Leaders Sport Summit 2013

The BBC’s Ben Smith provided the latest homage to Southampton FC executive chairman Nicola Cortese for his radical transformation of the club ever since Markus Liebherr’s firm bought the club in the summer of 2009. Appointed by the now late Liebherr to run the club on his behalf, the Swiss and English educated Italian banker Cortese has since helped the club through two successive promotions under Nigel Adkins and their incredible run of form this season under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who has helped players like Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert flourish. Here’s Smith:

Southampton focus on themselves, they play the same way whether they are playing Manchester United away or Hull City at home. They train that way, from the academy through to the first team. Formations are not discussed. Numbers are not used. It is about shape, structure not 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. Under Cortese, this is a slick operation where no detail is overlooked.

Smith is not the first person to remark on Cortese’s incredible influence on the club’s success. The Daily Mail ran a widely circulated article on Cortese’s approach at the club in late November:

The attention to detail is frightening. At Cortese’s insistence, every club car has just been fitted with winter tyres in anticipation of the chilly spell.

There is a modern-day corporate culture, with staff encouraged to mix in a break-out area and share a mid-morning coffee rather than sit at their desks and spill it all over their Macs.

On each desktop screen the club’s forthcoming fixtures are displayed, a reminder that every member of staff shares the same vision. Southampton’s players are thriving here.

What was interesting from that piece was the Mail’s attempt to portray Cortese as some sort of eccentric madman. Birthday cards for the players’ wives?! Daily fitness exams for the players!? It sounds CRAZY, but it WORKS!

Southampton’s achievements are indeed remarkable, but we should be careful here to avoid confirmation bias in assessing Cortese’s methods as a sure-fire formula for success in the Premier League. I’m certain Cortese himself would acknowledge the influence of luck and the importance of risk mitigation in any major decision involving the team, including that to sack Nigel Adkins and hire the Espanyol manager to take his place. Despite all the plaudits, Saints have crashed to earth a bit in the last five games against some very difficult opposition.

That said however, it is very telling that practices which would be fairly routine in other areas of the sporting world are perceived as radical in English football.

If club revenues are so intimately tied with on-pitch success (particularly qualification for Europe), why would you NOT want to build the best training facilities for your players? Why would you NOT want to ensure players and staff feel welcome at the club through small but important gestures like cards and winter tires? Why would you NOT want to ensure that all levels of the club are on the same page regarding playing philosophy and tactical outlook? Why would NOT want to use your resources to ensure that each and every player acquisition is both cost-effective and appropriate for the club? Why would you NOT want to use the latest and best technology available to ensure your players don’t put themselves at risk of fatigue or injury?

Cortese is enacting these measures in a soccer culture that still firmly believes that spending as much money as possible is the only means to sustained success. And yet Southampton are a point behind Man United in the table.

If we move away from Cortese the man and look instead what he’s actually implemented at Southampton, you see something far more important: a consistent, top-down approach that involves the entire club. A sane transfer strategy which relies heavily on information-gathering and data analysis. An emphasis on ensuring players feel valued, and that they don’t overtrain and put themselves at risk. This is not about one radical chairman; this is about what should be the status quo in a league as moneyed as the Premier League.

It might soon have to be the status quo. As the culture of Financial Fair Play settles in, smaller clubs who hope to remain in the Premier League will need to consider long-term measures like these in order to overcome revenue disparity with the traditional big teams. Unable to spend beyond their means, they simply won’t have a choice. And the margins between good and bad in the Premier League will shrink even more. Bad for chairman like Cortese perhaps, but great for the rest of us.