‘Scouting has evolved massively’: How data and video analysis are playing an increasing role in clubs’ recruitment

(Image courtesy of BT Sport)

With live football in short supply for months, clubs and their recruitment teams have had to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances, relying on data and video analysis to allow scouting of players to continue…

As leagues across Europe ready themselves for their respective campaign run-ins, travel remains restricted to essential throughout the continent. In the coronavirus-impacted ‘new normal’ facing football and wider society, the resumption of live games will not only be a source of relief for players, coaches and fans, but scouts too.

For the talent spotters and bargain hunters working for clubs at all levels, the halting of sporting events and subsequent extended period of lockdown has presented a fundamental challenge to the way they work. I spoke to Matt Kimber, first team scout at Wolverhampton Wanderers, to find out how the game’s recruitment men and women have had to adapt and thrive to continue working in extraordinary circumstances.

“A lot of my work is video scouting so in that respect not a lot for me has changed in terms of workload”, Kimber says.

“However, as I’ve been within this role for a number of years now, I was frequently attending live games before the halt to the season. So, in that respect it has changed, and it has also impacted on the club’s live scouts attending games, both in the UK and in Europe.”

Kimber has been a part of the West Midlands club’s first team recruitment staff since February 2017, a period which has seen exponential improvement both in his career and that of Nuno Espírito Santo’s entertaining side. The role involves in-depth analysis of the physical, mental, technical and tactical performances of individual players continent-wide. Reports of these performances are then compiled for the club’s first team staff.

“I’m still very early in my scouting career so I’m very much still learning but, based on my career so far I think there are lots of factors that contribute to good scouting. (The secrets are) quality within your work, having great knowledge of the game and having said that, always looking to stay ahead of the game too. You can always do more.”

In Kimber’s time at Wolves he has witnessed the dominant Championship title-winning season of 2017-18 — Nuno’s first at Molineux — along with the club comfortably reasserting itself in the top flight and now reaching the knockout stages of the Europa League. The club’s success has come off the pitch just as much as on it, too. Signings such as Ruben Neves — albeit for a then club-record fee at the expense of some of Europe’s biggest sides in July 2017 — and the highly-rated youngsters Pedro Neto and Luke Matheson (from Lazio and Rochdale respectively) can already be considered shrewd business and point to Wolves’ scouting department’s eye for good value talent.

With the club having progressed into this season’s Europa League round of 16 — the first leg of which saw a 1-1 behind closed doors away draw at Olympiacos — it is able to attract the interest of some of the game’s brightest talents. What else does Kimber attribute his employers’ success in this department in recent years to?

“I think we really benefit from having a clear style of play that has been established at the club ever since the manager walked into the building. We have clear KPIs (key performance indicators) for each position, which enables us to work sufficiently when recruiting and to ensure they’re the right fit for us.

“In terms of the club’s success in the last three reasons, I would say it’s down to a number of things. The scouting department yes, because we’ve brought in and added some fantastic players to the group, but I do also think several other departments have played their part in the club’s recent success. An example being the coaching team and the change in position for Coady (club captain, Conor), along with several other players who have developed within the last few years.”

Football Slices is a data visualization tool that uses data from FBref and Highcharts. The chart above shows Conor Coady’s raw values and percentile rankings in a number of categories for his Premier League and Europa League appearances since the start of the 2018-19 season. (Image courtesy of FootballSlices.com).

The club has its scouts conduct reports based on a combination of live viewings of games and video footage. It is a process that has developed since the bygone era of scouting based on minimal insight, with data analysis now also a vital part of the meticulous recruitment process.

In April of this year, with the restrictions of lockdown firmly in place, Kimber took on another role as a data reviewer for video game developer EA Sports; in particular FIFA.

It is a position that requires providing feedback on players and potential changes to their game ratings and overlaps somewhat with his role at Wolves. Kimber’s feedback is then read by a data editor or EA producer responsible for that team, before they decide whether or not the change should be made.

“It’s something I’m getting used to as I’ve only started my role with FIFA recently. My career goals are within the scouting industry so that is my main priority, to develop within that role.

“My role with FIFA allows me to contribute when I can which is very beneficial to my work schedule. I feel that by working both at the moment it’ll certainly benefit me and my career.”

Data has become an increasingly vital part of player recruitment, even more so when the traditional, eye-test option is off the table.

“I do feel data has an influence on recruitment. It’s often used to identify potential players of interest before following up and scouting them. It’s something that if used right, can be very useful, and it’s very common to see it used along with video and live scouting.”

But how difficult has it been for Kimber and other scouts across the game to do their job remotely since the start of lockdown?

“Like every club, we’re just trying to adapt to what has happened as best we can. I imagine most scouting departments are currently doing a lot of video scouting until we can attend live games again!”

As with a number of sectors of the football industry, scouting processes are likely to continue to be adapted as a result of the changes brought about by the pandemic. While the cost efficiency of recruiting and analysis procedures and the travel it involves may begin to be fine-tuned, clubs could be forced to consider scouting new leagues.

Kimber is confident scouting will continue to adapt as live football returns, while acknowledging that clubs may explore new methods.

“I think scouting has evolved massively in the last few years and will continue to do so. With there being so much technology within the game, we are now seeing clubs utilise that and look to scout in multiple ways. Live scouting, using data and video scouting (could all change) too. It’s an effective way to look into markets that clubs perhaps wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

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