Talent spotting. Why the full picture is important to picking the right players

Neil McGuinness works as a scout for Aspire in Qatar. Previously, he scouted many years for European elite clubs. The global scout, with Scottish roots, talks to Samindra Kunti about modern-day scouting, scouting in Britain and the rise of China in the global game. 

What’s the key to scouting?

The key is to never make snap judgements on a player. You can get an initial feeling of the player’s ability  and his potential, but I hear too many people in the game saying “I watched him against such and such and he was rubbish that night.” That is a lazy approach and does not give you a full picture of the player – it doesn’t even scratch the surface. If you are serious about signing a player, you need to see a player in different situations, home and away, different levels of opponent, under pressure and in uncomfortable situations.

Even background information about his home life and how he conducts himself off the pitch is important. The opinion of former teammates and coaches – painting the bigger picture of the human being as well as the player –   get you not only a feeling and understanding of his level, but also some insight into his character and hunger.

An experienced scout will pick up on the player’s ability in an initial viewing – his touch, movement off the ball, tactical awareness and level of effort among many other things, but by making a quick decision you fail the player by not giving him a chance to be properly assessed. It’s a lack of effort on behalf of the scout.  One final point is to never rely solely on video.

I have seen players being signed based entirely on video footage and this is a dangerous road to go down when you consider the money involved and the expectations put on the player. The trained eye is the only way to get a full clear picture, to see how he works off the ball when the camera has shifted 40 yards down the pitch or to see small things like his attitude towards team-mates and opponents when he is out of view.

Which criteria/benchmarks do you use to scout a player?

It all depends on the team you are working for – their level, their standard and the standard of the league. Each coach is different in his style of play and the type of players he wants and scouting is very much position specific. The hard work comes from identifying the type of player that the coach is looking for, maybe he prefers wingers to come inside onto their stronger foot, which may mean looking for right wingers who are left footed. Maybe he prefers small pacy wingers who go outside and look to get to the byline and cross. It all comes down to details and then the scout’s ability to go and find a suitable match. Not to forget budget, you also have restrictions on what is available depending on cost. It is possible the club prefers players coming out of contract or even players available on loan. Every assignment is different and that is what makes finding the right fit more complex and detailed.

Is it an art or a science?

Personally I would lean more towards it being an art. Football is something that is open to all and that’s exactly how it should be – opinion and debate are healthy and should be encouraged. That said, any industry that you work in and spend many months and years of your life investing in, improving in, gaining experience and contacts, along with an understanding of exactly what is required at an elite level, is a specialist subject.

The modern day scout should spend most of his year traveling either via car or plane depending on the level of club he works for and the range of countries that they cover, writing reports, being on the phone day in day out, traveling to stadiums and attending games, meeting agents and players, updating his manager and coaching staff, constantly keeping ahead of contract situations of players of interest, being aware of player circumstance changes, managerial changes at clubs, upcoming talents, being aware of the wider picture and keeping your knowledge of foreign leagues and foreign players up with your domestic league is crucial.

There are a lot of aspects to being as good as you can be in your role, and a lot of things that people outside of the game neither see nor understand. In closing, it’s a very unique industry that requires hard work and constant drive to be successful.

How important has data become?

You would be hard pushed to find a club or national team that is not using data in some form nowadays. Everything is monitored from players training, wearing GPS vests for player tracking and performance analysis purposes, to match tracking, provided by in stadium cameras that cover every aspect of the game, and data analysis of players performances generated in report form with heat maps, pass ratio, distance covered and a lot more. Data is big business within football now and most areas of the game are covered.

From a scouting point of view, there are so many companies offering live match tagging, match footage from all over the world, reports based on individual and team performances, and so much more. The market is becoming crowded with so many software packages and organisations now developing the next level of information at the touch of a button. It has helped in terms of being able to get an overview of a player quickly but again, for me, it should be used as a first point of contact, but not as a decision making tool. Nothing beats the human eye.

How can British clubs improve their scouting?

Clubs in Britain are facing the challenges that clubs all over Europe are facing. Elite clubs all tend to be looking at the same level of players. When you go to watch a player that is excelling in their league, you tend to find the same faces from the same clubs following the player around. That is the same at both senior and youth level and it is not hard to work out who they are all watching even if nobody will admit to it publicly.

The top British teams, however, are unfortunate that prices tend to inflate massively when they are linked to a player or it is known within the selling club that the interest is genuine. You just have to look back over the years at some of the players that came into England with stupidly over the top price tags and did nowhere near have the level to improve the clubs they were signing for.

The other factor with the British clubs is the media, who go big on running transfer speculation and stories linking them to various players. This, again, has a detrimental effect on being able to operate with a quieter approach and trying to get business done before it becomes a circus. You often hear about a player signing for Bayern or Dortmund when the deal is already signed and done – compare that with an elite club in England being linked to a player, it runs in the media for weeks and sometimes months and doesn’t always end in a positive outcome.

Which talents in European leagues should we be keeping an eye on?

There is always talent out there. Every league has something depending on budget. I like the level of talent showing up in France at the moment, some really interesting players like Alassane Plea, who is starting to really show his potential this season for Nice. Thomas Lemar at Monaco is developing into a very good player with a potential, great career if he can continue to stay focussed and concentrate on improving small aspects of his game.

Germany always produces talents and players with a huge professionalism in their approach to the game. Red Bull Leipzig have a very dynamic midfielder called Naby Keita. He is a great passer of the ball, intelligent in his timing and movement. He gives everything which is what you want from someone in his position.

Who is the best player you have ever scouted?

I have watched thousands of games over a long period of time so answering that is a difficult question. Some players stick in your mind from the first time you saw them play. I remember seeing Raphael Varane at the age of 17 at Lens and thinking that he had so much natural ability. He was playing with such a mature understanding of the game, way ahead of his peers. Carlos Bacca stood out like a sore thumb in a Europa league game for Club Brugge against Maritimo – strong, brilliant movement and great finishing. As I said, there have been so many over the years that make you stop and take note but they don’t always progress as was the case with those two. Some players for whatever reason, and there are various reasons, can’t work outside of their comfort zone and that’s why I think that doing your homework and checking the background in as much detail as possible is crucial.

What’s your opinion on the Chinese Super League and the giant-money spin going with it?

It has been interesting for everyone watching the ins and outs, but it is not sustainable and the changes being made by the Chinese FA are starting to show that things need to be put into perspective. To be paying players almost half a million pounds a week is just nonsense and it won’t enhance the standard of the league enough to make it worthwhile.

I watched a lot of the league last season and some of the foreign boys brought in on big wages were overweight, not effecting games, playing without interest, is that value for money when the investment is so big?

That’s not to say all players will act like that, but it is an added danger when you make someone able to buy a mansion with no mortgage every single week – something has to give. I think as things slow down and a more sensible approach to recruitment and structuring of clubs happens, it will benefit the league and the country’s football growth a lot more.

The Chinese President is a football fan and has promised a huge grassroots program – is it realistic and how long will it take, if the pieces are in place, for China to develop into a footballing nation?

China is the most populated country in the world. It is inevitable that if you can get a really strong, financially backed structure with good coaches at all levels, you will start to see success and improvement. Football is not something that can be fixed overnight with money but with a solid plan in place you can build step by step to an improved level.

I have been to China and saw the level of organisation and I was impressed. They have the people slowly getting into the right positions, now it is the challenge to improve the level of player,s not only technically but physically and tactically, which is where they are lacking at the moment. With government backing, football in China will improve but there is no such thing as a quick fix at the professional level.

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