PARIS — Liverpool’s home meeting with Toulouse tomorrow might not be their biggest European game of recent seasons, but the match offers a chance for a figure who was once highly influential on Merseyside to return to Anfield.
Taking his seat in the VIP section of the stadium will be Toulouse president Damien Comolli, the man who has overseen the club’s resurgence since his arrival in 2020, helping them climb out of the French second division to win silverware and return to continental competition.
Now 51, there was a time a decade ago when Comolli was one of the most important figures in the whole Premier League.
Long before that he worked as a scout for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, going on to develop an interest in the influence data analysis could have on performance and recruitment in football.
Later he worked as director of football at Tottenham Hostpur, where he was notably responsible for the signings of Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric.
Between 2010 and 2012, Comolli held a similar position at Liverpool in the wake of John W. Henry’s takeover of the club.
Among the players he brought to Anfield was Jordan Henderson, who overcame early scepticism to spend 12 years as a Liverpool player.
“At Liverpool I was reproached for having signed Jordan Henderson. People said it was a big mistake,” Comolli remembered in an interview with So Foot magazine last year.
“I can assure you that without him they wouldn’t have won the Champions League or the Premier League.”
A friend of Billy Beane, whose use of statistical analysis in baseball inspired the 2011 film Moneyball, Comolli has instilled a data-driven approach to recruitment at Toulouse that has been central to their recent success.
Toulouse, France’s fourth-biggest city, is better known for rugby than football and TFC had just been relegated from Ligue 1 in 2020 at the end of a season curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was in the wake of that the club was bought by American investment firm RedBird Capital Partners, who later also took over Italian giants AC Milan.
Comolli was appointed as president and oversaw the implementation of a scouting system that has leaned heavily on data analysis, with impressive results.
After a bedding-in period, a cosmopolitan squad ran away with the Ligue 2 title in 2022.
Last season they consolidated in the top flight and won the French Cup, crushing Nantes 5-1 in the final with two goals from Thijs Dallinga, a little striker unearthed from the Dutch second division.
It was a rare trophy for Toulouse and it sealed their place in this season’s Europa League, although only after they were cleared by Uefa amid concerns about their links to Milan, who are competing in the Champions League.
Uefa has multi-club ownership regulations in place to protect the integrity of its competitions and there is a possibility Toulouse could end up playing Milan, should the Italian side drop down from the Champions League.
Not that Toulouse are looking that far ahead in their first European campaign since 2009.
Some of their key players from last season have since departed, including Dutch midfielder Branco van den Boomen, who joined Ajax.
Comolli changed the coach too, replacing Philippe Montanier with Spaniard Carles Martinez Novell, who used to work in the Barcelona academy.
Toulouse sit in mid-table in Ligue 1 with just two wins in nine games, but they have made a good start in Europa League Group E, following a 1-1 draw away to Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium by beating LASK of Austria 1-0 at home.
Now they face a pivotal double-header against Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.
“This is an important event in the history of the club,” Comolli told regional daily La Depeche after the draw was made.
“It will be fabulous to go to Anfield. It is a place I know very well.
“They are the favourites to win the competition. I don’t know if they are equipped to win the Premier League but it is almost easier for them to win the Europa League.”