Marcel Brands and Michael Edwards: The two men at the heart of Merseyside football

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  • When Everton host Liverpool on Saturday it will be exactly 10 years to the day since they last beat their neighbours in the Premier League.

    To give some context of just how much time has passed since then, Mikel Arteta scored in that 2-0 victory. The Spaniard hadn’t even joined Arsenal yet, nevermind become their head coach.

    In that time, a chasm has emerged. Everton have barely been visible to their rivals, neighbours in location, but miles apart in their journeys.

    Yet the recruitment at Goodison Park, both on and off the pitch, has bridged the gap. In past derbies, Everton have been gripped by fear, however, now it will be the Premier League champions who wander across Stanley Park with trepidation.

    There is a feel-good factor about Everton that something great is being built, and they, like Liverpool owe much to the work done by their head of recruitment.

    Marcel Brands is Everton’s Director of Football and Michael Edwards is Liverpool’s Sporting Director, but who are they, what have they done, and where are they taking their clubs?

    Michael Edwards, Sporting Director  

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    The Athletic’s James Pearce has been covering Liverpool for the best part of a decade and is arguably the most significant media figure when it comes to the club.

    He’s met Michael Edwards once. Edwards has been at Liverpool since 2011 after the Red’s former director of football Damien Comolli prised him from Tottenham. Prior to that he had started out as a performance analyst at Portsmouth when Harry Redknapp was in charge and he took Edwards to Spurs with him.

    And that is not far off everything we know about him. Unlike other sporting directors, Edwards keeps an exceptionally low profile.

    Pearce’s single interaction with him was in 2016 when he was promoted to sporting director having previously served as the club’s head of performance and analysis, director of technical performance and technical director.

    “It’s amazing to think that someone who has played such a huge role in putting Liverpool back at the pinnacle of English football could essentially walk through the streets of Liverpool relatively unnoticed,” Pearce says.

    Perhaps the most telling photo that exists of Edwards is during Liverpool’s Champions League celebrations last year. On the outskirts of the trophy lift, Edwards can be seen taking a picture of the jubilant squad, which is what you could imagine Michelangelo doing with his sculptures had camera phones been around in the 16th century.

    It’s always been about the players, rather himself and his low profile means we can only really judge him on his results. In that respect he’s got a lot more right than wrong.

    There are two epochs to Edwards’ Liverpool career; before Brendan Rodgers and after Brendan Rodgers. From 2012-15 the words ‘transfer committee’ were as synonymous with the club as You’ll Never Walk Alone, which ironically is exactly what Rodgers wanted to do when it came to Liverpool’s recruitment.

    As a member of the committee, Edwards endured a challenging period with Rodgers rubbing against the collective input. Liverpool were not able to compete for the top-tier talents, infamously missing out on the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Willian, Memphis Depay and Mohamed Salah when he moved to Chelsea.

    They were forced to take risks on players like Lazar Markovic who Pearce labels “the worst signing in Liverpool’s history pound-for-pound”. Iago Aspas and Mario Balotelli were other failed transfers resulting from the fractured recruitment structure.

    Probably the best example was in Rodgers’ last summer.

    “There was almost this strange trade-off where he [Rodgers] was able to go and sign Christian Benteke and trigger that release clause for £32.5million as long as he took on Roberto Firmino, who Rodgers didn’t particularly fancy from the off,” Pearce explains. “That’s not a great position to be in and that absolutely wouldn’t happen now.”

    Indeed, it’s difficult to comprehend how muddled Liverpool’s recruitment actually was given the transfer success rate Edwards has achieved since transforming the club alongside Jurgen Klopp, a manager well versed in the more holistic approach at Borussia Dortmund.

    “We know Rodgers had issues with the make-up of the transfer committee and he very much saw that as a threat to his authority and didn’t like the fact that certain options were almost thrust upon him,” Pearce says.

