UPDATED: Now with added “Part 2”
FINDING football talent has changed radically in recent years with the appliance of science.
Number-crunching, video analysis and vast searchable data bases are every bit as important as the wily old scout with a notebook in the stand.
But the basic aim of the job remains the same says Gary Gill, Boro’s Head of Recruitment.
“We just try to give the manager the tools to do his job,” said Gill. “We work hard to make sure he can put the best possible team on the pitch and help find players who can get Boro back into the Premier League.”
Most Boro fans will have a wish list of targets but it is not as simple as it sounds getting them in. “Its not easy to sign a good footballer,” said the former Boro midfielder.
Gary Gill: has overseen a transformation in Boro’s recruitment process
“Yes, we can all look at the stats and see someone has so many goals or so many assists and decide he is a good player the club should sign but there is more to it than that.
“There are players who on the surface look like they would be good fit for us but are not the type of players he wants because we have a certain way we play and prepare. Their personality and mentality is just as important as their talent and that is not always an easy thing to determine.
“With us a player needs to know that he will have to train very hard, that the demands and the intensity are very high and that it won’t be easy to get into the team. Some players may not have the right personality to fit into that regime.
“Then there are a host of factors to consider: ability, availability, age, price, the club he’s at and their financial situation, the agent he uses, is he the best option for us right now, what are the alternatives – and all those things can change quickly.
“A player you want may not be available so you look at other targets and then suddenly he is available; a manager may change, his club may buy someone in his position, they may need to sell to fund another signing or for financial reasons so you may need to very quickly reassess.
“Part of our job is to try to be on top of all that the changing information and it is not easy because we are covering a lot of complex markets in a business where clubs like to play things close to their chests.
“We need intricate knowledge about lots of clubs, lots of players. It is all intelligence work. It is all about information really. That is the key. And the more information we have, the better equipped we are to recruit the best possible players.”
For Boro now that information is coming in from a wide range of sources. And it is the collecting, collating and organisation of that information that has changed the entire nature of scouting and Gill has been central to that transfomation at Boro.
He was initially brought in under former Ayresome team-mate Tony Mowbray as chief European scout in the old sense, clocking up a lot of air miles watching games across the continent, but is now head of a four strong data-based department at Hurworth.
Boro still have plenty of old school human eyes on matches in an extensive network of scouts but there is also a battery of technology harnessed to harvest vital data on potential players.
Boro subscribe to Wyscout, a searchable video-based data system that breaks down every action on the pitch of tens of thousands of players in all the top leagues in Europe (more of which later). Then there is Scout Seven and Prozone, stats based computer tools that break matches into raw packets of information and can isolate and visualise individual players’ every move and touch. Plus, the recruitment team watch – live and on video – dozens of games a week making detailed notes on targets.
“How we collect and use information has changed dramatically in my time here,“ explained Acklam lad Gill.
“We’ve moved towards a more forward thinking and creative approach in terms of recruitment. “We’ve moved away from the traditional method everyone recognises, the old chief scout who went to matches with a notebook and a great instinct and a tremendous knowledge of players which stayed in his head or was scribbled own and stuck away in a filing cabinet.
“We want to create a system with a tremendous knowledge that is at the disposal of the club in an instant and forever. We want to develop a data base of hundreds, thousands, of players we can add to constantly as their careers develop.
“We can spot someone at 19 and be aware of his attributes but know he is not quite ready and then revisit him in the seasons that follow and watch how he develops and there may come a time when we think he is right for us.
“Take Adam Forshaw for instance. We first watched him when he was with Everton Under 21, noted him and added to that over several seasons as we saw him playing at different clubs at games we attended, not necessarily watching him.
Data-mining rising talent: long term target Adam Forshaw
“The key to it is not forgetting what you see with a player. You need to record all the information and build up the background details and information because even if a player maybe slips off your radar for a year or two you never know when it will become useful.
“There are loads of players like that who you see something in and take an interest in. You are not necessarily “after them” but things can change quickly in football: a new manager playing a different shape, a different division, a different financial climate and suddenly people you saw two years ago come back into play. What we are doing here is an on-going process in collating information so you are not always starting from scratch.
