When Aston Villa appointed John Lange as the club’s new Sporting Director, co-owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens said: “We’re pleased to welcome Johan to Aston Villa as we continue building a world-class organisation.”
Six months into his tenure and a club threatened with an immediate return to the Championship is now threatening to fast-track their assault on the Premier League’s upper echelons, with European football a genuine possibility next season.
Lange has played a crucial role in recruitment and player identification over the past two transfer windows, which has provided the opportunity to bolster Dean Smith’s squad ahead of, and during the 2020/21 Premier League campaign.
The club has spent around £85 million over the summer and January windows, but far from a scattergun approach that former regimes have been held accountable for, Lange’s approach to the transfer market has been nothing short of exceptional.
It must be acknowledged that Villa’s spending spree in the summer that followed play-off success and indeed promotion back to the Premier League after a three-year exile from the top flight, was necessary, contrary to the lazy assumptions made about NSWE’s strategy.
Former Sporting Director Jesús García Pitarch was tasked with replacing 19 players in the weeks that followed a late promotion under the Wembley arch in 2019. Replacing key loanee’s Tammy Abraham and Axel Tuanzebe was never going to be easy, and certainly, at a cost – there was a lot of business to be done.
Pitarch was working within a budget that averaged out at £11.6 million per player having recruited 12 players at a total cost of £140 million. There was even a method to the presumed madness as each of Villa’s signings from the summer of 2019 had played with at least one other new signing at previous clubs, creating a more comfortable environment for players to flourish later in the prolonged campaign.
This season, just like results on the pitch, recruitment has gone up another level altogether. While it would be harsh to cast aside the groundwork laid by Pitarch, having played a part in deals to sign Douglas Luiz, Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett – three key members of Villa’s team this season – Lange’s business during his first season at the club has helped to significantly change the club’s fortunes in a short space of time.
Having been alerted to Emiliano Martínez’s availability following his Project Restart exploits and more recently the opportunity to pursue a deal to sign Morgan Sanson, Lange has been shrewd and decisive.
Rational and calculated too, these are all the characteristics required for a successful Sporting Director. Lange’s job, like the many Sporting Directors roles across Europe, is a complex one. Often, the role of a director of football, also known as a sporting director or technical director, is not always clearly defined.
Their responsibilities can vary from club to club, but ultimately, a Sporting Director will form a part of the senior management at a club and transfers are usually their chief remit.
Unlike Lange, many Sporting Directors, particularly in Germany, will be heavily involved in all aspects of decision-making processes at the club, including the hiring and firing of managers, scouting, and long-term strategy.
Lange’s role at Villa is slightly more specialised, with Christian Purslow taking the ‘day-to-day running’ of the club, while newly appointed Head of Recruitment, Rob Mackenzie also heads his own department.
Traditionally, Sporting Directors will have a long history in the sport and a wide network of contacts, and while others simply have a background in similar administrative roles, Lange has very much earned his role at Villa through years of impressive work in Denmark.
Johan Lange’s success in Denmark
Few clubs in Europe have been able to match Lange’s hit rate at Copenhagen with his ability to find value in the market and turn quick profits while continuing to win trophies domestically has helped Copenhagen reach the latter stages of the Europa League in recent years.
Copenhagen’s strategy is clear. Identifying, developing and making profitable margins on young talent on the face of things may seem very ordinary, but the Danish template employed by Lange was one envied by most across Europe.
The Parken Stadium, home to 13 time Danish Superliga champions FC Copenhagen, faces the Øresund water that separates Denmark from Sweden, but the club hasn’t settled for home comforts in pursuit for a unique global football strategy, formerly headed by Lange.
Frederik Leth was appointed under Lange as Copenhagen’s head of scouting and analysis with a strong emphasis on a data-based approach. Villa fans are well versed in the perhaps more negative aspects of numerical approaches to recruitment – having seen what mismanagement can bring in 2015, and what £140 million can get you last summer.
This use of statistical analysis helped the Danish giants to branch out into new markets and explore niche pools of talent like in South America which has seldom provided northern European clubs with teenage talent.
“At the identification phase, our process is very data-driven,” Lange explained to Sky Sports when at Copenhagen in 2020.
“We are trying to find players earlier in their career. That is difficult to predict but it is important to try. The partnership between myself, the manager and the scouts is crucial.
“We take time at the start of the process to establish exactly what we are looking for. Then we can set the parameters with the data. It is only after that stage that it becomes about live scouting.”
Whilst Lange’s Sporting Director qualities were much of an unknown quantity on these shores, having already served at Villa Park for six months, his recruitment has become crucial in Villa’s pursuit to firmly re-establish themselves Premier League status.