    “The difference with Klopp is that he’s always embraced having that input. The reality is, the transfer window hasn’t changed that much at Liverpool.

    “It’s more that Klopp has really welcomed that collaborative approach, safe in the knowledge that he will always have the first and last word.”

    Together with Fenway Sports Group (FSG) president Mike Gordon they have reshaped Liverpool’s playing squad transfer by transfer, each one as good as the last.

    Of the 20 major signings Edwards has acquired with Klopp at the club, only Loris Karius can be deemed a complete failure. Sadio Mane, Salah, Joel Matip, Georginio Wijnaldum, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson have been unquestionable transfer triumphs. And the list is growing.

    Granted, the wage bill has swelled to place Liverpool among the biggest payers in the world, but it’s not been an Icarus-style plot of reaching too high, too soon.

    The bill has risen in tandem with the success on the pitch as players are incentivised and rewarded for their exploits. Much of the incomings have actually been massively assisted by the remarkable deals done in terms of outgoings.

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    Pearce says: “If you say Edwards has bought well, you’d have to say he’s probably sold even better when you look at [Philippe] Coutinho, Jordon Ibe, Brad Smith, Danny Ward, Benteke, [Mamadou] Sakho, [Dominic] Solanke.

    “Even this summer with Rhian Brewster and Ki-Jana Hoever. People will say it’s not great losing two talented young players, but you’re talking about a combined total of £37m for two players who haven’t played a minute of Premier League football for Liverpool.”

    He’s right. Whether it’s incomings or outgoings, Liverpool have rarely come out on the losing side, achieving an enviable blend of buying low and selling high.

    Naturally, a lot of that success comes down to Edwards’ negotiation skills.

    “I think when you speak to people who have dealt with him they say that, yes he can be friendly and personable but when it comes down to business, he is pretty ruthless,” Pearce says.

    Liverpool’s dealings in the recent summer window showcased Edwards at his best. The coronavirus pandemic has cratored their finances with early reports suggesting it’s cost Liverpool upwards of £100m in lost revenue.

    Edwards was forced to be creative to capture necessary additions like Thiago and Diogo Jota.

    “He knew that Liverpool’s position with Thiago was very, very strong,” Pearce explains.

    “The player was desperate to come to Liverpool, he’s already made his mind up and despite Bayern’s best efforts, they couldn’t create a market because anyone who contacted Thiago’s people was told he has his heart set on Liverpool.

    “Of course as we ticked further and further down toward the deadline, Bayern didn’t want it overshadowing the start of the Bundesliga season.

    “So bang, all of a sudden you’ve got Thiago for £20m when you’re only having to pay a quarter of that upfront so that then solves Liverpool’s problem in terms of the cash flow issues.”

    Jota is another deal with Edwards’ stamp on it. The headline figures point to a £41m switch from Wolves which could rise to £45m with add-ons. On the surface, that’s a massive figure especially in the current climate, but Edwards was able to negotiate for just 10 per cent of that price to be paid over the next 12 months.

    With Hoever moving in the opposite direction, much of that first payment would be offset by his sale anyway.

    Hoever and Brewster have brought something else into sharper focus, though. Edwards is revered for the work he has done with the senior side and the success on the pitch can be traced back to his acumen off it.

    But the role of a sporting director is all encompassing and his responsibilities carry equal weight at academy level. How do we assess his imprint there?

    “It’s a real balancing act between those big-money deals and ensuring you’ve got a team challenging for the biggest trophies, but the academy is absolutely key,” Pearce says.

    “Yes the target is always to bring through players to the first team, but it’s also part of the business.

    “There was a pretty barren spell for a period, but it’s absolutely vibrant again now.

    “Someone like Brewster, they paid £250,000 for him five years ago and now he’s just gone for £23m .

    “Even Hoever, they paid £90,000 for him and two years on he’s gone for £13m. Of course there’s a pang of regret in terms of them playing in the first team, but from the business side, you can’t fault it.”