“And the real question is where is the information? Is it accessible? Who can use it? There was information in the past but it was in people’s heads. Now we have it at our fingertips for people to draw on, not just now but in the future as well.
“It is a system we’ve refined, developed and expanded. It is a major positive for the club.”
They have even appointed a new boss on the basis that he has embraced the data philosophy.
“That is an interesting model and we are watching what happens there very closely” said Gill. “It is a very new route for football, almost a baseball “Moneyball” approach like in the movie. It is very heavily based on performance stats, Up to now their recruitment has been good but we will have to see how it develops going forward.
“For our part, we are trying to get a balance of the technical and the human approach.
“We are conscious as a club that actually watching matches in house, via the various systems in the office can be useful.
“That way you can have several sets of eyes on a game or a player, you can rewind, you see things in the build-up, off the ball, and that is all useful. If you are at match you get a feel for the emotion of the game, a feel for a players personality under pressure but when we use a video review system you can stop a game, take a wider view of situations and what he is doing and isn’t doing and then compare it to other games.
“So it is not totally scientific, there is room for human instinct and knowledge but it is as well informed as possible.”
But the department aren’t just finding targets out of the ether. It is not a video fishing trip in uncharted waters. First and foremost they are finding targets to order for Aitor Karanka.
“It must be stressed that no player comes into this club that is not signed off by the manager,” said Gill emphatically.
“Yes, we are working in the long term to develop a system for the club as whole but the ultimate aim is to find players for the gaffer to put the best possible team on the pitch – and he knows exactly what kind of players he wants.
“Aitor may say “here’s three or four players I like, put them through the process” and that’s what we do. We will compile data on them, their strengths, their weaknesses, and give him as much information as possible when he is weighing up his signings.
“We all work together. We have regular recruitment meetings with Aitor. We talk about the type of players the gaffer needs, suggest some names and ideas around and together we put together a list of players who meet his criteria.
“Aitor has been here a while now and has more knowledge of the English game and knows what it takes to succeed here and obviously he knows the Spanish game really well too and so he suggested players there and we have build up our knowledge on them.
“We have a man dedicate dto scouting Spain and have looked in detail at the top teams in the second tier and selected teams in the top division – obviously we are not going to be able to sign players from Real Madrid or Barcelona. Although we are aware of their B teams. So that is a league we are really starting to get a handle on now.
Thumbs up: Kike gets the news that he has been short-listed
“When he came he asked us to look at Abella, Nsue, Kike and others and scouting those players has helped us build up a far deeper knowledge of that league as a whole that may turn out to be very useful for the club in the future. It’s all information.
“But wherever we look, here or abroad, Aitor has profiles of the kind of players he likes, mentally and physically, and that outline helps us narrow our target lists down. We’ve got a framework we can work with because we have a very good idea of the attributes he is looking for in each position.
“First and foremost we are looking for is the very best footballers available and those whose personality fits in with what we are doing at the club. We want the best. That’s what drives us on, to continually improve the team with players who are a good fit.”
Of course, the best recruitment tool is money and in recent years Boro have had to work hard to get in their top targets against a backdrop of the Premier League’s inflation of fees and wages.
“We are not in the Prem but we are looking for talent who are capable of playing there and that’s not easy,” said Gill.
“Big clubs have the resources that give them first dabs on quality player and don’t have to wait for them to become available as we do. Money can overcome a lot of obstacles.
“On cost, it is always difficult because real talent is expensive and it can be frustrating to find a player who you think can do a good job but he is just that little bit too much.
“That said, the chairman has always backed us. If we find a player, if the manager wants a player and really thinks he can improve the squad and is available then if it is at all possible Steve Gibson will back us on that and try to make it happen.
“We have every confidence the chairman will back us if he can.”
**This is the DJ Scout ft Data Minaz remix of this week’s Big Picture column.
AND, WHAT THE HELL, HERE’S PART TWO….
