Click and buy: How scouting embraced the 21st century
Fewer cold nights in the stands watching prospects as sophisticated software lets clubs play Football Manager for real
Manchester United completed one of the best deals of recent years with the capture of 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 only signed 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 the kind of scouting network, both formal employees and informal contacts, assembled over decades by the likes of Manchester United.
More and more, clubs are turning to technology to fill the void, and cut the cost of expensive trips to watch promising youngsters. In the past year, the leading football data companies have turned their focus to player recruitment and are 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.
John Coulson, product manager at Opta, said: "Without question, it is growing quickly. Three years ago, no one provided this kind of data. Now, I would say, at least seven Premier League clubs are using this data to supplement their recruitment."
The widening use of statistical analysis in player recruitment is the next logical step for firms like Prozone, Amisco and Opta, who have been supplying clubs with ever more sophisticated evaluations of their players' individual and collective performances for the past decade.
Basically the companies provide products that 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.
Prozone came into the game last summer with a product called Recruiter, covering detailed information on around 35,000 players from 6,000 games a year around the world, going back three years.
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.
"I don't see it as replacing traditional scouts but supplementing them, for scouts to use themselves. 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."
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. We believe in using the very best performance and player analysis tools to enhance every aspect of team, player and club development."
For a club like Everton, the aim is to find young players with great potential, such as Tim Cahill, who joined for £1.5m from Millwall in 2004 when he was 24, when the judgment of the scouts and the manager David Moyes was backed up by the statistics provided by Prozone.
Opta launched their Data Scout package three years ago, and claims to have a large database that covers 15 competitions across Europe and Latin America, dating back in some cases to before 2000.
Opta's Coulson says: "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.
Statistical analysis is the driving force 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 used computer-generated statistical analysis to sign overlooked players on the cheap and formulate a successful playing system that debunked the given wisdom of how to win baseball matches.
His attention has since moved to football. Beane worked with Dr Bill Gerrard at the Leeds University Business School, whose work includes the electronic screening of players which was adopted by Chelsea's director of football operations Mike Forde when at Bolton.
Starting in 2005, Dr Gerrard helped Forde utilise computer data to identify potential transfer targets who could be watched by scouts. His work set the tone for much of what is produced by the three main companies fighting it out for dominance.
The French company Amisco, which has a strong European slant, also makes a Recruiter package. Last month Amisco's parent company Sport Universal Process (SUP) completed a 100 per cent takeover of Prozone Sports from Sky Blue Sports and Leisure, and the futures of both companies are uncertain.
No one is claiming that traditional scouting will be totally replaced by computer analysis. However, it seems likely that scouting will be reduced, as more clubs will rely on statistical resources as a guide to which players to spend their money on.
Technology first as Yeovil seal player 'twansfer'
This summer has seen two new additions to football's growing array of high-tech advances. When Yeovil Town's manager, Terry Skiverton, needed new players to boost his depleted squad, he appealed on Twitter for fans to send him their suggestions to @terryskiverton. He told BBC radio last month: "It's not a bit of fun for me, it's a serious business. I can't afford a scouting system."
Skiverton was inundated by replies, from supporters suggesting non-league wannabes to players rotting in the Premier League reserves. He struck gold when Yeovil fan @seb_hoyle tweeted: "Kieran Agard pacey forward released by Everton...Worth a look! :)", having watched him play for Everton against BATE Borisov in the Europa League in December 2009.
Two days later, and Agard had been given a trial at Yeovil, where he later agreed terms on a one-year contract to complete what is thought to be the world's first "twansfer".
The other first was former Manchester United midfielder Owen Hargreaves posting videos of himself training on YouTube to prove his fitness. Having watched the footage, West Bromwich Albion got in touch and may set up a deal.
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