Dan Ashworth: The First Piece in Newcastle’s Jigsaw?
Since the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and Amanda Staveley completed their takeover of Newcastle United in October 2021 there have been sweeping changes at the club.
Steve Bruce was sacked just 13 days after the takeover, Managing Director Lee Charnley was dismissed only a few weeks later, Eddie Howe has been appointed as Head Coach, yet Staveley’s search for a top-tier footballing executive is still yet to bear fruit.
Following the reported failure to convince Ajax Director of Football Marc Overmars to switch allegiances and move over to the North-East, it seems that Staveley and outside consultant Nick Hammond have turned their attention to Brighton’s Dan Ashworth.
Ashworth’s body of work as Technical Director at West Brom, the FA and Brighton has cemented him as a one of the most desirable executives in the English game and, if appointed, he could be the key to unlocking the Magpie’s undeniable potential.
After a rather humble playing career, Dan Ashworth began his backroom staff journey at Peterborough, becoming the club’s academy director in 2000 before moving on to Cambridge as their Director of Centre of Excellence. But it was his move to West Brom in March 2004 where Ashworth’s talents truly came to light.
He began as an assistant to West Brom’s Youth Manager, and future England Under 21 Manager Aidy Boothroyd, before taking over entirely in July.
Following his three years as Youth Coach and Academy Manager at the Baggies, owner Jeremy Peace decided to offer Ashworth the position of Technical Director in December 2007.
Sporting Directors were not commonplace in English football at the time, Ashworth has since admitted that initially, he was unsure what the job would entail yet he fitted in seamlessly.
Despite Newcastle’s astronomical financial power, their future Technical Director must be someone with experience of the English and European market, with a track record of successful business.
Ashworth certainly fits this bill, and it was at the Hawthorns where he began to demonstrate his nuance in the transfer market.
With a net spend of only £15.5 million between 2007 and 2012, Ashworth and his recruitment department built a team that would see West Brom remain in the Premier League for 5 out of his 6 seasons at the club, finishing 11th in the 2010/11 season, going one better the following season, culminating with an 8th place finish in 2012/13, the Baggies’ highest finish in the English top division since 1980.
Some of West Brom’s most recent Premier League stalwarts were purchased during Ashworth’s time coordinating West Brom’s player recruitment. Chris Brunt and James Morrison who were both recruited during the 07/08 window, ended up making 762 appearances for the club for a combined fee of £5.41 million.
Martin Olsson, club captain and towering centre back was purchased for a modest £900,000 and made over 200 Premier League appearances, and Yousouff Mulumbu made 211 appearances after his £180,000 move from Paris Saint-Germain.
Craig Dawson, currently a key member of David Moyes’ West Ham side, made 225 appearances for the Baggies following his £270,000 move from Rochdale in 2011. Ashworth was able to build a squad more than capable of competing in the Premier League whilst maintaining a very modest net spend.
His time at West Brom also demonstrated Ashworth’s willingness and ability to adapt the nature of his transfer business to the tactical style of the manager employed.
During his tenure, West Brom were managed by Tony Mowbray, Roberto Di Matteo, Roy Hodgson and Steve Clarke, all (maybe with the exception of Mowbray) with a similar style of play – a mid-to-low block – rather than the expansive possession-based sides that Ashworth has overseen during his time with England and Brighton.
It was this good work that pushed Ashworth onto the radar of the FA, who offered Ashworth the job of Director of Elite Development in September 2012.
In his interview with the Coaches Voice, it is clear that Ashworth’s priority was to create a coherent philosophy that would transcend through all England teams, from the senior men and women’s teams all the way through to the youth and development sides – an “England DNA”. Ashworth was also tasked with ‘bringing St George’s Park to life’.
He recognised the importance of a visual pathway from the youth teams to the senior squads, he decided to add an Under-15 side, as well as expanding the Under-18s and Under-20s; with all teams training in the same facility the route to the top was clear, and results followed.
Firstly, there was the U-17 European Championship win in 2014, with Dominic Solanke’s goals proving to be decisive.
This was followed by the 2017 U-20 World Cup Win in South Korea, after a winner from Everton’s talisman Dominic Calvert-Lewin; and then there was the U-17 World Cup win in India in 2017, a team filled with promising young players – Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Emile Smith Rowe and Conor Gallagher.
Ashworth was beginning to develop a track record of success, and this is before even considering the recent revival of the senior team’s competitive performances.
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His decision to implement a meaningful and effective England DNA has been a lasting success and has arguably put English football in the healthiest position it has been for decades. But his ability to effectively allocate resources into talent development and coaching to ensure that this DNA is coherent throughout is arguably more impressive.
It took Ashworth just six years to overhaul the core of English football, and whilst the senior side is still yet to win a major trophy, they seem more likely than any team in recent memory.
So, Ashworth can create a competitive Premier League side on a very modest budget, can implement a lasting and effective philosophy through a national team coaching setup, but Newcastle fans may be wondering whether he is the right man to be the steward of potentially the largest transfer budget that the Premier League has ever seen.
However, his time at Brighton demonstrates a different side to Ashworth’s executive ability – his ability to create an expansive, possession-based side on a high net spend.
