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Modern day football scouting: art, science or a combination of the two?

Alistair Tweedale
Representatives from 142 clubs met in Amsterdam this week for a very modern take on transfer dealings - © JULIAN SIMMONDS

Even the agent did not look convinced. Dressed in a sharp suit, and clutching an A4 file, he approached the head of recruitment at a major Football League club and launched into a hard sell of his German-based talents - all of whom, he insisted, could be the answer to this club's sputtering promotion charge. The answer was a polite but firm 'no', and the agent moved on to try his luck elsewhere.

This encounter - and hundreds more like it - took place at Wyscout's annual convention, deep in the bowels of Ajax's Johan Cruyff Arena on Thursday, where scouts, agents, recruitment analysts, sporting directors, coaches, club presidents and even owners converged to do deals, swap ideas and forge partnerships. It also felt the appropriate place to ask whether scouting has become more science than art - and whether the nerds have eclipsed the old school talent-spotters, who were driven mainly by gut instinct.

Nobody is disputing that platforms such as Wyscout, which gives clubs access to video footage of around 300 competitions in more than 100 countries worldwide, makes an element of recruitment far easier and cheaper. All but nine of the 98 clubs in Europe’s top five leagues use it, saving both time and money on unnecessary journeys to watch players. Those clubs have detailed highlights of a large proportion of the world’s professional (and even some semi-professional) footballers at their fingertips.

“Wyscout has meant the international scale of our search is massive,” Brentford head of recruitment Lee Dykes tells Telegraph Sport. “From a business perspective, we have to think about the cost of travelling, and video allows us to decide when it’s worth going to see someone play at the beginning of the recruitment process.”

Even so, video scouting is just one small part of how clubs decide who to pursue in the transfer market. Clubs now use a combination of video analysis and statistics to narrow down their search before sending scouts to watch their priority targets live.

An agent presents players to a club over a coffee Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS

“We [Brentford] are a forward-thinking club and there’s a perception that we recruit off data,” Dykes says. “But data is just used like at every other club. Ultimately it comes down to the eye. It always comes back to opinion-based analysis.”

The rising stakes in football mean the pressure is higher than ever on those in charge of recruiting to avoid costly mistakes. And yet the human skill in judging a player’s ability remains the most important of the three steps in modern scouting.

“We have a very thorough recruitment process,” Middlesbrough head of scouting operations Stephen Gent says. “It’s all about money these days. We evidence everything with stats and we do a lot of video work, too, but we would never sign anyone without seeing them live.

“You can watch as many videos as you want but watching players live you get to see other things: how they react to getting substituted or having a bad game. You get to know their character.”

Similarly, events like Wyscout’s happen because value is still placed on meeting contacts. The vast majority of transfer business is done via email and phone, but the chance to speak in person can make or break a deal. There is a realisation these days that the way for clubs to become the best they can be is through collaboration.

“The biggest thing is building your networks and personal relationships,” says Jordan Miles, head of recruitment at West Ham. “This is a chance to hear about opportunities or situations that we wouldn’t normally know about. Being able to sit face-to-face with someone is really important.”

With squads at major European clubs larger than ever, the chance to establish these connections is crucial for smaller teams. Even with access to such a large quantity of players, the pool is getting smaller, with “a conglomerate of richer clubs hoovering up all of the best talent,” Nnamdi Aghanya, chief scout at Swiss side St Gallen, tells Telegraph Sport. 

“If a player has a choice between Manchester United and St Gallen, there is only one winner” he says. “For us, it’s about making a relationship with a player and then keeping in touch to see if they will reconsider further down the line.”

Links between foreign and English clubs are also now a key part of the modern game and events like Wyscout’s forge paths that wouldn’t normally emerge, which is particularly important for the many emerging British players who struggle to get first-team football at home.

“Good, young British players are now actively seeking to player in Europe,” says football agent Andy Evans. “Instead of dropping down a league they are looking to move sideways. Jadon Sancho’s success has shown what a move to Europe can do. Events like this give us a really good chance to explore new markets.”