Michael Edwards: The Making of the Man Who Helped to Make Klopp's Liverpool

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 25, 2020

Michael Edwards with Jurgen Klopp
Michael Edwards with Jurgen KloppGetty

Search for "Michael Edwards" on Wikipedia and among others you'll find Michael Edwards the former Notts County defender, Michael Edwards the Australian film composer, Michael Edwards the pioneering art therapist, two Michael Edwardses who played Major League Baseball and Michael Edwards the British fragrance expert. But you won't find Michael Edwards the sporting director of Liverpool.

It is a measure of Edwards' low profile that despite being one of the architects of Liverpool's transformation into kings of European football and Premier League champions-elect (at least until the coronavirus outbreak put the season on ice), he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. He never speaks to the press and rarely makes public appearances, yet having helped to engineer the signings of players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, he is arguably one of the most influential figures in the English game.

Edwards, 40, started out as a performance analyst at Portsmouth and spent two years at Tottenham Hotspur before being brought to Liverpool in November 2011 by the club's former director of football Damien Comolli. Since arriving at the club, he has variously worked as head of performance and analysis, director of technical performance, technical director and, since November 2016, sporting director, a role in which he enjoys the steadfast trust of head coach Jurgen Klopp.

"It is a very good relationship," Klopp said last year. "He is a very thoughtful person. We don't always have to have the same opinion from the first second of a conversation, but we finish pretty much all our talks with the same opinion. Or similar opinions."

Edwards' eye for a player has turned him into one of the most-respected members of the Anfield hierarchy. But before he started spotting footballers, his dream was to become one.

Born and raised in Southampton on England's south coast, Edwards played youth football locally before signing for Peterborough United—then operating in English football's third tier—in 1995. A hard-working right-back, he turned out for Peterborough's under-18s alongside future Tottenham midfielders Simon Davies and Matthew Etherington and also made a handful of appearances for the club's reserve team.

"Michael was a good player," recalls Simon Wilson, who played alongside Edwards at Peterborough and later worked with him at analytics firm Prozone. "He played right-back normally, but could also play centre-back. He was composed on the ball and competitive off it, although quite slight. He had excellent endurance, I remember, and was strong mentally. He would be at the front of the running, on top of his gym programme and do all that was asked of him. A bit of a teacher's pet, we thought, but probably a coach's dream."

A recognisable figure in the youth team, with his neatly kept blond curtains, Edwards spent his time at Peterborough living in city-centre digs with his team-mates. His former colleagues recall someone who was more mature than other players his age, but whose sharp sense of humour made him a popular member of the squad.

Edwards' football career began at Peterborough.
Edwards' football career began at Peterborough.Alex Burstow/Getty Images

"He was quite quiet and shy initially, but massively came out of himself as time went on," Wilson tells Bleacher Report. "He has a good sense of humour and without being a dominant type, is happy to be the clown to make others laugh."

Edwards was released by Peterborough in March 1997 having never made a first-team appearance, but although he would come no closer to making it as a professional player, there were already signs that a future in the game awaited him. Another former team-mate remembers him being "tactically astute" and having "a good understanding of the game." His interest in computing was evident too, and he was teased by his Peterborough peers for throwing himself into an information technology (IT) module that the rest of the youth-team squad considered a waste of time.

After leaving the club, Edwards enrolled on a course at Peterborough Regional College before going on to obtain a degree in business management and informatics from the University of Sheffield. Initially he moved back to the Peterborough area and taught IT at a local high school, but in 2003 he returned to his native south coast after being taken on as a Prozone analyst by Portsmouth.

Prozone, a pioneering data analysis company, was still in its infancy. Aided by a small army of part-time processing staff based in a warehouse in Leeds, the firm's analysts would film matches and then meticulously break them down into datasets that could be used to objectively analyse a team's performances. At the time, it was revolutionary.

Barry McNeill, then Prozone's business development manager, was looking to place analysts from the company at professional clubs around England. Wilson was working as an analyst at Southampton, having been released by Peterborough at the same time as Edwards, and when McNeill came to visit him in 2003, he mentioned that his old team-mate was looking for new work opportunities. McNeill took Edwards on and immediately sent him to Portsmouth, where his role involved analysing the first team's performances, making presentations on the tactics of future opponents and evaluating potential transfer targets.

"At Portsmouth, Michael would have been an all-rounder: post-match analyst, technical scout and a confidant to players, as they sometimes had more of a thirst for learning than older generations of managers and coaches," McNeill tells Bleacher Report.

Portsmouth won the FA Cup while Edwards was at the club.
Portsmouth won the FA Cup while Edwards was at the club.CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images

Portsmouth assistant coach Jim Smith had become the first manager in England to use Prozone during his time at Derby, where his assistants Steve McClaren and Steve Round had been quick to appreciate the potential of the new technology. It took Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp a little longer to get to grips with it. During Edwards' early days at Fratton Park, Redknapp called him to complain that he had put a CD-ROM containing player data into the CD player in his car and couldn't understand why it wasn't playing anything.

Like their manager, Portsmouth's players had never been exposed to the kind of analysis that Edwards was presenting to them, but his first-floor office at the spartan Wellington Sports Ground, where the first team used to train, became a magnet to players like David James, Sean Davis, Peter Crouch and Richard Hughes.

"On Mondays, he used to be the first port of call for myself and a good few of the other boys," Hughes tells Bleacher Report. "We'd go into his office and have our stats read back to us on how we'd performed at the weekend. He'd played football himself, so he was used to that sort of camaraderie and those exchanges of banter with footballers.