Ashworth was offered the job as Technical Director of Brighton on 26th September 2018. Brighton had just finished their debut Premier League season in 15th under the management of Chris Hughton.
Nevertheless, Brighton Chairman Tony Bloom felt it necessary to direct their style of play away from Hughton’s low-block defending and direct attack to a more progressive possession-based style.
Appointing Ashworth to Technical Director was crucial to ensure a cohesive club-wide commitment to what has turned out to be a sweeping change.
Ashworth has overseen a transformation of Brighton’s squad; only 5 of the players named on Hughton’s final team-sheet to face Manchester City have survived this period of transition – Dan Burn, Shane Duffy, Lewis Dunk, Pascal Groß and Yves Bissouma.
Once Graham Potter was announced as Brighton manager the direction of the club was clear; to create a squad capable of playing possession-orientated attacking football.
Ashworth’s role in crafting a side that have the required technical ability to play in Potter’s system as well as tactical adaptability to change formations and patterns of play as frequently as Potter does should not be overlooked.
The unearthing of top players like Bissouma, Leandro Trossard, and Tariq Lamptey is impressive enough, however all have slotted into Potter’s changeable systems seamlessly.
Trossard’s technical ability in tight areas allowed Potter to use him as a false 9 to overrun Liverpool’s midfield during their 2-2 draw in October.
Bissouma has become one of the most coveted midfield players in the Premier League and Tariq Lamptey’s pace and forward threat has given Potter the ideal Right Wing Back for a 3-5-2 system.
The summer capture of Marc Cucurella seems like yet another smart piece of business. Technically gifted and hardworking, he offers Brighton an attacking threat down their left and gives Potter more balance in his 3-5-2.
However, this rebuild has not come cheap. Brighton’s net spend since Ashworth arrived at the club stands at £135.93 million and without Ben White’s summer transfer to Arsenal this would be £188.61 million. However, the money spent has been spent wisely.
Brighton’s successes this season have not come through coincidence, they have originated from a carefully thought-out recruitment plan that has enabled Potter to remain tactically flexible against the bigger sides whilst maintaining an ability to technically dominate sides they believe that can beat. Ashworth’s work must be credited.
So, what would Ashworth’s in-tray look like if he did make the move up to the North-East? What would he have to prioritize, and where would Newcastle’s huge transfer kitty be best placed?
Remodelling the backline should be an absolute priority for Ashworth should he make the move; Newcastle have conceded the second-most goals in the league, only behind Norwich.
Their current crop of central defenders lacks both the technical ability to effectively carry out Howe’s desire for patient possession play and the defensive proficiency to pre-emptively step out of a lower block to stop brewing attacks.
An obvious, but expensive, solution to this problem would be Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu. His mobility, strength and naturally proactive defensive positioning could prove invaluable to Howe as he attempts to turn his defence’s fortunes around.
Salisu also has the confidence and ability to drive out from the back, with 83% of his progressive dribbles ending successfully and could become a key cog in starting attacks from defence.
Burnley’s James Tarkowski, whose contract expires at the end of the season, should be high on Newcastle’s shortlist. His defensive stoicism, aerial dominance in addition to his underrated ball-playing abilities would make him an ideal fit for Howe’s backline.
Freiburg’s Nico Schlotterberg would also be a good fit for Howe. His aggressive front-foot defending would make a change from the reactive Ciaran Clark or Jamal Lascelles, but it is his creative abilities that catch the eye.
His progressive passing and marauding runs from deep would offer Newcastle a creative force that they lack with the current crop of central midfielders, with the exception of imminent signing Bruno Guimarães.
Another technical central midfielder to play alongside Guimarães should also be a priority, especially considering the importance Howe places on his double-pivots for creativity and ball retention.
Guimarães, if completed, would represent a fantastic piece of business for Newcastle but it seems unlikely that they plan to play him alongside Jonjo Shelvey or Isaac Hayden for the long-term.
Out-of-favour Harry Winks, Ashworth’s own signing Yves Bissouma, or Sheffield United’s Sander Berge could all be realistic targets and all would improve the potential for ball retention and progressive possession in midfield.
The transformation of Brighton’s midfield under Ashworth’s tenure should give Newcastle fans real encouragement that he would be the right man to remodel their own.
Whilst Ashworth would have a large inbox if he was to accept Technical Directorship at Newcastle but his work at West Brom, the FA and Brighton have demonstrated that a job of this magnitude is well within his ability.
It is imperative for a club, the size, and with the financial firepower of Newcastle that they define their direction and identity as soon as possible.
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The early years of Manchester City’s takeover act as a clear example that spending money on big-name transfers without coherent plans for how to integrate them into the side is not sustainable.
The appointment of a Director of Football/Technical Director is crucial and whilst Nick Hammond seems to be key in the January dealings for the Toon, Staveley and the PIF must ensure that a long-term Director is appointed.
Ashworth would not only be a suitable candidate but the outstanding candidate. His desire for a coherent club identity, his tremendous work in the transfer market with both a large budget and a modest one and his track record of success make him a man that Eddie Howe and the Newcastle faithful should be calling for.
By: Charlie Watkins / @90PlusFour
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Dan Mullan / Getty Images