It has been a while since the World Cup was the place to be for talent scouts, probably going back to the days when Gary Breen was on the verge of joining Inter Milan following stellar performances for the Republic of Ireland in 2002.
“He was a free agent and looked like he was Paolo Maldini,” says Mladen Sormaz, director of football analytics at 777 Partners and former head of football analytics at Leicester City.
Sormaz smiles then adds: “I think most teams now wouldn’t make the same mistakes they made 20 years ago. I think half the Senegal squad got moves off the back of that World Cup. The small sample is an absolute killer.”
Reading a lot into a little is not a good idea when it comes to scouting, especially in a situation as unique as a World Cup. “We did it in the early days because it was the only way you could see players, and you could also build contacts and meet people,” says Mike Rigg, who has held senior recruitment roles at Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Burnley.
“But as technology changed, scouting completely changed. There’s still people who say, ‘No, I’ve got to be at the tournament, I’ve got to be there’, which I kind of get. But it’s more of a habit and a lifestyle than real productivity.”
Scouting has gone through huge changes over the last couple of decades and evolved largely as a result of the technological advances that Rigg mentions — video and data in particular. Until recently though, there was still a big emphasis on being at games and watching players performing live.
The global pandemic was a game-changer for scouting in that respect. Travel restrictions and stadium closures forced clubs to rethink their approach to recruiting players and, as with many other workplaces and professions, the short-term solutions ended up making sense in the longer term too.
According to an experienced Premier League technical director — who spoke anonymously to protect his relationships within the game — live scouting (watching games in the stadium) accounted for 90 per cent of all scouting prior to COVID-19. Now, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that video scouting has taken over — much to the frustration of some traditionalists.
“They say, ‘You’ve got to see them with your eyes. You can’t ever sign a player without watching them live’. Well, we all did in Covid,” says the technical director.
That is not to say that live scouting is dead — far from it. Watching games via the laptop saves time and money. It also comes with a pause and rewind button. However, you can’t see what is not on the screen (scouts don’t always want to be following the ball) and if you’re not at the match, you don’t pick up the information and intelligence which clubs value so much, even if it’s just via small talk.
The first point, about not following the ball, is something Sormaz picks up on. “Especially with defenders, being there live is a lot more important, just because of how much defending is done through organisation and communication,” Sormaz explains. “A lot of that is off screen. And really, really good defending is done very early.”
That being said, it is widely accepted that the World Cup is a difficult live scouting environment, whether to watch potential signings or to analyse prospective opponents.
Rigg was involved in the latter at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, as part of his work at the Football Association at the time, and with the benefit of hindsight wondered whether attending games was that helpful. “I reflected on the Brazil trip and it was amazing and I got a lot out of it. But you questioned the productivity of being in the stadium as opposed to using modern techniques,” he says.
“Our seats were horrendous, like row Z behind the corner flag. At the same time, we had a hub set up with the analysis team at St George’s Park. Every single game was analysed there by video. So we were doing the live scouting and they were doing the video analysis. Did we really pick up infinitely more information being in the stadium than the performance analysis teams do inside the video suite?”
With talent scouting, there are other issues to consider around a World Cup, not least how much significance should be attached to an individual’s performances in a condensed period of time and at a sporting event that takes place every four years.
“If you’re relying on the World Cup for your sign-off, I think you’re in trouble,” the Premier League technical director says. “If you’re getting excited because a player has played five or six games in a three-week period and done well, I think that’s naive scouting. But to go there expecting to find the next best thing for your football club, I think that’s incredibly dangerous.”
In The Nowhere Men, Michael Calvin’s book about scouting, Brentford’s owner Matthew Benham makes a point about the World Cup during a conversation about how often he expects a player to have been watched before establishing whether they should be signed.
“If I want to know how good a player is, I want to speak to a person who has seen that player play a hundred times, in all conditions,” Benham tells Calvin. “What tends to happen is so many people in football will see that player for 40 minutes and decide they are the oracle. They absolutely know. A typical example involved Gerard Houllier, when he signed the United States midfield player Michael Bradley on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach for Aston Villa.
“He was asked whether he had scouted him, and he replied he had watched him in the World Cup. He said, ‘He played four games. That was enough for me’. Four games is a tiny, tiny sample. Anyone can play particularly well or badly in that timeframe. Perhaps most importantly, those four live games in South Africa were for the United States, against England, Slovenia, Algeria and Ghana. England are OK, but others are Championship-level teams.”
Sormaz nods. “I completely agree with that statement (about four games not being enough). If someone has a great World Cup, most clubs that I know would want to then go and see that player live for his club. You can backdate your scouting and see how they’ve been on a video, but they’re still going to want one or two confirmatory things in terms of how he plays for his club.”
Elaborating on that point, Sormaz talks about character and personality scouting, which he says “is a real thing” that requires scouts to delve deeper into a player’s background. “The good scouts will get into their youth coaches who might be at the game, or the network around the player to try to find out what sort of risk you’re taking on the character”.
The World Cup is not the time or place to be doing that sort of digging. The clock will be ticking and, realistically, those people are unlikely to be at matches. “The work has to be in the bank,” says Sormaz, who suspects that “a club like Brentford” would have extensive knowledge of all the “middle-tier” players expected to shine at the World Cup.
