After Spurs and Liverpool, Comolli aiming to take Toulouse to top

It is easy to imagine that Damien Comolli sees football like a game of chess. The Toulouse chairman is always thinking, plotting and pre-empting: Ask him a question, and his answer will often have a nod to what you're going to ask next.

For example, one Tuesday afternoon in October, on a Zoom call from behind the glass desk in his office at Toulouse -- a rugby-loving city in southern France -- he is describing how various sporting executives called upon his help in the eight years he was away from the game.

"I will not name names, before you ask," Comolli says. He must always be a step ahead, and that mindset has made him one of the most forward-thinking executives in European football.

For the past two decades, Comolli has been something of a revolutionary, but without the trophy-laden success or applause one might expect. A decade ago, he served as a sporting director at Tottenham and then Liverpool, and there is an argument to say that his warm embrace for data analytics laid the groundwork for what allowed the two clubs to be successful under Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp, respectively. However, Comolli was not rewarded: He was sacked at each club before his plans began to bear fruit.

In his current role at Toulouse, though, he does not have that problem. He is, essentially, his own boss.

In July 2020, the club's American owners, RedBird Capital, sought out Comolli -- who was then serving as a sporting director for Turkish side Fenerbahçe -- and they asked him which club in Europe they should buy. They settled on Toulouse and then put him in sole charge of running it, with his data-led approach as their guiding star. Since then, they have backed him every inch.

Comolli and his team have twice sacked managers despite a string of seemingly successful seasons, because their algorithm showed that they had underperformed and weren't quite a success at all. It includes last summer, when the club let go of its head coach, Philippe Montanier, despite leading them to the first trophy in its 86-year history and a rare place in the Europa League.

"It was very frustrating to underperform where our predictive models were saying we could finish 11th and we finished 13th," Comolli tells ESPN. Toulouse finished just three points behind 11th-placed Stade de Reims.

"We felt that we had to make a decision on the manager ... We did it based on data. In some areas, we were functioning at 40 to 50%. It was not acceptable. I hate being mediocre, I just can't stand mediocrity, I just can't. When I know there is an area in the club which is mediocre, it just drives me nuts."

But still, for Comolli, Toulouse represents somewhat of a haven. Comolli's achilles heel -- prematurely losing the faith of his bosses -- has been seemingly removed, leaving in its place the perfect environment to test his masterplan, to implement his approach as unflinchingly, perhaps ruthlessly, as possible.

With Toulouse still chasing a place in the 2023-24 Europa League knockout stage -- they're second behind Liverpool in their group with two games remaining, having beaten the Reds last time out -- Comolli can now discover just how far his approach can go.

Comolli sees himself as being at the cutting edge and can be maverick in his ideas. At Tottenham, when he was named the club's first sporting director, he remembers being in a news conference when he quizzed over whether the role of a sporting director would work.

"In 15 years, every club will have a Director of Football," he told the room of assembled reporters and, to his credit, he would be proved mostly right.

Comolli began his career in football at Arsenal in 1996, where he made a name for himself working for the club as a European scout, particularly in France, and helped them recruit some of the stars that helped the club win the Premier League three times under Arsene Wenger. By 2005, when he took the job at Tottenham, he was bullish. As Rory Smith's book "Expected Goals" explains, Comolli employed a data company called Decision Technology after meeting its founder, Henry Stott, in 2006. From that point on, Spurs began to consult Decision Technology on almost every decision they made.

"I said to Daniel: 'You have to buy this company [Decision Technology] because it's the future of football. Everyone will go at it in a few years to come.' And then [in five years' time] when he tried to buy them, they turned him down and said 'you can't afford it,'" Comolli says.

Comolli's No. 1 focus was on player recruitment, but his style and approach caused obvious friction -- particularly with the club's manager, Martin Jol, who later complained his boss signed players without his agreement. The relationship did not end well.

If Comolli's approach sounds like "Moneyball", that's because it partly is. His ideas around data had already been forming by 2006, when Comolli was handed Michael Lewis' seminal book on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, and he read it cover to cover. Intrigued, he contacted Beane and the pair arranged to meet at the World Cup in Germany that summer, where they talked about their philosophies on data in sport.

Within two years, however, Jol had been sacked and Spanish coach Juande Ramos named as his replacement. Comolli pressed on with his system, making a number of signings the following season, including a promising young Croatian talent by the name of Luka Modric. But it did not bring success. Amid fractures over the sale of star striker Dimitar Berbatov and the claiming of just two points in their first eight games and sitting at the bottom of the Premier League table, Comolli and Ramos were sacked.

Comolli had lasted three years.

When Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought Liverpool in October 2010, they appointed Comolli as director of football strategy within a month. At Liverpool, he could not work with -- never mind buy -- Decision Technology, whose deal with Spurs ruled out the company's ability to work with other clubs. Liverpool did, however, hire the company's staff, instead: Michael Edwards moved from Decision Technology and was hired as Liverpool's head of performance and analysis while Ian Graham, one one of the firm's key brains, was hired to build Liverpool's data-science department.

They were just one part of Comolli's revolution at Liverpool. He brought Luis Suárez and Jordan Henderson to the club -- two of the stronger signings of that era -- but also had notable misses in Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. By April 2012, Comolli was let go and while he lasted 18 months this time around, the team he had assembled lasted much longer. Graham began work months after Comolli was sacked, while Edwards would be named Liverpool's next sporting director just four years later.

Together, they helped engineer a way for Liverpool to make better decisions in all facets of the club, including the hiring of Jurgen Klopp, and bring about a spell that saw the club reach the Champions League final on three occasions -- winning it in 2019 -- and end their painful 30-year wait for a Premier League title.

