Click and buy: How scouting embraced the 21st century

 

Manchester United completed one of the best deals of recent years with the capture of the Mexican striker Javier Hernandez for £7m from Guadalajara a year ago. "Chicharito" was scouted the traditional way – he was first flagged up by United's scouts in 2005 playing for the Mexican Under-17s and signed only after chief scout Jim Lawlor had spent three weeks in Mexico carrying out an in-depth assessment.

Every club craves unearthing such a precious gem as Hernandez, who scored 20 goals in a memorable debut season at Old Trafford. However, not every club can afford such a strong scouting network.

More and more, clubs are turning to technology to fill the void with leading football data companies focusing on player recruitment and pushing their products hard, believing it is an area of immense potential growth over the next decade. The next Hernandez is just as likely to have been spotted by a nerd at a computer screen as a scout on a football pitch.

The widening use of statistical analysis is one of the driving forces behind sabermetrics, the pseudo-science devised by baseball writer Bill James in the 1980s to highlight the most, and least, valuable performers in any given team. Sabermetrics has revolutionised baseball thanks largely to the work of Billy Beane at the Oakland Athletics.

Beane's attention has since moved to football and Opta launched its Data Scout package three years ago, while Prozone came into the game last summer with a product called Recruiter.

John Coulson, product manager at Opta, said: "At least seven Premier League clubs are using this data to supplement their recruitment."

Basically, the products work in a similar way to computer games such as Football Manager, by identifying the desired characteristics of a player – age, position, strengths, work rate – and then finding as many matches as possible. Adding to the number of criteria will whittle down options, until only a handful remain. Then, the scout or manager can watch videos of that player in action.

Simon Edgar, marketing manager at Prozone, said: "Every Premier League manager will be contacted by agents and scouts on a daily basis, and they cannot check them all out.

"If you have maybe 10 players you are thinking of buying, we could reduce that down to the last three. Then a manager could see those himself, rather than spending much more of his valuable time seeing all 10."

Opta's Coulson added: "What scout wouldn't like being able to see a player, look at his stats, and then see a video of all his goals, or assists?"

Both companies make great play of the way their products can help a manager build a case to the board for buying a certain player.

Everton are one of the clubs to have gone public about their use of Prozone's Recruiter. John Murtagh, Everton's head of performance, said: "The depth and objectivity of the player data offered by Recruiter sits perfectly with Everton's ethos."

Tim Cahill joined Everton for £1.5m from Millwall in 2004 when the judgement of the scouts and manager David Moyes was backed up by the statistics provided by Prozone.

No one is claiming that traditional scouting will be totally replaced by computer analysis. However, it seems likely more clubs will rely on statistical resources before buying a player.

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