    Liverpool have found their sweet spot. They are forward-thinkers and marginal gainers, using the latest data and analytics software, coaching and nutrition mechanisms, psychology and physiology techniques to ensure they remain ahead of the curve.

    Edwards has played a significant part in engineering the club’s current peak, ending a 30-year wait for a Premier League title and adding a sixth European Cup. A new challenge is on the horizon, though, as the next cycle approaches.

    “It’s going to be one of the most intriguing things for me, how they handle that dynamic, him and Klopp together, because it will be the two of them spearheading it,” Pearce says.

    “I think certainly from Klopp’s perspective, he’s never really had that challenge anywhere of building a second great team and having a team where the key players have grown older together.

    “I think the fact he’s signed up until 2024 means he will have to get to that point where he is moving on players who have been incredibly important to the glory he has overseen at Liverpool.

    “You wouldn’t want a situation where Salah, Mane, Firmino are all reaching 32-33 at the same time together. You’re gonna have to regenerate as you go.

    “It’s not a concern for this season, and probably next season as well, but after that it’s going to be interesting.”

    For now, Edwards’ legacy is secure. He is the man who helped create and build the team that finally placed Liverpool back at the summit of English football.

    But what about his opposite number who heads up the current Premier League leaders?

    Marcel Brands, Director of Football

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    Brands has spent most of his career convincing others.

    Whether it was in persuading Martin Jol to become RKC Waalwijk boss, Louis van Gaal to stay on at AZ Alkmaar after a disappointing season or that players from Real Madrid and Barcelona should leave the Spanish giants.

    It’s no surprise then that he’s been working hard to convince Everton supporters he is the right man to launch the club forward. But as has been the case for his entire career, they are being won over.

    The Dutchman arrived at Goodison Park in the summer of 2018 having built quite the reputation as ‘The Architect’. He was known for his overachievements, first at lowly-financed RKC who came within touching distance of European football during his tenure as Director of Football (1998-2005), and then at AZ (2005-10).

    With AZ, the club claimed an improbable Eredivisie title in 2008/09 as they became the first club outside the ‘Big Three’ of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord to win the Dutch top flight in 28 years. He was chosen to resurrect crumbled giants PSV in 2010 with the club in dire financial condition, and despite early struggles, engineered three domestic title triumphs in his eight-year stay.

    When he left for Everton in 2018, Brands was greeted by more rubble at his feet. Outgoing DoF Steve Walsh had virtually capsized the squad during a two-year reign, spending close to €300m on 23 players.

    Brands’ appointment was a welcome one.

    “You could understand that they [the fans] might be quite cynical after the Steve Walsh experience and the money that was wasted under his watch, although it has to be said, not just wasted by him but by [Ronald] Koeman as well,” says The Athletic’s Everton reporter Greg O’Keeffe.

    “They were a bit of a perfect storm, those two, but I think because Brands was coming from PSV and Dutch football, there were a couple of tasty boxes ticked.”

    Brands, a former midfielder, has proven effective under financial duress. His heavy emphasis on scouting – he smartly recruited Kevin Strootman, Wijnaldum and Hirving Lozano on the cheap for PSV – and youth development – Depay, Steven Bergwijn and Joshua Brenet all graduated from their academy – has formed the cornerstones of his philosophy.

    What he’s been most known for hasn’t had time to fully come to fruition at Everton just yet, and that’s development of the academy, however, from an acquisition perspective, his record has been decent. He inherited a bloated and ill-balanced squad which needed both additions and subtractions plus a wage bill which had skyrocketed.

    “There were legacies of bad decisions that have always been a bit of a mill around Brands’ neck and I think that’s been a huge challenge for him,” O’Keeffe says. “He’s outlined that at the last couple of general meetings, where he’s said the squad is bloated, the wage bill is crippling and we’re butting up against the limits of Financial Fair Play and then even the Premier League’s financial fair play rules.”