It makes you wonder whether it is still possible for a player to emerge from the shadows in this day and age; perhaps a youngster who is still in his domestic league, yet to move to Europe or experience elite-level continental club competition.
“Ukraine didn’t get to the World Cup but the kid (Mykhaylo) Mudryk at (Shakhtar Donetsk),” says Sormaz. “He’s had a good Champions League, but had he not had those games and just had a good run of form at a World Cup, he would be the perfect example of your nightmare scenario where you say, ‘I think this guy’s really good but… ’. He’s made under 30 senior appearances in his career. That’s a situation where the smarter clubs would probably wait. But someone might take a risk.”
A risk that is likely to come at a significant cost too. Although a good World Cup alone should never be a reason to sign a player, everybody you speak to on this subject agrees that price tags will be hugely inflated on the back of impressive performances in Qatar.
Colombia’s James Rodriguez, who joined Real Madrid from Monaco after winning the Golden Boot in Brazil in 2014, is a classic example of what might be described as a World Cup tax. Madrid paid about €90million (£71m) for Rodriguez when they signed him two weeks after the World Cup finished.
Some were planning for this sort of scenario months ago, according to the Premier League technical director. “A club that we spoke to about potentially getting a player of theirs in the summer basically said they’re going to sit tight until January because, ‘He’s going to the World Cup, they’re in a fairly easy group, we think their value will rocket during the tournament, and we’re going to sell in January’.”
Talking to a number of clubs across Europe’s top leagues about their scouting plans for the World Cup finals, the general consensus is that watching the tournament from home is a far better use of time and money than sending staff out en masse. In some cases, clubs will allocate a particular group or team for a scout to follow remotely.
That said, nobody underestimates the value of having a set of eyes and ears on the ground in Qatar, where, in the words of one experienced talent spotter, you could end up “bumping into a club scout and overhearing things that you wouldn’t hear if you were watching from the office, like ‘He’s supposed to be a wrong ’un’”.
Sormaz would send a scout to the World Cup for that exact reason. He talks about a “division of labour” and how it’s important for the live scouts to ignore the data and video as much as possible and instead focus on the information that they can glean from being at a game. “Even if you turn up and you’re stuck in a scouting section (at a World Cup), you’ll get so many leads on stuff,” Sormaz says.
“Say Austria had qualified and you went to watch one of their matches, and there’s a domestic scout there, the amount of stuff you can find out, mainly by chance… scouts all love exchanging information, especially if the player is not a target for them. In that case, that might as well be your scout, because they want to show that they know the player really deeply. So there’s stuff like that, which you can’t really set up; it happens serendipitously, and you need people at big tournaments for that reason.”
One player in Qatar who will certainly be known to scouts is Cody Gakpo. He has scored three goals in four games for the Netherlands, who beat the U.S. on Saturday to reach the quarter-finals.
But even before his performances for his national side, his domestic form for PSV led to speculation he could move in January, having come close to signing for Manchester United in the summer. He has also been linked to Real Madrid.
Speaking after the win over the USMNT about his future, Gakpo told The Athletic: “I have to be honest, I am not thinking about that now. I am focused on the tournament and want to keep performing well, to keep helping the team. Hopefully when we become world champions we can think about other things.”
Having scouts out in Qatar to find out any further information on leading players, such as Gakpo, could be helpful to any future transfer plans.
Back home, club managers will turn into scouts too. This year the expectation is that managers will watch more World Cup matches than normal becau.se of the unusual timing of games. “So, consequently, they’ll get excited about a player or a performance, and rightly so. So will I,” the Premier League technical director adds, smiling.
“I’ll watch the World Cup and say, ‘Bloody hell, I didn’t know anything about the Ecuador left-back. He’s decent’. But then what you wouldn’t do is say, ‘Right, let’s have him in January’. You’d expect your scouting and data departments to have a body of work that would challenge the view that it’s a one-off and he’s having a golden spell in the World Cup, or he’s decent and it’s confirmed some of the things we thought.”
That body of work is comprehensive and, as well as the granular level of detail that is available around everything that happens on the pitch, even takes in psychological and social media profiling. In other words, no stone is left unturned, which can be a problem in itself.
“Due diligence on a player now is a million times more advanced,” Rigg says. “But the more that you look into a player’s profile, and you go back four seasons rather than four games, you’ll end up convincing yourself why not to sign someone. So there is a real challenge now not to get crippled by the information.”
Either way, Rigg finds it hard to believe that there will be much scouting, in the traditional sense of the word, in Qatar. “I would be surprised if many clubs go to a World Cup to try to find a player,” he says. “And this gets to the heart of your question: what are you scouting for? Are you scouting for discovery or for confirmation?
“Live scouting has become more about confirmation, not finding a player. Where scouting truly exists in terms of discovery is in the younger age groups, where you haven’t got the video or the data. It’s going out on a Sunday morning and watching the under-14s and under-16s. But if you’re turning up to a World Cup to try to find a player, it’s like, ‘What have you been doing for the last two seasons?’.”
(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic, images: Getty Images)
Read original article here
- Scouting at the World Cup: Eyes vs data and the importance of gossip
- Check all news and articles from the latest Soccer updates.