WHEN a player performs, he must often be thinking about himself with the right intention of delivering his best. But a scout, who silently watches him from a distance, not always looks at his style and skills alone. He may note down his behaviour under pressure, work ethic, team spirit, winning mentality and all.
And if a scout relied on his eyes and intuition in the past, he also depends on science and statistics to confirm his first impressions in modern-day football.
Damien Comolli, a renowned scout and ex-sporting director at leading clubs, including Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, believes the impact of technology on scouting in modern-day football is immense. He spoke to Doha Stadium Plus on the sidelines of a training programme organised by the Josoor Institute.
Is talent scouting an art or are there elements of science involved in it?
It’s a very good question and for the first time it has been put forward to me in this manner. I think there’s both art and science involved. We’re definitely going towards more science, whether it’s recruitment of players in football or any other sports. To a certain extent, even big organisations are starting to use science to recruit talent. When I started my career about 25 years ago, it was purely on talent visible to eyes and it was more an art if I may say that.
During the last 10 years, we’ve seen a major shift in baseball in the US, being influenced by the use of statistics.
When I was the sporting director at Tottenham Hotspur, we were probably one of the first few football clubs in the world that really started using analytics and statistics in recruitment. There was an interesting shift where people were going 100 per cent towards pure science, ignoring the gut feeling and eye impression. But now, it comes back to having a certain kind of balance.
I think now people understand that it’s a combination of both art and science. We need to have data, to understand statistics, but at the same time we need to keep in mind who’s the human being behind the footballer. This can be done only by going and watching the player, meeting and spending time with him. So I would say it’s a fine balance, but I usually tell people to never make a decision based only on science and data, at the same time never without the use of data.
It’s widely known that scouts look for technique, insight, personality and speed to identify talents. What’re the other factors you consider while narrowing down on a player?
Let’s take the case of full-backs for instance. In the Premier League or European Championships, they can all run between 12-13km, do around 1,000 metres of high-intensity runs, use both feet and head the ball. So where’s the competitive advantage? Because every player can pretty much do everything.
Talent isn’t the only thing we should be looking for. One important aspect is personality. The difference maker in today’s football is definitely personality. By personality, I mean who can be a team player and leader, who has the willingness to learn, who’s coachable, who’s resilient, who wants the ball when things are tough on the pitch, who refuses to give up, these’re all the personality aspects we look for in players. These’re major attributes which make the difference.
Can you elaborate the process of scouting prevalent in Europe, especially in England, say like the source of basic information about a player, average time spent on watching a player, etc?
Every club has its own recruitment process. Just to give you a typical example, usually before signing, a player will be watched on average between 10 and 30 times by the decision makers including coach and sporting director. The ideal scenario will be to watch the player on different contexts like at home and away and in different positions.
It’s also interesting to watch a player when the team is winning and losing, when he features against a good or poor team. So the scouting process goes through all these parameters. The most important aspect from my experience is to have three to four different people watch the player. I also feel the more number of opinions we’ve, the better it is.
The second aspect is to spend time with the player and the third to watch his reactions, which again comes back to personality. How the player reacts in different situations, so if the team is winning or losing, how is he reacting, if he’s being substituted, what’s his reaction or if he comes on as a substitute and isn’t happy because he isn’t playing. Is he coming on the pitch firing on all cylinders because he wants to win? How does he react with team-mates, how does he pick up himself once he has failed? All these’re aspects that need to be taken into consideration during the recruitment process. But again, it very much depends on the club, how many scouting personnel they’ve got, the financial resources they’ve to spend, etc. Generally, that’s the typical recruitment process present in Europe.
Do agents have any role in identifying promising talents? Or do they come into the picture only after a player is blossomed?
I was with Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. It was very unlikely that a player of 19 or 20 good enough for one of the three clubs was brought to the club by an agent and we weren’t aware of him. The clubs are so well organised. Manchester United have just appointed 45 scouts globally, so they’re going to know the players really well.
When I started at Arsenal in 1997, my role was to know all players in France. In the top three divisions, I knew every player from the age 15 up to the first team. So it was extremely unlikely that an agent was coming to us and saying, you know I’ve got this 20-year-old you’ve never heard of and he’s talented and good to play for the club. This is very rare.
Although, sometimes with young players, it can happen that an agent introduces one to the club. In the case of smaller clubs, when they don’t have the resources for scouts globally, that’ll happen more. So an agent might call me and say there’s a player in Serbia or Bosnia who’s really good and sometimes I wouldn’t know him.
The transfer fee for a couple of players has crossed the €100m mark. Do you think these figures are justified?
I could answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Forget about transfer fees because they don’t mean anything anymore. So the answer to your question, I would say is probably no. Having said that, I do think the way the market is going, transfer fees will only keep inflating. We’re in a buyer’s market, because there’s so much money in the football industry now that what was worth €10m three years ago is now worth €50m even for the same player.
When I read the Press, where people are saying it’s totally unjustified for clubs to be paying so much money on a player, I’m always saying just relax. First of all, it isn’t the people’s money. Secondly, if the club decides to pay that much for a player, it’s because there’s a reason for it and because they’ve so much money to spend that they decided to pay that type of money for that specific type of player.
For me, player’s valuation doesn’t mean much anymore. In the last two years, I’ve had at least six or seven firms coming to me saying we created an algorithm that can give you the appropriate valuation of a player. I said to them ‘thanks a lot, but you’re wasting your time?’ The way the market is going there’s no reason for you to try and make a calculation and say Pogba was actually €70m, if Manchester United decided to pay €120m, what’s the problem. So yes, we can say it’s wrong, but it’s just the way the market is going at the moment.
How important is the role of specialists, like director of sports, head of football operations, etc in modern football, be it at the national federations or clubs?
The way the industry is functioning, I feel we need more and more specialists in the respective fields. Since I’m coming from a coaching and scouting background, that’s how I landed my first job as sporting director at Saint Etienne when I was 31. They approached me because of my track record of bringing players to Arsenal, so I was specialising in a particular field.
I also think the more the industry is getting professionalised in every aspect, the more we need people who know exactly what their specific role is. For example, in today’s world, social media is so big, that if you don’t have the right people to manage it at a club, that’ll be a massive struggle.
Even players and their agents appoint professionals in their company to look after their social media channels. It has become a big business now, especially when you have millions of people following you. You can’t ignore this space for one or monetize it. Lastly, you can’t have an amateurish approach because that’ll end up in disaster.
Nowadays more and more clubs are even appointing coaches for strikers including at the academy level. I think this is great idea. For instance, there’s nobody better than a former goalkeeper to train another keeper, similarly I don’t think there’s anybody better than a former successful striker to train and coach another. I feel this is only the beginning.
When I was at Liverpool, we had just five fitness coaches for 25 players. Ten years ago some clubs didn’t even have one fitness trainer. A mid-tier club like Southampton for instance have 20 video and data analysts, and so on and so forth. For a club like Southampton, that’s a huge number, it’s as much as the New York Yankees.
Very often, young people come to me and ask how I can start a career in this industry. I always say, you’re very lucky compared to when I started. During initial stages of my career, there weren’t many choices, you could only be a coach or assistant coach. There weren’t too many options available. Nowadays, you’ve the option of being an analyst, scout, a coach for the striker, a physio, masseur, doctor, etc. And I honestly think this is only the beginning of it as we’ll see more and more specialised roles being created in the industry.