How Tottenham went from ‘the Daniel show’ to a modernised recruitment operation
How Tottenham went from ‘the Daniel show’ to a modernised recruitment operation

When Fabio Paratici was appointed Tottenham Hotspur’s managing director of football last summer, he set about evaluating precisely where and how the club’s transfer operation could be improved.

He sensed big changes would be needed, but didn’t want to be making sweeping recommendations before he was sure of exactly what was required and had seen how things worked up close. With the help of then director of technical performance Steve Hitchen, who left in February, Paratici assessed every football department within Spurs and was handed an increased budget to improve them.

Now more than a year into his tenure, Paratici will feel he has done just that, putting his mark on Tottenham and having it run more as he believes a big club should.

The headline number from a Spurs recruitment perspective this summer has been the seven signings, but there have also been four significant appointments. Gretar Steinsson has arrived in a newly created and wide-ranging director of performance role across senior and youth levels, Andy Scoulding has joined to provide expertise on the British market, Simon Davies (no, not the former Spurs winger) has come in as head of coaching methodology, and last week The Athletic revealed Leonardo Gabbanini, who recently left his dual role at Watford and Udinese, has been hired as chief scout. Spurs sources describe it as an “important role” — one that will see Gabbanini working closely with Steinsson and Paratici, tasked with aligning the various scouting departments from academy to first team and helping with the overall recruitment strategy.

Gabbanini’s appointment feels like an opportune moment to reflect on a period of immense change in the Spurs recruitment operation — especially with the end of the window growing closer.

Even leaving aside Davies, whose role is slightly separate, the simple fact here is that Hitchen has essentially been replaced by three people (four if you count Paratici, whose arrival in June 2021 was the beginning of the end for Hitchen). Head of recruitment Brian Carey also left earlier this year, but the glut of new hires speaks to a new approach that is more specialised, structured and has greater manpower. Speaking to those in football recruitment circles, a common assessment has been that Spurs are now acting more like a club of their size should.

For years, power had been concentrated with chairman Daniel Levy and a very small coterie of trusted advisors — Hitchen among them. There didn’t seem to be much political power to spare, evidenced when the highly respected Trevor Birch joined Spurs as director of football operations in September 2020 and was gone three months later. Some sources describe the Tottenham operation pre-Paratici as at times being “the Daniel show”.

When Gareth Bale joined on loan from Real Madrid in 2020, The Athletic reported that insiders were calling it “Daniel’s deal”. And this time a year ago, there was scepticism at how much freedom Paratici would actually be given.

As it’s turned out, although Levy is still involved in the recruitment operation, he has been put under more pressure than ever before, with head coach Antonio Conte more willing than any of his predecessors to challenge Levy in public. Spurs sources say they haven’t seen Levy taking such a backseat with recruitment at any point in his two decades at the club. This was the idea when Levy hired Paratici in 2021 and now it’s becoming a reality.

Levy is taking more of a backseat with recruitment at Tottenham (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Levy still has a key role in some major decisions (most significantly in the decision to appoint Conte last autumn, as well as the pursuit of Luis Diaz in January) but evidence of the change can be seen in the uncharacteristically assertive and speedy way Tottenham have operated in the transfer window this summer, reflecting both Conte’s persuasiveness but also Paratici achieving a level of autonomy many were sceptical was possible.

Spurs have also refused to sell players like Steven Bergwijn, Bryan Gil and Japhet Tanganga until replacements have been lined up. And the point here is that Levy has appointed many directors of football in the past, but Paratici is already thought to be the most powerful and ruthless of these hires. And as this summer has shown, his power base is only set to grow further.

Other tells of the shifting landscape include the fact Levy has hardly been at the training ground over the past year compared to how often he was there when Jose Mourinho was head coach, leaving Paratici with more day-to-day freedom to run the football side.

This, then, is a look at how Paratici and Tottenham’s recruitment operation now works, and also what they are getting in new hire Gabbanini, a key figure in the Pozzo scouting network and someone who attracted the interest of leading European clubs this summer. Last week, he was at Reading to watch 17-year-old defender Ashley Phillips play for Blackburn. Gabbanini, a former manager and youth-team coach, has an extremely wide-ranging knowledge of the game, so the expectation is that he will be across the full spectrum of deals — from youngsters like Phillips to the kind of high-profile signings that have made this such an exciting summer for Spurs.