STATE -of-the-art soccer scouting revolves around the shrewd use of massive databases, of interactive stats and video clips.
The appliance of science gives scouts the chance to watch almost any player in the world in action. In detail. In slow motion. Time and again. And with an accompanying detailed breakdown of every pass, every tackle, every yard covered in that game. Or any other game the target has played over the last season or two.
It is all a far cry from watching from the stands with a Bovril and a notebook and walking away disappointed after writing “nothing special” because the future superstar you are watching has a stinker that day, or is played out of position or is carrying an injury.
After speaking to Boro’s head of recruitment Gary Gill and getting an overview on how the entire approach had been transform , I had been invited inside the scouting nerve centre at Rockliffe Park training ground to see how the magic works.
It was an eye-opener – not least because Boro’s current top transfer targets were all listed position-by-position on whiteboards on all four walls, the kind of raw data that would make the Teesside cyberspace explode.
My eyes were on stalks. I was running my own mental data recording programming and storing for future use. But I was sworn to secrecy. Obviously that is sensitive information and for it to leak would alert rival clubs, or indeed the target’s own clubs and that could have a impact on availability and price, so sssshhhh. No names, no pack drill. We struggled to find an angle for a photo that wouldn’t get one of the many board in shot and thus compromise the club – and also send the ever hungry send the rumour mill into meltdown.
Boro’s recruitment data analysts. Good lads to have on a football quiz team
The four-strong data analysis team – Stephen Gent (opposition analyst), Pete Bulmer (senior recruitment analyst), Harry Barnard (data analyst) and Chris Trotter (head of technical recruitment) – are all sharp, enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable about players, teams, leagues, shapes and systems.
And they are all highly skilled at harnessing information technology to harvest information to suit Boro’s needs, either to scout potential transfer targets or to prepare detailed tactical reports on coming opponents.
“You’re basically sat around all day playing Football Manager and watching targets on YouTube aren’t you?” I asked to polite laughter. Then they opened their box of tricks, a system that makes the complex dug-out simulation game beloved by obsessives and anoraks everywhere look like early eight-bit SensiSoccer video games.
Wyscout is a subscription-based, fully searchable, minutely detailed database that covers every minute of every game in every major league in the world.
The system was devised by an Italian software company and was initially aimed at providing live statistics for sports broadcasters a little bit more detailed than the usual simplistic shots, assists and possession counts. But the company quickly grew and started to work on dedicated stats packages for Serie A teams, then developed bespoke systems to allow tailored breakdowns of player data linked to video footage of every single action the subject he was involved in during a match. And from there it exploded.
Now Wyscout’s database covers 273,000 players from 30,000 teams playing in 150 divisions in 80 countries. Its army of analysts in Chiavari, Italy, edit footage of games dozens of times to isolate every touch by every individual player and its data specialists organise and package the clips into a user-friendly searchable library. Its vast interactive archive currently holds over 124,000 matches and they add 1,000 new ones every week.
Gent opened Wyscout on a giant screen in the office and showed me how it worked.
“We can pick any league, any team, any player and watch every touch they have,” he explained.
We clicked on Germany – “a market we are keen on and are starting to look at because their intensity is similar to here” chipped in Gill – clicked on Bayern Munich and picked a random player: Left-back David Alaba… not a name on the target lists, I hasten to add.
Bayern’s David Alaba: not a target. But we’ve got the data if things change
“There are drop down dialogue boxes,” he continued. “And you can select any action – tackles, headers, passes short or long or diagional, crosses to the near post, far post, whipped, driven, floated, shots, whatever – and click and every single example of that action in the game plays on video.”
It does, and the lad Alaba is not a bad player. The footage is backed by a battery of stats on passing distance, direction and completion ratios and can be compared against other games and other players.
“It is an incredible tool for us,” said Gill. “It means you can get an in-depth overview of a player before you even consider going to watch them live.
“Wyscout is really good because you can go to watch one team’s defender say and you may be impressed by the other team’s wide player who you have never heard of and when you come back you can check him out in far more detail.
