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Damien Comolli—Soccer's Would-Be Moneyball Hero—on How It All Went Wrong

Despite a history of signing the EPL's best players, Comolli is stuck in employment limbo.
September 12, 2014, 12:45pm
Photo via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For the past year, former Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli has visited and spoken with executives from a variety of sports in the elusive quest to find the formula for building a successful sports franchise. How much Comolli learns from these talks may very well determine if he'll land another job, or better yet, whether he'll be allowed to keep the job once he gets it.

Despite being a proven talent evaluator—he was responsible for bringing in Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, the past two English Professional Footballers' Association players of the year, to the English Premier League—Comolli's spells as director of football at both Liverpool and at Tottenham Spurs have ended with him being accused of failing to work well with the higher ups. And while he's consulted for several English teams recently, Comolli has not had a full time job in football since he was fired from Liverpool in 2012.

Fairly or unfairly, Comolli has been branded in England as being difficult to work with. Yet Comolli is anxious to be given another opportunity to run a football club, and he would prefer if that next job were in England, where he sees a huge opportunity for growth, even if it's the place where some see him as an outcast.

"For me, England is the country of football," Comolli said in a phone interview from Nice, France. "Made me laugh before and during the World Cup that people were saying that football was going back to its roots and that Brazil is the country of football. But it's in England where the fans are the most passionate. "

But that passion also brings consequences. For Comolli it meant that both fans and the English press have at times evaluated him harshly. And llthough affable, Comolli's self confidence may have been interpreted as arrogance by some at his previous clubs. He has been called overrated, meddlesome, and been accused of trying to take too much credit for some of his previous team's signings.

But the undeniable fact remains that Comolli's signings have earned his former clubs huge profits. At Spurs, Comolli bought Bale and Luka Modric for a combined $38 million. They were sold separately to Real Madrid later on for a combined $177 million. Suarez's $122 million transfer move to Barcelona earned Liverpool a cool $85 million profit from their original investment.

Also, both Liverpool and Tottenham, using several players Comolli recruited, earned UEFA Champions League bids shortly after his departure. Last season, Liverpool competed for its first ever Premier League title. They finished second to Manchester City.

"There's one thing I try to remind people," Comolli said. "Very often, in jobs I've had, I've been asked to find good young players that would develop into stars. But I always say the problem with that is that people want young players, but they want them to be ready at the same time. It doesn't work like this. If my directive is to sign young players, I will sign young talented players because I know how to recognize them and recognize their talents, but at the same time you can't say after six months or eight months 'Oh by the way, he's not ready.' Well of course he's not ready because he's young.

"I've been proved right at Spurs the same way. When I left Spurs people were saying Bale is never going to make it, Modric is never going to make it, (Younes) Kaboul is not good enough. There was always something. And I've been saying to people, 'They are young players, they are extremely talented, they've got very strong personality, the right character, and they will be successful.' And at Liverpool it was exactly the same."

For that reason, Comolli said he's learned, from both his previous jobs and from his recent chats with other sports executives, that he must do a better job of relaying his plans to his prospective bosses. So while Comolli said he isn't aware of what his reputation might be in England, he's taken steps to at least change any negative perceptions people may have of him.

"It's so crucial knowing how to manage upward in sports," Comolli said. "The relationship with the owners, the relationship with the team president or chairman, I think that's the challenge for everyone who comes from the high performance world: to be able to build relationships upward, build trust, build the right culture, which will include the culture of the owners, that's a massive challenge. And looking back at my time at Liverpool it's something that I would definitely approach differently in my next job."

He added: "At Liverpool I was a Frenchman working at an English club with American owners. I think it's something that I've learned is the communication between myself and the ownership is absolutely crucial. And there were things that I felt the owners understood what we were doing, but they didn't. And I felt I was understanding what the owners wanted, and I wasn't. This relationship with the ownership group, and why I call it managing upwards, is absolutely crucial and that's something I will definitely try to change at my new job."

At the time of Comolli's hiring in November 2010, the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Boston Red Sox, had recently purchased Liverpool for nearly $500 million. The team's new principal owner was John Henry, who had used analytics to make his fortune in commodities trading.

Henry appointed the statistically minded Theo Epstein to run the Red Sox soon after Henry purchased the team in 2002, and the belief was that he would hire a similar executive to run Liverpool. Henry consulted with Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who recommended his friend Comolli.

Beane and Comolli—who had worked at Arsenal as a scout prior to being appointed technical director of the French team AS Saint-Etienne—had met because the latter was a big fan of the book "Moneyball" and wanted to learn more about using statistics in sports.

Comolli and the new look Liverpool, who were going to implement Moneyball in soccer, seemed like a perfect match. In short time, Comolli set up an analytics department and began the process of revamping the team's academy and science and medicine departments.

But Comolli was fired two days prior to the team appearing in 2012 FA Cup semi-finals.

"I was surprised because I've never been told why I was dismissed," Comolli said. "To this day, I don't know. I was shocked at the time and I'm surprised now."

Henry did not return several requests for comment.

Comolli's year-and-a-half stint at Liverpool was marked with successes like the signings of Suarez and Jordan Henderson—who has proven to be one of the team's best players—but it's also tainted by the flop signings of Andy Carroll ($57 million) and Stewart Downing ($33 million). In all, Liverpool and Comolli spent more than $170 million during the January 2011 transfer window.

Carroll, who at the time of his signing for the Reds had earned Newcastle United the most expensive transfer fee ever given for a British footballer, scored just 11 goals in 58 appearances for Liverpool and was eventually sold to West Ham United for $28 million in 2013.

"They were involved in every signing we made so they knew the thinking behind it, they were part of it, they were supportive," Comolli said of the Fenway Sports Group. "They knew why we made those choices, what other options we had on the table. For me it was always a collective decision. They were involved in every transfer we did."

Comolli said several English teams have approached him about a full time job, but he said he's being picky at the moment waiting for that right opportunity, whether it is at a big club who want to spend a lot of money, or whether it's at a small club that wants to build with young players. The most important thing for Comolli is that he establishes a good working relationship with whatever ownership group he chooses to work with. He wants a clear mandate.

"Again it comes back to communication with ownership," Comolli said. "If people are telling me that they want players that are ready now that will have an impact, then you can not give me a brief saying 'We want to buy young players.'"

For the moment Comolli is content to keep consulting and further his analytic work while parsing through possible jobs. Recently, he said he's helped develop a program that will help teams appoint a manager based on the best tactical fit. Also, his research into medical science has taken him into injury recovery and player sleeping patterns. He believes all this work will help make his next stop a success.

"I've been very anxious for quite awhile," Comolli said about running a football team again. "The day I left Liverpool I was ready to start somewhere new."