When Aston Villa appointed Johan Lange as the club’s new Sporting Director last July, co-owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens re-affirmed their promise in building towards “a world-class organisation.”
Now over six months into Lange’s tenure and a club threatened with an immediate return to the Championship is now plotting their route back to the Premier League’s higher reaches, with European football a genuine possibility in the not too distant future.
Former Copenhagen Technical Director, 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 Dane is proving an influential member of Villa’s resurgence in the Premier League and while his eye for a player has never been sharper, as a Sporting Director, Lange also involves himself in most of the club’s operations.
Lange’s job, like the many Sporting Director roles across Europe, is a complex one. Often, the role of a Sporting Director, also known as a Director of Football 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.
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.
During his hugely successful time at Copenhagen, Lange worked alongside Frederik Leth who worked in a Head of Technical Scouting and Analytics role for the final two years of Lange’s tenure as the Danish Champions’ Technical Director.
Leth, who spent over eight years at Copenhagen from 2012-2020, has now joined Lange at Aston Villa. While the Premier League club are busy executing one of the more exciting projects in English football, Leth will undertake a Head of Football Research role, after resigning as Copenhagen’s Technical Director having taken over from Lange’s for only three months.
After serving his notice period, the 26-year-old is now in situ at Villa and will work closely with Lange to ensure that “evidence-based practice is as relevant and contemporary as possible.”
Leth had worked at Copenhagen since 2012, initially in the talent department, before becoming a technical scout for the first team in 2014. He was Head of Scouting and Analytics at the club for 18 months before taking on his short-lived stint as Technical Director.
After handing in his resignation in November, Leth told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet: “I have had eight good years at FCK with talented and inspiring people, but I feel that now is the time for me to go a new direction, and now I want to hand over my tasks quietly.”
What is a Head of Football Research?
The Head of Football Research role is a new one at Aston Villa, and a rare one across the entire Premier League and indeed across Europe.
Head of Football Research is a position that only several top-flight clubs use. Ben Smith is Head of Research and Innovation for Chelsea; Andrew Gilligan is Head of Research and Insights for City Football Group, who own Manchester City; Alan McCall is Head of Research and Development for Arsenal, and David Horrocks is Head of Research and Development for Manchester United on a contractual basis.
The Copenhagen board had previously expressed their appreciation for Leth’s work, saying that he was ‘analytically gifted’, ‘talented’ and that Leth had been a ‘key figure in developing Copenhagen in terms of structure, data and science’.
Leth’s numerical expertise and experience in similar roles when working alongside Lange will prove beneficial to Villa’s approach to in-house operations.
Chelsea’s Head of Research & Innovation, Ben Smith had worked as an Academy Analyst for Fulham, England Under-19s and Chelsea, before embarking on roles tailored towards performing as a Head of Research later in his career.
While the new role in the game is much of an unknown quantity, Smith’s role at Chelsea includes a wide range of key projects and strategic responsibilities. Including managing the academy’s internal audit process and installing an academy strategic vision, Smith’s job supports effective player management, the application of technology and data within recruitment and supporting academy education programmes.
Having worked alongside Lange to identify exciting talent on foreign shores, Leth will no doubt be tasked in assisting his fellow Dane in such processes at Villa. The use of statistical analysis helped Danish giants, Copenhagen 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.”
Lange was keen to rekindle a working relationship with Leth following his move to Villa Park in the summer of 2020. Lange oversaw Copenhagen’s famed vision for over six years, and Villa no doubt recruited their new Sporting Director with experience of building successful recruitment teams and strategies in mind.
“It helps that everyone knows their job. It is difficult for the scouts if the style is changing from season to season.”
Villa’s Head of Recruitment, Mackenzie, also had prior dealings with Lange, who at Copenhagen welcomed his new recruitment partner to the FCK training facility on a couple of occasions before he was courted by Villa to head recruitment operations.
Manchester United, like Chelsea, also employs in a Football Research capacity, with David Harrocks – who worked as an Elite Sports Performance Consultant for over five years from 2007-2013 – another research specialist in the Premier League.
Harrocks ‘scours the globe for best practice, best in class and tomorrow’s edge’. Harrock reports to the first team manager and assistant manager and provides support to the multi-disciplinary team across coaching, science, data, technology, medicine and partner relations.
Lange and Leth have years of experience of working together, and Leth’s professional experience, analytical mind and work ethic have obviously impressed Lange enough to make a move to work with him once more.