A scout’s role in the age of data analysis

Big Data’s new role and how it contributes to a scout’s credibility

With the introduction of data analysis and in-depth reporting, scouts had to adapt to modernity and use big data to their advantage, while working in collaboration with their club’s data analysis department. This has altered the scouts’ roles considerably, given that their approach now heavily relies on the interpretation of data. How different is a scout’s job compared to 30 years ago?

Let’s start by saying that this is not a nostalgic piece taking us back to football’s “golden era”, nor is this article an attack on the sport’s modern age. Football has changed, the world has changed, and every major player in the sport industry has had to adapt to the inevitable developments of the manner in which things are carried out in the 21st century. Alex Ferguson has based most of his success and longevity on his ability to change with the times; he updated his backroom staff when needed, and even sold important players for the sake of his team’s continuous success.

Talent scouts have been the most affected by the arrival of data analysis. While this could easily be misconstrued as a threat to their job security, the job of a data analyst is to complement a scout’s findings, and even make their jobs easier. Let’s look at it this way:

Whilst data has always been used in football, its presence has traditionally been less broad than its current extent, with its role hardly as predominant as it is today.

Traditionally, a scout would hear of a young talent and have to travel to see him play in order to compile his set of notes and data before presenting his findings to the club’s manager. Some information was of course known on the player in question, such as his goal-to-shot ratio, appearances, assists, and so on; basic raw data which allowed the club to shortlist the players which fit their requirements.

When the scout would then travel to see the player, this is when he earned his money. Aspects of a player’s game which cannot be put on a spreadsheet, such as the player’s movement around the pitch, his positioning, and even his sheer grit are all factors which need to be examined up close — and no data can ever replace a scout in this regard.

In the 1990’s and earlier, certain managers had an edge over their counterparts in regards to their knowledge of a certain league. For example, Arsene Wenger’s arrival to Arsenal in 1996 saw him arrive in a league where not many French players had played; and his extensive knowledge of his home country allowed him to lure players such as Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Sylvain Wiltord, Thierry Henry, and many more. While some of those players were already playing outside of France, they were relatively unknown on the other side of the Channel, which gave Wenger a welcome advantage in his first few years as Arsenal manager.

However, nowadays, in an almost fully-globalised world, the recruitment landscape has changed. Very few top-flight clubs have an edge over their competitors, and their ressources must be used in a much more efficient way in order to identify a potential target before anyone else.

This is where big data comes in.

While it’s clear that no football club will recruit a player solely based on his data, its role is to help the manager compile a shortlist much faster than he previously would. With the advancement of technology and the wide range of things data can do, a manager can tell his data analyst exactly what he is looking for [insert unrealistic expectations here], receive the results in a matter of minutes or hours at most, and send his scout to do the sniffing in order to get a clearer view on the player.

Just like a recommended song on Youtube, a data analyst’s software can suggest a virtually unknown football player which fits the set list of required qualities. It’s almost impossible to know every football player in the world, but it has now become much easier to gain information on any target which fits a manager’s criteria.

Data can be extracted by anyone with the necessary piece of software, however, which increases the importance of data analysts in modern football. When taken into isolation, a player’s statistics can mean very little — it’s the analyst’s ability to form a narrative around this data which can be beneficial to a club.

If the manager is looking for a player who is comfortable passing with both feet, is good in the air, weighs passes perfectly, and efficiently runs in behind the defenders, data can actually reflect all of this into a comprehensive report. In order to save time, an analyst can also analyse the pieces of big data generate this information across several matches in order to determine whether a player’s performance was a one-off or a continuous trend. With every bit of a player’s movement and actions being tracked, the proverbial sky is the limit.

That’s where the scout will work in tandem with the analyst who will extract the core pieces of big data. After all of this information has been scrutinised and a shortlist has been created, the scout will then be able to travel to see the player in action and determine whether these statistics are accurately reflected, as well as gain some deeper insight into the player’s on-pitch performance, as mentioned earlier in this article. Does the player position himself well in crucial situations? Does he cover his team-mates when necessary? How dedicated is he to winning the ball back when he or his team-mates lose it?

A player’s character can understandably not be reflected in an analyst’s report, which further reaffirms a scout’s role in the modern game; his ultimately has the final say, before the manager decides if the player is worth signing.

A football scout, in the traditional sense of the term, has not changed much over the last 30 years. His role is still to attend matches and training sessions to watch football players before reporting back to the manager. He still needs to use his seasoned eye in order to determine whether the player has something special.

With the new trend of younger managers taking over the European leagues, a scout’s role is not one I’d attribute to anyone less than 50 years old — experience and a trained eye is crucial when evaluating a player. You want your scout to have seen thousands of players in order to recognise a special talent when he sees one.

The modern scout is the same kind of irreplaceable asset to a football club, he’s just had to adapt to a new type of playing field.