Comolli did not play a part in that success -- Edwards and his team should take all plaudits for that -- and it is worth making clear here that data is not the sole reason for success at Liverpool, maybe it is more aptly described as just one crucial supporter of it. None of it takes away from the momentum that Comolli started, though he still believes he was let go too soon.

"It was not fair what happened to me at Liverpool," Comolli says. "I heard that a few years ago from a connection between FSG and RedBird [who bought a minority stake in Liverpool in 2021.]"

By 2012, Comolli had tried to infuse his revolutionary ideas into English football. It had embraced them and even implemented them, but soon spit him out. "When I got the job at Spurs, I was 32-and-a-half [years old.] I'm 51 now, soon to be 52. In 20 years, a lot of things have changed me as a leader and the industry accepting data, plus data being much better than it was before."

There is a joke among Toulouse supporters that the club only signs players they do not know, names they have never heard of. Comolli takes great pride in that. "Being data-driven is totally ingrained in our culture," he says.

In the ensuing 18 months after he was ousted at Liverpool, Comolli took between media pundit work, as well as other jobs in and around football, including a stint as sporting director at Fenerbahce as sporting director. This latest chapter at Toulouse began when RedBird Capital approached him in 2019 to say they were interested in buying a football club in Europe. More precisely, they wanted him to run it.

"Their message was very strong: We want to buy a football club and want to be data-driven. That is what I wanted as well," Comolli says.

Meetings ensued: first a dinner in London and then more around the Super Bowl in Miami, where two of the firm's execs, Gerry Cardinale and Alec Sheiner, handed him a file with the names and profiles of 70 clubs they had outlined as potential options. "There were a lot of discussions over clubs that we could have bought, including big European clubs," he says. Comolli flicked through until he landed on Toulouse.

"It ticked all the boxes," he says. The city is the third-youngest in Europe, had a great academy and great facilities. He even knew the local area: He was born just 100 miles to the east in Béziers.

Toulouse also fame itself as the side that once knocked out Diego Maradona's Napoli in the 1986 UEFA Cup first round and as recently as 2008 played in the Champions League, but by 2020 had been sent down to Ligue 2 after years of flirting with relegation. RedBird Capital completed their takeover of the club in the first days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Immediately, Comolli set about introducing his data-led system. His first appointment was a club doctor; his second was the club's head of data, Julien Demeaux, who previously worked as an aeronautical engineer. He soon formed a management team, also adding head of strategy Selinay Gurgenc, head of recruitment, Brendan MacFarlane.

Their approach was about having a decisive presence in every facet of the club. It dictated the team's attacking style of play: data showed that the teams who got promoted typically led the league in offence, rather than defence. Data also provided a guiding tool for scouting and which players it recruits. That executive team uses their style of play to outline overlooked players in the market who would fit well. There are no coaches on the committee, although they are informed of signings before they're made.

It is a system that has worked well. The club signed striker Rhys Healey from MK Dons in England, and playmaker Branco Van den Boomen from De Graafschap in the Netherlands: Healey became Ligue 2's top scorer, while Van den Boomen topped the chart for assists. They are living examples of the "inefficiencies" in the market that Comolli's staff looks to exploit.

"The first summer, the fans were worried because we signed Van den Boomen from the second division in Holland and no one knew about him, but then he became a massive success," Comolli says.

There is more to it than data. Comolli explains at length how the club's culture has changed significantly, with staff previously describing the philosophy as "To-lose," and now see a club that has made progress in three years under their new ownership.

Sometimes though, it really does come down to hard numbers. In his first season in charge, Comolli and his team faced resistance from the first manager they hired, Denis Zanko. During the season when Comolli and his team said their predictive model said they would likely finish second if the club implements some key changes. "We told the coaching staff several times, almost on a monthly basis," he says. Zanko refused, eventually finished third and saw his side lose in a playoff to decide they were promoted. He was sacked at the end of the season.

His replacement Philippe Montanier was more successful, leading the club to the Ligue 2 title and then to mid-table finish and a qualification for the Europa League through beating Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé's Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final. It was one of the most memorable season's in the club's history.

However, the club's predictive model suggested they should have finished 11th rather than 13th, and Montanier was replaced this summer with Carles Martinez.

"The definition of a high-performance environment for me is that we bring people to the best of their capabilities," Comolli says. "So if someone can give nine out 10, we cannot build an environment where you give seven out 10. We need to bring him to nine out of 10 every individual we have, that's the high-performance environment we want to build."

Comolli was handed a chance at redemption this season. Life has not been easy since returning to Ligue 1, with Toulouse sitting 14th in a tightly-contested league this season, with just five points separating sixth from the relegation-threatened 16th place. However, it's in the Europa League where Comolli's team could test their plans against new, elite opposition.

In the first of their two fixtures against Liverpool, Comolli returned to the Anfield directors' box since he left the club, only to see his team sent packing with a 5-1 defeat. The return leg showed their progress. Toulouse battled to a 3-1 lead when they hosted Jurgen Klopp's side earlier this month, thanks in part to a well-taken strike from club top scorer Thijs Dallinga -- a summer signing from Eredivisie side Excelsior for a reported €2.5 million.

The match's ending, though, proved dramatic. An 89th minute strike from Diogo Jota cut the deficit to just one goal, and a stoppage-time goal by defender Jarell Quansah had looked to have levelled proceedings before VAR ruled the goal out, thereby handing Toulouse a memorable victory. At the end, Comolli came onto the pitch and clapped toward the fans.

"Without sounding arrogant, we planned for it," Comolli told The Athletic weeks later. "We knew the game at Anfield was going to be hell, but we thought, 'We can do something at home,' so we approached it differently. It was not unexpected."

Maybe Comolli was just speaking in hindsight, or maybe he was one step ahead.