    Dislodging the high-earners has been predictably tough. Contract talks in the Walsh era effectively involved players being showered by a money gun and so bulleting them from the club has been arduous.

    Indeed, Everton are still reeling from the signings made under Walsh’s watch with well remunerated players like Cenk Tosun and Yannick Bolasie stuck at the club.

    It’s a difficult scenario because they’re undesirable assets who aren’t in a rush to leave because of the money they’re on. It does offer strong mitigation for Brands, but to the Dutchman’s credit he has managed to shift; Theo Walcott, Wayne Rooney, Davy Klaassen, Nikola Vlasic, Cuco Martina, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ashley Williams, Ademola Lookman, Maarten Stekelenburg, Henry Onyekuru and Idrissa Gueye.

    Only the last mentioned was an unqualified success.

    These were all signings made by Walsh. Gone. In fact, of the major acquisitions only Jordan Pickford, Dominvic Calvert-Lewin, Michael Keane and Glyfi Sigurdsson remain.

    The incomings have been far less straightforward to assess. Brands’ signings have been bruised by yo-yoing fortunes.

    There have been some really impressive deals like Lucas Digne. There was no real desire from Barcelona to sell back in 2018 and the player himself wasn’t anchoring for a move either.

    Yet according to The Athletic, Brands made an “incredible impression” during talks and secured the €18m capture of a left-back who has become one of Europe’s finest. He was joined that summer by Blaugrana team-mates in midfield metronome Andre Gomes, initially on loan, and towering centre-back Yerry Mina.

    Gomes has been a fine capture, but the jury is still out on the Colombia defender. Diminutive Brazilian left-winger Bernard was a smart free signing and Kurt Zouma was a brilliant loan as well.

    Of course, the headline signature was the €40m capture of Richarlison from Watford, and although there were more than a few raised eyebrows at first, the Brazil international has since raised the standards of the team.

    “Richarlison looks a bargain at £35m,” O’Keeffe says. “His success story epitomises what Brands wants at the club, hungry, determined, unafraid and ambitious players.

    “That’s how Everton will move forward and Richarlison is key to everything for me.”

    But for every Richarlison there is a Moise Kean and the calculated risks have been magnified with every error. Kean has been an enormous disappointment.

    The striker cost the club €27.5m and he arrived from Juventus on the precipice of a major breakthrough. He has failed to deliver and is now out on loan at Paris Saint-Germain.

    Jean-Philippe Gbamin is another miss, albeit not entirely through fault of his own. The unwanted sale of Gueye to PSG has brought greater pain as his replacement missed the majority of last season through injury.

    And the inconsistent Alex Iwobi is another expensive buy, costing just over €30m, who is edging toward the miss list.

    In truth, it’s easy to see why Everton fans have not been completely sold on Brands. Yet the most important transfer was to come.

    Brands’ first 18 months mirrored the fortunes of his coach Marco Silva as the aesthetically-pleasing style of play from the 2018/19 campaign made way for a flatulent mess thereafter.

    In December, owner Farhad Moshiri moved quickly to appoint Carlo Ancelotti, after he was sacked by Napoli, with the Toffees stuck in the bottom half of the table.

    Everything has changed since the ‘brow arrived.

    Armed with the financial resources to build a team in his image, Brands has worked closely with the three-time Champions League winner to construct a side engineered to challenge for trophies and a place in continental competition.

    With Ancelotti in the dugout a Hollywood sign has been erected outside Goodison Park as this summer they were able to attract A-List talent. Bonafide superstar James Rodriguez moved from Real Madrid and has quickly sprinkled his magic on the Premier League.

    He’s been joined by a stellar cast in bulldog midfielder Allan from Napoli, highly-rated centre-back Ben Godfrey and a dominant Abdoulaye Doucoure.

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    “You track it [the evolution of Brands’ signings] from pre and post Ancelotti. What’s consistent pre and post Ancelotti is the commitment and backing financially of the owner,” O’Keeffe explains.

