Philadelphia Union’s progress under Earnie Stewart has been continuous and, quite often, subtle. An academy to rival the best in the country blossomed over the past three years, and, as Stewart stated in his exit interview, scouting has gone from an agent-driven endeavor to a data- and analytics-based system to identify players that best fit the specific needs of the club’s playing style. That style, of course, has also become far more consistent, with the club’s aggressive, possession-based style recognizable in both academy squads and the first team.
But with Stewart selected to lead the US Men’s National Team forward as General Manager, the Union needed to find a new Sporting Director who could not only build on the foundation Stewart put in place, but also take the organization to the place it wants to be: Competing in the MLS playoffs year after year.
In Ernst Tanner, the Union have found someone that shares the club’s vision for the future. And the 51-year old veteran of Germany and Austria’s top divisions brings with him a track record of innovative thinking, talent identification, and youth development that can move that vision a reality.
“I think that the chance in MLS to create something special is rather good,” Tanner tells me, “And that is a big motivation.”
“...the best personalities”
If you ask (nicely, of course), Ernst Tanner will tell the story of watching Roberto Firmino — then a teenager in Brazil’s second division, but now a Liverpool star and the best defensive striker in the world — take instructions from a coach. Firmino never moved a muscle, all the player’s attention focused on this moment in which he could soak up information and put it into practice. There was no egotistical revulsion at being told how to play, no boredom, no lethargy. Liverpool noticed the same thing, and it is no coincidence that Jurgen Klopp’s tenure at Merseyside has coincided with the acquisition of players that passed through Tanner’s world first. As the Union’s new Sporting Director said in a 2015 interview, “Our experience is that it’s not always our best talents that make it, but the best personalities.”
Although Tanner is a relative unknown in the United States, many of the players he has developed are household names for even the casual soccer fan. The aforementioned Firmino, Naby Keita, and Sadio Mane, now all with Liverpool, were recruited, signed, and developed while Tanner was at Hoffenheim and Red Bull Salzburg respectively. Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy, both recently sold to Bayern Munich, were spotted at a young age and brought to Hoffenheim under Tanner’s watch. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who last summer moved to Everton for an astronomical sum, was purchased from Reading and later sold at more than double the price to Swansea City.
This record of unearthing undervalued or underdeveloped talent and placing it in an environment that allows it to appreciate into a profitable asset is consistent throughout Tanner’s nearly 25 year career. “I'm quite famous in Germany for evaluating and detecting talent, and developing it,” he says. Though, as if to ensure he does not soak up undeserved credit, he quickly reminds me that the revolution at Hoffenheim, in which he was intimately involved, was a group effort driven by a collective belief in a novel approach to thinking about and playing soccer. Left unsaid, however, is that few outside Hoffenheim believed in the zonal marking and aggressive pressing that has since come to define modern soccer first in Germany and, more recently, throughout the world.
Ralf Rangnick imported the principles developed and practiced at Hoffenheim to the newly created Red Bull soccer ecosystem. Tanner soon joined him, taking over the Salzburg academy and helping to turn Red Bull’s clubs into a premier pipeline of modern footballing talent.
Red Bull teams play aggressive, full-throated soccer that aims to dominate games with energy and intensity. New York Red Bulls reflect one interpretation of this style, but it’s important to note that Salzburg, where Tanner has been hugely influential, marries front-foot defending with an ability to control a match through possession and rapid ball movement. They can be direct, but unlike New York they do not feel they must be in order to succeed. “What we are currently doing in Salzburg, we tried to develop the kind of methodology we had in Hoffenheim,” Tanner says. “We developed it further on, so I would even say that we are more progressive now in the way we are playing, pressing — we attack our opponents high up the field.”
Continual innovation and an openness to ideas are central to Tanner’s approach to soccer. The ideas eventually put into practice at Hoffenheim were initially greeted with extreme skepticism. When Rangnick first discussed them, on a television show back in 1998, the German national team coach responded with what can only be described as thinly disguised scorn: “I’m disappointed by this exaggerated debate about tactical systems,” Erich Ribbeck sniffed. “For instance when, as happened on Saturday, a colleague is selling platitudes on television in a manner as if the Bundesliga coaches were a bunch of dimwits.”
Bundesliga coaches are not, of course, dimwits. But like any group presented with a set of ideas that diverged quite significantly from those they held, the German establishment resisted.
Tanner did not.
“The philosophy and methodology which was developed there was the initial start of a new way of interbreeding tactics in football,” the new Union Sporting Director explains. “It's interesting if you know that Jurgen Klopp in his time in Germany in the beginning, he was more or less trying to copy what he saw or what he experienced in the games against Hoffenheim at that time.
“There is one story where they lost 3-0 against Hoffenheim with Borussia Dortmund and afterwards he went to the locker room and told his players, ‘Look boys, we need to play exactly like them.’”
Many who embrace innovative ideas then become stuck to those principles and are loathe to continue evolving; think Arsene Wenger at Arsenal as a recent example. But for clubs that do not spend their way out of a slump, innovation must become a core part of how they operate, and Tanner’s commitment to continually re-evaluating his own beliefs has allowed RB Salzburg to punch above its weight year after year. In 2017, Salzburg won the UEFA Youth Cup, dropping Manchester City, Paris St.-Germain, Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona on the way to a 2-1 victory over Benfica in the final. In that championship match, Salzburg overcame a first half deficit with a combination of fitness and unwavering belief in their system. Benfica’s elite talent had no answers.
The notion that tactics and behind-the-scenes innovation lead to the type of success that others believe can only flow from endless transfer market investment is central to how Tanner operates. And while some of those innovations can be clear to see — Google ‘Footbonaut,’ I’ll wait — others are as subtle as focusing on players’ mental development with special exercises and floor markings or using novel tools to collect new, difficult-to-capture forms of data. Another innovative approach that has helped the Red Bull group overcome the big spending behemoths of Europe? Basic teamwork, but juiced up to eleven as Spinal Tap might say. Tanner’s Salzburg required every member of the team to work in every phase of the game. You might think this is obvious or perhaps simple to teach and implement. It is not.
“If you want to be successful in modern soccer,” Tanner argues, “You need to build a good team. The way I stand for and the philosophy is absolutely ‘team play’. The whole team is working together in every phase of the game.
“And that's what you do not see very often.”
Working to win
In accepting the job as Philadelphia Union’s Sporting Director, Ernst Tanner has a chance to produce that team play in which he so strongly believes. The Union’s strong academy and consistent style of play, which values fearlessness, aggression, and controlling a game from start to finish, provides an ideal platform for Tanner to implement the progressive ideas he has developed at Salzburg. Additionally, Philly’s commitment to ensuring their young talent has a path to the first team fits perfectly with a man whose mantra, ‘Von nix kommt nix’ translates as something akin to, ‘With hard work comes results.” Those in the academy that show the character to overcome all the obstacles that separate an ambitious young player from a professional career will be rewarded, and those that excel and dream of playing abroad will eventually live out that dream.
And, most importantly, Tanner’s vision for the Union — blending progressive thinking with an unshakeable faith in youth — will be bolstered by his lengthy track record of talent identification and a proven ability to implement a distinct style of play. Years spent working with and alongside the best minds in Germany have prepared Tanner to lead the Union. These elements should combine to create a sustainable winning environment. And that, more than anything else, is why Ernst Tanner is in Philadelphia: He wants to win.