“It means you quickly build up quite a big data-base on players that is stats based and visual and you can form an opinion with confidence.
“And it gives us a far greater reach. We can ‘watch’ players in leagues where we don’t really have a great knowledge yet.
“And when we get a recommendation we can have a quick look before we decide whether to take it any further. It helps eliminate players as well as find targets.”
And it is very specific. And searchable. The scouts can quickly draw up a list of left-sided midfielders with high crossing success ratios, under a certain age and with a year left on their contract. It’s footy geek gold dust. It’s like a giant turbo-powered Football Manager. With the option of buying the players for real.
“It’s funny you say that because there is a generation of youngsters who play FIFA and Football Manager who throw up a lot of names,” he said.
“I play FIFA with my son and I have to laugh when we are picking teams from minor leagues and including players who I have actually watched but even at nine-years-old he has an understanding of some very obscure players.
“Those games have big databases and a lot of the stats in there are fairly accurate and give a decent indication of a player’s skills and attributes.
“We do actually get emails from people who have ‘spotted’ a player on those games. Some of these people have incredible knowledge of players from obscure leagues and we do read those emails and sometimes we even check these players out.
“You never know, they may just tell us something we don’t know. It doesn’t take long for us to run them through the system and although none of them have gone on to be targets it all adds to the information we have.”
The key to Boro’s scouting is making the stats work for them in building up a detailed profile of a prospective signing.
But the stats are only part of the picture. It is how they are interpreted and how they help Boro make smarter decisions that matter, both on transfer targets and matchday tactics for specific opposition.
“We are not driven completely by raw stats in the way some clubs are, like Brentford are,” said Gill. “But clearly that information can be very useful. The better and fuller the information we have, the better the decision we can make as a club.
“Basic stats is where we are at the moment. When we look at a player we ask how often do they play, how many times do they finish games, if they are strikers how many goals, how many assists, how many goals per minute.
“That can give you an obvious indication of what a player is like but we use our systems to go beyond that to pinpoint specific parts of the skill set. How good is a centre-back with the ball? We can watch every single touch he will have in a game to see how good he is in possession. How many headers does he win and where does he put the ball? How many tackles does he make? How many does he win? In what areas? Did he need to make them?
“Once you get beyond raw data you have to look specifically at the skill-set you need for the role you are looking to fill.”
Gill was quick to praise his team. They may have what many fans would regard as the dream job but put in long hours preparing reports in meticulous detail and sometimes at short notice and they are under a lot of pressure to be quick and accurate every time.
“We have some brilliant guys doing a fantastic job here,” said Gill. “Our systems are a tool but you need the resources of skilled people and a lot of man hours to analyse masses of data and footage and to distill and collate all the information and present it in a user-friendly way.
“That’s not easy. You have to break down the stats from not just one games but lots of games over whole seasons and make sense of it. And you have to be absolutely accurate every time because some big decisions might rest on it.
“With opposition scouting, which we handle too, the gaffer is very, very tight on it. He asks for incredible amount of detail on players, tactics, set plays, exactly what to expect and he prepares his game plan on the basis of that so you have to get it right. That’s a big pressure, believe me.
“But that is a reflection of the entire ethos that runs through the club. Everyone works hard and there is incredible attention to detail. Aitor is absolutely red hot on that. Preparations are meticulous at every level of the club.
“There is an environment of excellence and constant improvement and that applies in this room just as much as it does on the training ground and the pitch.”
Gill knows that ultimately he will be judged on results, and that means helping Boro find the best possible players.
“There is a big investment here,” he said. “Not just in the technology but the manpower too. The recruitment department is well staffed with loyal people who are great at their jobs. And that costs the club. I don’t want to put a figure on it but we have the people in the office, the people out at matches on the ground here an abroad, there’s the cost of actually going to games, all the day-to-day things.
“There has been a substantial investment by the club, by Steve Gibson, over the last four years and it is down to us to make sure we pay for ourselves.
“And to do that we have to the club find footballers for the first team, the right players to get us into the Premier League – and that is what drives all of us.”