    “He would have backed moves for Rodriguez, Allan and players of that ilk from day one. But before Ancelotti, you weren’t going to attract those sort of players.

    “Brands was in a position where there was a degree of risk with players who aren’t for the elite clubs. Are they going to come to Everton and see a place where they can settle?

    “Or are they going to see Everton as somewhere where they can genuinely progress? I think the problem has been that they haven’t been able to buy players who have wanted to come in and really hit the ground running and make an impact.

    “All those things become easier post Ancelotti. All of a sudden there’s a star manager who has got these proven credentials.”

    He adds: “Ancelotti is the key difference, and it will have changed how Brands operates, too.”

    Another thing that has changed since Ancelotti’s arrival is the power dynamic behind the scenes. Brands is younger than Ancelotti and he doesn’t possess the CV of the Italian.

    With Moshiri very much a hands-on owner, there’s every reason to believe that Brands has been relegated to third in command by Ancelotti’s appointment.

    “The good thing for Brands is that Ancelotti is this very amenable, open-minded, good guy who wants to have good working relationships at his clubs and do what he does best which is building a successful team and on the training ground,” O’Keeffe observes.

    “Of course he wants to be involved in recruitment and I think you can see his stamp very clearly in this summer’s business. But also, Brands’ buy-in is important with all the signings.

    “Do I think Brands under the remit he was operating in would have pushed for Rodriguez? No I don’t think he would have, I think that’s probably come from Moshiri and Ancelotti.”

    But where Brands adds most value is in procuring some of the best young players. That’s what he did so well at PSV and it’s what we’re beginning to see at Everton.

    “I think what Brands has done very well since Ancelotti came in, is bring in Jarrad Branthwaite and he’s brought Niels Nkounkou to the club,” O’Keeffe says.

    “Straight away Moshiri and Ancelotti have gone ‘that’s why you’re here, you’ve brought in two players who already look like they are going to be top players’.

    “Certainly from what I’ve seen of Nkounkou, I’m blown away by the kid and that’s just classic recruitment.

    “He knew Marseille were in a bit of a tight spot because his contract had run down and he made sure the deal got done ahead of other clubs.

    “I’ve seen him play a handful of games and I’m thinking ‘Everton have got a steal here’.”

    We’re seeing a healthy structure emerging with Brands securing the club’s future, Ancelotti the present and Moshiri the active owner willing to facilitate both arms of the club. But Brands is entering the final 12 months of his contract, and while criticism has made way for acclaim from Everton fans, there’s no guarantee he’ll remain on Merseyside, despite Ancelotti’s recent endorsement for an extended stay.

    Brands may well decide to move on to take up a role more akin to the typical European director of football remit where he would have complete control. As O’Keeffe says “Marco Silva was a coach, Ancelotti is very much the manager” and so there are doubts.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if Everton really try hard to get him to agree to a contract extension or to sit down and woo him to sign a new deal when it elapses,” O’Keeffe adds.

    “I looked back at a quote from last year, Everton have needed an experienced centre-forward for a while, and he said ‘What should I do? Do I bring in a striker now who starts all the time and it kills the kids?’ and he’s talking about Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, he said ‘I believe in Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison’ and whereas you could see why he was backing Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin less so.

    “He was a lot more of a striker who doesn’t score, he works, and works really hard in the channels but is he good enough for a club of ambitions of the top six?

    “Brands staked his claim on that look at how they are both doing now. They are the in-form strike partnership in the Premier League, Calvert-Lewin is absolutely flying and can’t stop scoring.

    “His legacy will be those younger players and you’ll only be able to judge that in another couple of years.”

    In the immediate future, there’s a Merseyside Derby to contend with and judgement will be rendered if there is not a positive result.

    But if Everton do extend their remarkable start to the season, then with Brands and Edwards at the helm we could see a whole new level of rivalry emerge.