From Head Coach to Manager: Does it Matter?

Tobias Phoenix left his role as Wanderers’ Head of Football last week. Ian Evatt was promoted to manager this week. These were developments that were surprising and, to a few fans, a bit confusing.

Phoenix’s role as Head of Football could not be made any clearer than his title. He was the head of all footballing matters at the club. The development squad, the first team, the manager, the recruitment, the ‘moneyball’ ambitions. Ultimately, you would imagine that any decision on Ian Evatt’s future as manager would be a joint process but Phoenix’s opinion and input would probably be the most important; essentially (but not really), he was Evatt’s boss.

As Head Coach, Evatt’s role was purely to take charge of the first team and make decisions on team selection and in-game management. Once again – all fairly obvious. His input into wider footballing business, such as transfers, would be important and necessary but not the final say nor the most important or necessary input.

The developments of the last fortnight in which Phoenix has left and Evatt has had his job title change seem relatively pointless to many if not most. However, the structure of the club has seemingly changed a great deal – especially considering the pre-season bluster about long-term approaches and the aforementioned ‘moneyball’ project. That bluster has quite quickly turned to bluff in reality.

Having said that, the perspective from the outside looking in will not shift or change that much. Bolton fans will pay sign in to iFollow every week and watch the team. Evatt will be on the sidelines in charge of the team. Bolton will sign players that divide opinion, overwhelm and underwhelm in January. Life will go on as normal.

What will change will be the processes of the club behind the scenes. Most pertinently to the majority of supporters; that will involve the process of recruitment.

Over the last few months, there have been rumours that the majority of the transfer business was done by Phoenix. Around 75% of the 21 signings are said to have been down to the Head of Football. This isn’t unexpected nor scandalous – that is his job.

So, without Phoenix at the club and Evatt now being the ‘manager’, it is safe to assume the new manager will take charge of the recruitment side of things.

The benefits of this are obvious. Evatt clearly wants to play a 3-4-1-2 but has also been flexible, both at Barrow and sometimes at Bolton, by playing a 4-3-3. A fundamental difference of these systems: one has an extra defender, the other has an extra forward or winger. In the summer, Wanderers added to their already well-stacked defensive ranks by signing four centre-backs to accompany the other four centre-backs already at the club. They signed one winger, five weeks after the season had started, even though the only out-and-out winger at the club had picked up an injury in pre-season that would rule him out for the majority, if not all, of the campaign.

Obviously, this was because Wanderers and Evatt were specifically aiming to play a 3-4-1-2 throughout the season – so, there is nothing wrong with the way in which the squad was constructed. Except that within 75 minutes of the new season, the manager decided to switch to a 4-3-3. He then started with this formation away to Colchester a week later. Strikers Nathan Delfouneso and Bright Amoateng alongside full-backs Jak Hickman and Jamie Mascoll were deployed as the Whites’ wingers.

This confusing tactical decision could be due to a couple of reasons. Either the head coach and Head of Football had a breakdown in communication and the potential for the head coach to play a different system; a system that required players for a specific position that hadn’t yet been recruited for. The alternative would be that neither of them clocked a lack of wingers in the squad before deciding to switch system. (It isn’t a very good sign when a breakdown in communication between the head coach and Head of Football seems to be like the more palatable option.)

Therefore, the positives of the head coach taking responsibility for recruitment is that situations like that shouldn’t occur anymore. He will know the systems he intends to play and will target players based upon that. This is good.

The downside of this change in title and responsibility would be the potentially damaging long-term effects it could leave on a club.

Lots of clubs get into on-the-pitch and off-the-pitch trouble due to self-serving decisions made by a manager from a few years ago.

Completely understandably, the current manager wants the club to succeed whilst they are the manager. Therefore, the recommendations and targets to sign tend to be ‘for the here and now’. This could involve giving a few 28, 29, 30 year-olds two or three year deals. Inevitably, this harms the business you can do further down the line as well as harming the progression and vigour of a future team under a different manager.

Another negative would be the narrowing of the pool. If your manager, who is already a busy man, is leading your transfer business then your pool of potential signings become limited to players he knows or contacts that only he has. Of course Wanderers will have scouting networks as well as other people giving their input but Wanderers have always had scouts and time after time, it is the manager’s contacts and reliance on certain agents he knows well that takes over.

From Coyle’s Burnley duo and Freedman’s insistence on signing every single central midfielder to have ever played for a South London club to Lennon’s remarkable consistency to deal with the same agent for whatever reason, allegedly. Allegedly.

Now, for what it is worth, Wanderers look to have some functions in place that guard against those potential weakness becoming reality.

Venture capitalists are unlikely to entrust one of their employees with sole responsibility for spending their money. Therefore, three-year deals to 29 year-olds from mid-table Championship clubs should and probably will be prevented.

Another reason to not necessarily be overly concerned would be Evatt’s commitment to progression. In his now famed podcast appearance on Tifo, “Barrowcelona”, he described himself as a “modern day coach with old school values”. Hopefully, his ideas and views on transfers fall in line with the ‘modern day’ bit and he takes an interest in data analysis as well as modern scouting techniques. Anecdotally, he seems like someone who would have that sort of interest, to be fair to him.

Personally, I feel that the best and most realistic chance to have sustained and long-term success is by having a strong and layered footballing structure – especially when it comes to recruitment. The success of Phoenix is still in doubt and probably will be for a little while yet. However, the role he fulfilled is vital in modern football.

The club itself should have an identity. That identity can be whatever style of play you want as long as the Head or Director of Football remains there. They remain there in order to sign and sell players that fit the profile they want. The head coach should be the one who moulds themselves to the club rather than the other way round.

On a footballing level, I don’t like the decision. However, the key aspect of this will probably be financial and that is something I do not know enough about to comment on.

If Football Ventures and Sharon Brittan have taken this decision due to the impact of COVID-19 on the club’s finances then fair enough. She has already done a lot for this club and it’d be silly to not trust their decision. Especially when finances were cited in the statement that announced Phoenix’s departure.

However, it would also be silly and daft to not remain wary considering Bolton’s recent history. We can be trusting and supportive without being naïve.

For the time being, Evatt’s change in job title means very little. It will be when the January transfer window opens that the change becomes significant. His tactical approach and mindset would suggest that the general concerns of a manager being in charge of recruitment will be no more than that – just concerns rather than reality.

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