Filippo Giraldi, the former Watford technical director who worked closely with Gabbanini, has known him for 20 years and brought him to England, believes that his background gives him a unique perspective. “What I personally like about him is that he has more the view of a player or a coach rather than a scout or a sporting director,” Giraldi tells The Athletic. “In a group, for example, I may prefer to know about a talented quality player, but he always looks at more effective hard-working players who can balance the team.”

When Hitchen left Spurs in February, there was a period until this summer when Paratici’s workload was borderline unmanageable, even for someone who is known for working around the clock, headphones permanently in place as he fields call after call.

The appointments this summer are designed to relieve him of some of those responsibilities and ensure Spurs can operate more efficiently. Steinsson in particular is very hands-on and has been given a lot of responsibility across senior and academy levels to lighten Paratici’s load. A demanding man, Paratici would never say Spurs’ sporting operation is perfect, but it’s much more aligned with his vision.

When Paratici was appointed, the idea was that he would bring in “Juventus standards” and essentially show Tottenham how a modern football club is run — with power spread between different departments and individuals rather than being concentrated so much in the hands of just one person. Buying players early is part of that and important from a tactical perspective, but having a functioning club structure less reliant on the chairman and manager is more critical from a strategic point of view. Chelsea under Roman Abramovich are probably the only elite club comparable to Spurs in how the power was concentrated in so few.

Paratici at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium before the match against Wolves last week (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Paratici, who feels much more settled after a year in the job, wants Steinsson and Gabbanini to have a proper say in transfer targets. Scoulding, meanwhile, is expected to help make up for Paratici’s lack of expertise on British football (Gabbanini led Watford’s domestic recruitment so he is similarly well-versed) compared to how intimately he knows the Italian market.

It was that intimate knowledge that helped Paratici land Gabbanini. Paratici has seen how effectively Udinese operate and punch above their weight up close, having negotiated with them over a number of players over the years (and again this summer after Gabbanini’s arrival with the signing of Destiny Udogie).

Gabbanini’s role will see him develop the structure of the scouting network under Steinsson’s guidance. The aim, in working closely with Steinsson and Paratici, will be to align the various scouting departments from academy to first team and help with the overall recruitment strategy.

Gabbanini will be involved in ensuring there is coherence in recruitment across different age groups to help give young players the best possible chance of one day breaking into the first team. Udogie, still only 19 and spending this season on loan back at Udinese, will be an interesting test case. At a basic level, the fact he plays as a wing-back for Udinese in a similar system to Tottenham’s suggests a degree of joined-up thinking.

Like most big clubs, Spurs have lots of scouts and other recruitment personnel doing different jobs, and Paratici wants to make the operation more efficient. Gabbanini, having been a key player in the slick Pozzo operation that is so big it stretches across multiple clubs, should be able to help in this regard.

Gabbanini has already made a big impression since starting at Spurs in July. He is very personable and said to be easy to get along with. Like Steinsson, as The Athletic reported last month, he is also straight-talking, no-nonsense and very clear in his communication.

Giraldi, the former Watford technical director, is well placed to assess the kind of character Spurs have hired. Giraldi brought Gabbanini to Italian club Prato (currently in the fourth tier), where he started coaching the youth teams before working his way up to join Fiorentina as an academy coach.

After a few spells at other clubs, including Sampdoria and a few stints as a manager at lower-league Italian teams, Gabbanini returned to Fiorentina as head of academy coaching — a role he performed between 2016 and 2017. It was at this point that Giraldi, who was living close by in Florence, persuaded Gabbanini to take up a scouting role with Watford.

Giraldi believes Gabbanini’s experience as a coach is part of why he is able to “look at more effective hard-working players who can balance the team”.

“He’s a very straightforward person with a strong personality,” Giraldi continues. “He’s extremely knowledgeable and serious in the way he conducts his business.”

“He was chief scout in the last part of the period we were together. For me, he has always been the person I’d rely on the most. He’s a person who doesn’t like the spotlight, so that’s another quality I appreciate a lot. He’s serious, hardworking and very organised in his job.

“He’s not a guy for everyone because he’s direct and sometimes he’s strong in the way he expressed his view. I like that because I want people who are convinced about what they say, even if they make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. It’s important to be very well informed and convinced of what you’re saying.”

