manage the people element. We’re not analysts, and either they’ll have departments internally or there are other agencies that do tactical deep dives — that’s not us. How we’re used is to manage the process, to give the club a degree of separation from agents and the markets, and it’s very easy for us to take reference on the character of the individuals involved: speak to coaches, sporting directors, and players who have worked with the coach to get a more rounded view on the human. Then you combine that with the work the data guys do, plus the added nuance of the contract negotiations.”

Search firms, ultimately, do not make the final call. While they may narrow down candidates for presenting to the club, and then make recommendations on the viability or concerns of specific candidates, they are not employed to make decisions. Instead, their job is to provide information as experts in relationships, candidacy, and the intricacies of the role in question.

“What people don’t realise is the amount of methodology and research that gets it over the line, and ultimately it’s the owner and club who makes the call,” King said. “There are times where it works where we don’t get much credit and times it doesn’t where we don’t get the blame, but genuinely our job is to provide a menu of options, and do the due diligence on individuals — the referencing, the background, getting to know individuals and any small red flag where the owners need to know.”

While a manager’s ability to, well, manage is obviously important, search firms are often more heavily involved in how well the potential hire would mesh with his employers on a personal level. Their ability to identify markers in a candidate’s personality and situation is a huge part of their involvement, whereas the public availability of a manager’s on-field performance renders the firm less necessary in that space.

“Something that’s important to us and our clients is the integrity of the candidate,” King said, highlighting the importance of this aspect in identifying quality sporting directors as well as managers. “Are they a good human being? It’s an industry that sometimes gets a bad reputation for some salubrious personalities. Emotional intelligence is fundamental — you’re connecting the owners and business side of a club with the training ground, so finding people that are fluent both in a board room with owners and a training ground with players and coach is the sweet spot.”

Liverpool will be well positioned for Klopp succession

While the news around Klopp’s shock departure surprised many when announced in January 2024, in truth, Liverpool have had plenty of time to prepare. Klopp said he informed the club last November of his plans to step down, and they more than likely kicked the tires on this possibility even before.

Since Manchester United largely bungled the succession of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, resources have begun to flow in clubs making succession plans for coaches they believe could depart in the near future, or those whose departure would be significantly damaging to the team and put the club under stress to nail the ensuing hire.

“Often, clubs say: ‘Let’s not wait until that happens. We want you to show us the best talent in the world and connect us with that talent.’ Even if we’re not recruiting for a role, let’s start building the relationship and get to know them as people, because in an interview situation you only see the best side of someone, so let’s build a relationship with a handful of candidates over a period of six to 12 months so when we are ready we don’t just know these people as names, without those people feeling like they’re interviewing for a job.”

King identified Brighton & Hove Albion as a club who have put themselves in a position of strength to replace those who depart for bigger institutions due to their success at the Amex.

“That is an example of a club that has lost sporting directors, coaches… but their business is future proof where they’ve got their pipeline, they’ve got the individuals.”

King points out the rise of David Weir at Brighton, a former player who transitioned into an executive role first as loans manager before eventually working his way up to Technical Director, overseeing all football operations at the club.

“They knew their sporting director was in high demand, so they gave [Weir] a period of time to transition. You’ve seen with the [former head coach] Graham Potter departure and them bringing in Roberto De Zerbi: that doesn’t happen by accident, that’s just solid business planning, which would happen in most other industries but football hasn’t been the best in that regard.”

While it sounds like a no-brainer to be constantly thinking about the future, when you’re inside a bubble where there’s heightened attention on the immediate, it isn’t always the easiest thing to look that far ahead and discuss possibilities many could view as farfetched.

“Sometimes those conversations can be a bit uncomfortable,” King notes, “because you’ve got a big personality and much-loved coach in the building already. But we all know this is a crazy world that moves quickly and things change overnight, so my understanding now is a lot of clubs in England are much better now at succession planning.”

As one of the world’s biggest clubs with vast resources, Liverpool will no doubt have had these discussions already and be primed to approach this period of uncertainty having prepared for this possible outcome.

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