Lange oversaw Copenhagen’s famed vision for over six years, and Villa no doubt recruited their new Sporting Director with his experience of building successful cultures in mind.
“It helps that everyone knows their job. It is difficult for the scouts if the style is changing from season to season.”
Creating a positive culture has always been a key part of Dean Smith’s roles at Walsall, Brentford and now Villa, where he works alongside Lange.
“I don’t care what job you are in — football or a factory — these people are all humans with different emotions, sensitivities and lives away from work,’ Smith said. ‘It’s my job to get the best out of them, so I need to know this stuff. I see the job as the whole spectrum.
“I love coaching, being out there making people better. But it’s the mental side that pushes these lads and if you don’t get a connection with them, players can easily decide they are not going to work for you.”
Smith took over the Saddlers’ managerial reigns in the 2010/11 season and saved the club from almost certain relegation. Much of what went well for the now Villa boss at Walsall, was down to constructing a culture, but not by design.
The penny dropped for Smith at Walsall after he issued two warning letters to a couple of young players he’d worked with about their attitude in training.
Smith, who delivered a speech to business students at Birmingham City University in October 2019, said: “We worked big-time on building a culture at Walsall and there was one story that we knew we were on the right track. Whether I’m at Walsall, Brentford or Aston Villa, people ask me about culture because there can be good culture and bad culture.
“There was one player who, when I first met him, was in my youth team and he did something at training and I’d given him a warning letter and did something the following day and I gave him another warning letter and one day he walks in and he’s got a sausage sandwich.
“Straight away I took it off him, shared it between me and my staff and then pulled the lad in and said listen, ‘What are you doing?’ and then he explained to me, ‘Well, I live at my aunties, my mum and dad are separated, I feel like I can’t ask them for breakfast because they have to feed their kids as well so that was the only thing I could get.’
“It struck a chord with me. He’s different to what I am, he’s different to what some of the other lads are but I need to help him get better. I need to make him a better footballer and let’s see where he goes.
“That story going back to Walsall sums up how we created that culture and it was all the players in the dressing room, all the staff, the board but it has to start from there.
“I like to see people grow and learn, that’s who I am and that’s how I’ve been brought up. It wasn’t just about creating players to play better football, I wanted to help create better people as well.
“For me, if someone comes into our training ground they should hear it, see it, feel it. It should be good feelings, good sounds, good sights. Every day, that’s what I ask my players to show.”
Johan Lange working to nurture a culture at Aston Villa
Embracing a culture at a football club is an awful lot easier when results on the pitch are favourable – after all, the two go hand in hand.
Lange has often been keen to highlight the importance of a philosophy at a football club, one like he had developed at Copenhagen.
“We have a strong culture, a proactive strategy, stability among key personnel and a very clear style of play.
Under his watch, Denis Vavro was sold to Lazio for £9.5m last summer whilst Robert Skov joined Hoffenheim for £9m. Both had been signed with the help of Lange for a fraction of those figures just two years earlier.
The two weren’t the first to leave Denmark with a big price tag with the likes of Robin Olsen and Thomas Delaney pitting their wits in the Seria A, Bundesliga and in the Champions League.
The consistency of Lange’s success with Copenhagen is remarkable and his work wasn’t going unnoticed back home. Former Villa centre-half and Danish international Martin Laursen was pleasantly surprised when Lange was installed as Villa’s sporting director.
“It’s a huge job for him. It’s really big” Laursen told tipsbladet.dk.
“I’m very surprised they’ve chosen Johan Lange. Recently, they had a Spanish sporting director, and they could’ve appointed anyone from all over the world. Now they have chosen a Dane. It’s spectacular, I think. Huge congratulations to Johan.”
Laursen also recognises that whilst Lange’s earned a big move, only so much preparation can equip you for Premier League club management.
“FC Copenhagen is a big club in Denmark, but this is going to be a completely different league for Johan. He’ll get a lot of money because there is enough of it at Aston Villa. Now they just have to make sure to get something more out of it, and that will be Lange’s biggest challenge.
“They (Villa) spent a lot of money last summer, and yet they were very close to relegation. It says something about the fact that they didn’t get enough out of it at all.
“Going in and becoming sporting director of a Premier League club is not that straightforward, and I can only repeat that it will be a very big step for Johan.”
Only time will tell if Lange can replicate the early success he has found at Villa Park, but if the success of his Scandonvain brothers Laursen, Olof Mellberg, and John Carew are anything to go by, Lange will be right at home at Villa Park.