Note: This was originally given as a presentation at the Science + Football conference in May 2016. After a great many requests, it has been lazily converted into the article below.
In the beginning…
Cavemen scouts watched cavemen footballers live and in the flesh.
Cavemen invented television, and cavemen scouts could watch cavemen footballers on video.
Cavemen have invented computers.
And air conditioning.
New, useful tools in evaluating cavemen footballers in a search for the best, brightest, and undervalued.
What Did Video Bring To Scouting?
What Does Data Bring to Scouting?
Plenty of people talk about the “data revolution” in sports. For me, it’s just another step and another set of tools to use in the evolving recruitment landscape.
How Does It Work Inside a Club?
With a small recruitment team of 2 stats + 6 part-time scouts, we evaluated over 1000 players in a year for the first teams of Brentford and Midtjylland.
Yes, but were you successful? This is the most important factor, and obviously it depends on how you look at it.
After a disastrous start in the first 9 games due to a poor manager choice, Brentford earned points at nearly a playoff pace, despite awful injuries in the first half of the season. The team also lead the league in goals scored and avoided an FFP-related transfer embargo.
And most importantly, they did it with one of the lowest wage budgets in the league and a £10-11m transfer fee surplus* in the year we were involved in recruitment.
I’m going to notch that up as success, while admitting that at the start of the season, I was hoping for promotion just like the owner and every other Brentford fan out there.
*My estimate, not gospel truth.
Not Scouting Players Live is Ridiculous!
I get this sentiment a lot, both from fans and even from smart people who work inside of football. My perspective is like this
Take this quote for example:
“I can learn more about a player in 20 minutes in the stands than I can by watching him in hours of video footage.”
For this to be true, you either have to be some magical savant of player evaluation or you are full of shit. Conservatively, I would say 99% of people who feel this way have to be the latter.
This is a HUGE problem when it comes to scouting. If 4-5 games worth of video scouting work can be wiped away by sending one guy to the stadium, your process has a huge flaw, and likely so does your scout. It’s a correctable flaw, but if this type of thing is what decides whether you sign a player or not, good luck to you.
Yes, you need information about what the player is like with their coaches and teammates. That’s what personality profiles and background checks are for. Thinking you can get all of that information based on seeing a player once or twice in person is a myth the scouting world has sold itself.
Do I think there is potential value in watching certain positions live? Yes. And some leagues have no useable video, so old-fashioned, in-person scouting is the only way to get the job done. In general though, I would do as much video work as possible in any club that I work in for the reasons explained above.
The Story of Radamel Falcao
And all of this was above and beyond the ACL injury, which for a 28 year old striker is a real concern.
Loan fee: Unknown (Rumored to be 5-10M a season)
Wages: Massive (Rumoured to be 13M+ a season)
Outcome: 4 goals and 4 Assists at Manchester United. 1 Goal, 0 assists at Chelsea.
Lesson: Even if the ONLY THING adding data to your recruitment does is save you from a couple of bad decisions every year, they still pay for themselves. (In this case by saving something like 20M in wasted money on Falcao.)
Nate Silver and PECOTA
Reasoning behind this was two-fold. First, the scouts started to use basic numbers more to inform their scouting. Second, scouts have far more than just statistics at their fingers to evaluate prospects. They know whether guys are smart. Or overweight. Or hard working. Or any number of other things PECOTA did not know.
“The only way a purely stat-based list should be able to beat a hybrid list is if the biases introduced by the process are so strong that they overwhelm the benefit.”
Building a Hybrid Process
What follow are actual quotes from scouts I have collated by networking with other football people for the last couple of years.
So if this is the general environment you are walking into, what do you do?
Profile Your Scouts
Are they biased:
Data analysis is complicated and hard. Scouting is also complicated and hard, but uses an entirely different set of skills.
One club I know of has scouts in 37 different countries, speaking more than 10 different native languages. Standarizing output across that organization simply based on linguistic differences is nearly impossible.
Standardize Your Scouts
Lesson: You need to standardize traditional scouting output as much as possible to make better decisions and so that even your scouting output is consistent.