"A lot of people in those roles come from a non-footballing background and sometimes they find fitting into the atmosphere of a football club quite difficult. Michael was different because he had an opinion, and he let you know it. He's got a great sense of humour and he wasn't afraid to tell me or even my more illustrious team-mates that we'd been garbage at the weekend, statistically speaking. He was the first person with that job description that I'd come across as a player."

In an indication of the rapport he enjoyed with Portsmouth's players, Edwards took responsibility for organising a weekly Champions League predictions game. Each week he would collect score predictions from the players, and whoever came bottom of the table would be obliged to drive a souped-up Robin Reliant to training and then modify it in some outlandish manner in time for the next round of Champions League fixtures.

Portsmouth achieved historic success during Redknapp's second stint at the club (he left for Southampton in 2004 but returned a year later), finishing ninth and eighth in the Premier League and memorably winning the FA Cup in 2008. While Edwards remained largely unknown outside the club, he was right at the forefront of what they were doing in the players' eyes.

"If I was going into a game on a Friday afternoon, I'd ask him what he could tell me about whoever I was playing against and if there was an angle he could give me to help me the next day," Hughes says. "It's probably more a question you'd ask a coach or a manager, but Michael had that respect from us. We treated him as someone whose input was not only worthwhile but desired."

Redknapp left Portsmouth for Tottenham in October 2008, and Edwards followed him a year later, taking up the role of head of performance analysis. Based in an office at Spurs' old training ground in Chigwell, north-east London, Edwards worked alongside fellow analyst Seamus Brady and enjoyed a close working relationship with first-team coach Joe Jordan, with whom he had previously worked at Portsmouth. One former colleague from his Spurs days remembers him as a football obsessive with strong opinions who was more than capable of holding his own in an argument.

Damien Comolli brought Edwards to Liverpool.
Damien Comolli brought Edwards to Liverpool.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Comolli, who spent three years at Tottenham prior to Redknapp's arrival, was appointed director of football at Liverpool by the club's new American owners Fenway Sports Group in November 2010. He headhunted Edwards from Spurs a year later to help implement a new data-led approach at Anfield—one that chimed with FSG's management of baseball's Boston Red Sox—alongside director of research Ian Graham.

"You are struck with how intelligent he is," Comolli said of Edwards in an interview with The Independent last year. "I like the fact that he challenges the conventional wisdom, like Billy Beane [of Moneyball fame]."

Asked to overhaul Liverpool's use of data analysis, Edwards endured a challenging first few years at the club. As a member of Liverpool's much maligned transfer committee, he was one of the people held responsible by fans for unsuccessful signings such as Iago Aspas, Lazar Markovic and Christian Benteke. There were also well-documented tensions with Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool's manager between 2012 and 2015, who felt that he and nobody else should be responsible for overseeing the club's football strategy. "I always think the manager is the technical director," Rodgers explained.

Edwards operated on the periphery during Rodgers' tenure. An agent whose client joined Liverpool in the summer of 2014 tells Bleacher Report he "didn't know he [Edwards] existed." But Klopp, who replaced Rodgers in October 2015, had no qualms about operating with a technical director, having enjoyed huge success within a similar structure at Borussia Dortmund. Together with FSG president Mike Gordon, they have succeeded in restoring Liverpool's lost lustre.

"I think he helped Liverpool's owners see that they could manage player trading, player development and staff recruitment more effectively," says Edwards' former Prozone colleague McNeill, who is now CEO of sports advisory and software company Sportsology.

"In some ways, he represents many new-age football people, and I think on the whole most people are encouraged by his success. He's shown that you can get to this type of leadership role with the right experiences, education and skill sets, rather than via the kind of nepotism you often find in football."

Edwards, who is married with two children, has been credited with successfully integrating analytical thinking into day-to-day decision-making at Liverpool. Initially more at home working alongside his fellow scouts and analysts, he did not move into his own office until he was made sporting director in 2016. His office sits directly opposite Klopp's on the first floor of Liverpool's Melwood training centre, and the German can often be found sitting on a sofa in Edwards' office, with his feet on a coffee table, informally discussing the day's business.

Edwards with Klopp and FSG President Mike Gordon
Edwards with Klopp and FSG President Mike GordonGetty

More likely to be seen in jeans, polo shirt and trainers than a suit and tie, Edwards is highly regarded behind the scenes at Liverpool, where his straight-talking approached is admired, and there is bemusement at management level that he has been portrayed by the media as some kind of laptop geek. Rather than a "numbers guy," one source explains, Edwards is simply seen as a "football guy." If he shuns the media, it is because he feels it would not be conducive to the effective performance of his duties to talk openly about his role, and in any case, Liverpool hardly need another spokesperson on the technical staff when they can already rely on the magnetic Klopp.

"He has a number of qualities, but I think his main strength is his judgment and decision-making," says Wilson, who went on to work for Manchester City and Sunderland and is the current director of football at Stockport County. "He doesn't really do fluffy. He is very entrepreneurial and bold in character and has a lot of conviction in getting to the thing that actually matters.

"I think what he has achieved at Liverpool would be every football club's dream. To turn around a club like that, in a sustainable way—young players coming through, low net spend—and improving every year, it's like every box is ticked. Liverpool are the best team in the world at the moment. They are the most admired club, and Michael has been a huge part of that."

While Edwards operates in the background, the fruits of his work sit front and centre. There may be no trace of him on Wikipedia, but he has made a mark where it matters.