While at Watford, Gabbanini led the UK recruitment, as well as helping with the club’s overall scouting structure and looking at worldwide targets after former sporting director Andy Scott left. Gabbanini had a say on recruits from areas like South America, too, including Richarlison (signed by Tottenham for up to £60million this summer) and Joao Pedro, who is valued by Watford at £30million ($35.5m) with Newcastle pushing hard for his signature. At Spurs, Gabbanini is expected to help with first-team and academy scouting.

Richarlison was signed for £60million this summer (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Gabbanini keeps a low profile but is also extremely well connected and close to Paratici. The pair are linked by Lorenzo Giani, who like Giraldi is from Florence and joined Spurs from Juventus as a scout last summer when Paratici made the switch (another hire that shows Paratici putting his stamp on Spurs).

When it comes to his way of working, Gabbanini is known for having an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the markets he operates in and demands high standards from his scouts, expecting detailed scouting reports and clear analysis.

As Maikol Di Stefano, who worked alongside Gabbanini when he managed Italian lower league team Civitanovese, put it to The Athletic a couple of years ago: “Where study and experience are the masters, where rather than taking a shortcut, he has always preferred to walk uphill. In three words: straightforward, intelligent and prepared.”

Gabbanini is big on attention to detail, takes a direct approach with people to get the best out of them and, like Paratici, is very driven, intense and used to working long hours. He has moved over to London from Florence.

Gabbanini’s professionalism and scouting successes caught the eye of other big clubs in Europe, not just Spurs. And when news of his appointment started to circulate, there was a lot of discussion within recruitment circles about what it would mean for how Tottenham operate.

In the immediate term, Gabbanini will be assessing the existing structure and shape to bring greater organisation and attempting to make Tottenham more competitive at academy level. They have lost a number of academy players in the last few years, most recently the very highly rated pair Samuel Amo-Ameyaw (16) and Jayden Meghoma (15) to Southampton.

Gabbanini — one of the key men in the Pozzo scouting network — has joined Tottenham as their new chief scout

It’s one thing struggling to compete with clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City who pay a lot more, but losing two players to Southampton was a big blow. The key is being able to show youngsters at Spurs that there is a pathway, even if you may be on lower wages than at Chelsea or City.

Capitalising on the youth market is a priority area for Spurs, with Steinsson also taking a keen interest and attending a number of academy matches since taking over. The signings of Metz’s Pape Matar Sarr last summer and Udogie this month before immediately loaning them back is also a new direction, and one more associated with clubs like Chelsea and City who can afford to essentially speculate to accumulate and bring in a number of youngsters in the knowledge that they should retain or increase their value, even if they never play for the first team.

Being more efficient in the loan market is also part of Scoulding’s role. Spurs have sometimes operated in a more ad hoc way when it comes to their loanees, especially compared to a club like Chelsea, who have ruthlessly and efficiently exploited the loan market.

Scoulding’s expertise of the British market should also mean Spurs have a more imaginative approach when it comes to which young talents they bring to the club. And his appointment illustrates the greater specificity of roles that Paratici wants from his staff.

As for Scoulding’s credentials, there is debate among those familiar with Rangers’ recruitment about how influential he was in some of the more successful deals (Joe Aribo from Charlton and Calvin Bassey from Leicester for instance).

What we do know is that Scoulding’s background is as an analyst, having worked as a video analyst for Roy Hodgson at Fulham before then joining up with Hodgson for England. He significantly bolstered Rangers’ analytics operation while at the club.

Andy Scoulding (left) during his time at Rangers (Photo: Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

The expectation is also that Scoulding will benefit from Spurs’ greater resources compared to Rangers’, where he was generally sniffing around for bargains.

Scoulding’s expertise of the British market is significant because it is not an area Spurs have done especially well in over the last few years. Since Dele Alli’s arrival in 2015, it’s hard to think of a significant success. Ryan Sessegnon and Alfie Devine could yet be, but it’s still too early to say, while Jack Clarke and Joe Hart have come and gone and Joe Rodon is currently on loan at Rennes. Others like Jack Grealish and James Ward-Prowse have famously slipped through their fingers.

There will always be regrets in the transfer market, but Spurs are hoping that with their new operation they will have all bases covered and are leaving less and less to chance.

(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

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