La Magica; The Monchi Files — 04. The Scouting Setup

So let’s just imagine for a moment your average Football Manager scenario. You are the newly appointed manager of a football club predicted to finish in the bottom half of the table of Premier League. In fact, your club just barely escaped by the skin of its teeth last season, narrowly avoiding the drop.

Analysing the squad, you quickly come to the conclusion that you have inherited a team with a traditional scouting network and a few data analysts. The squad itself is both ageing and shallow. Meanwhile, the one or two genuine stars you do have are outside the protected period in their contracts are likely to move on in the summer. Though the first team is almost certainly in need of a radical overhaul, ownership has provided you with a rather limited maximum transfer budget to work with.

After questioning why you took this job in the first place, you sit down and consider your options. You have to make the best out of a potentially disastrous situation with the means you have at hand. How do you maximise the output of the scouting team you do have? How can you strengthen this team? What are the kind of orders and assignments you give to your scouts and analysts? These are the topics I intend to focus on in this blog post. I will not be looking at the technical aspects but the strategical ones instead.

The staff

If scouting boiled down to merely hiring the best scouts and analysts money could afford, it was merely a matter of hitting up the staff search and finding staff members that tick all the boxes. While it certainly is important to hire the proper staff to do some of the work for you, it really is as simple as finding a staff member that ticks all the right boxes.

The above schedule will pretty much set you up with the right aides to help you uncover new talents or find just that one particular player missing to turn your team into genuine contenders. Hit the staff search and find the best possible staff you can, place an advert and see who responds, whatever you do, make sure you get the best staff you can, as they will make it easier for you to do your job as a manager.

The various strategies

Straight off the bat, setting up a scouting system with a valid underlying strategy is something a sensible manager does in this game. The reason why such a system is in place, however, is a cause for debate. Many managers seem to think that a scouting setup is in place to mitigate or eliminate risk in the transfer market. Sadly, the very concept of risk is inherent to player recruitment. The transfer fee in part reflects the amount of risk buying clubs believe a player represents as better players command higher transfer fees because they are more likely to have a positive impact wherever they go. But because this is football and a lot of clubs routinely make errors of judgment, there is always the potential that teams will either misjudge that risk, either positively or negatively. This is where a manager, with the help of his trusted scouts and analysts, can find hidden value.

What makes this article interesting, hopefully anyway, is that it discusses how a manager, me to be more exact, assesses these risks and values and goes about minimising his risks. I generally have two strategies that I like to use and mix up, depending on my financial position at the time and need for additional funds in the long run. I generally use a combination between a scattergun approach and a more surgical, precision signing.

The scattergun approach

The scattergun approach is all about casting a wide net as possible to help add depth to the squad in one fell swoop. If you bring in a bunch of cheap options, there are always going to be players who are going to succeed. This strategy, of course, greatly limits the maximum transfer fee you can pay for any one target. In fact, this strategy generally implies you are dipping into the bargain bin segment of the market. You are aiming for free agents, players whose contract is expiring, loan deals and players who are transfer listed by their respective clubs. Even if they fail at the club, you do not lose a great amount of money and the small amount you do lose is often compensated by the players who are a success.

Such a strategy generally sees you aiming for a select few target groups:

  • older (> 32) still decentish players whom you might have a good season left in them and can help you in another relegation fight;
  • players in their prime (< 21 yet > 32) who are essentially damaged goods, either due to injuries, wage demands, inconsistent performances or rows with their managers, often transfer listed and available on the cheap;
  • potentially decent younger prospects (< 21) rotting in the reserve squads of some of the major clubs, players who were destined to develop into major players but need first team action right now;
  • potentially decent younger prospects (< 21) toiling away at smaller clubs who could develop into major talents later on.

A good staff consisting of both scouts and analysts can obviously assist by eliminating a few definite “no-no”-options in whatever list you come up with. If your staff is really good at what they do, they may add one or two players in the prime of their career to your list, players who are wildly undervalued for whatever reason, without any discernible flaws. Though these spending sprees are time-consuming both in preparation and execution, they can pay off, especially if you manage to get your errant bunch of rag-tag misfits to gel and overperform, inflating their reputation and garnering interest from other clubs.

The players above are examples of such a policy. Pratt was a youngster who came in for free, was developed at the club, including a few loan spells, before shooting towards the top and earning himself and the club a lucrative transfer to Paris. Fessler and Pastor slotted into the damaged goods department. Fessler was once seen as a top prospect, as seen by the hefty fee paid by Gladbach early on in his career. A few rows with Gladbach’s manager later and he was out the door for a bargain price. Similarly, Pastor was already a Spanish international when he forced a move away for the relatively cheap fee of 17 million.

On the other hand, the scattergun approach is a very risky one. You do need financial resources to pull it off effectively. You do not want to end up scraping the barrel and taking chances on players no-one else wants, which sees you risking replacing one mediocre team with another. There is also the aspect of not trying to achieve a dramatical makeover of the entire first team. Bringing in too many new faces can hurt your tactical familiarity or leave you with an inflated squad if you cannot shift stragglers on loan-deals.

The surgical signing

The other strategy is a more surgical one, instead of going for volume, you could spend the vast majority of your transfer budget on one or two expensive but “safer bets,” and then use whatever tiny amount you have left on a few high risk/high reward type of players. I wrote about this process earlier, so I do not intend to write about it again in-depth, since not much as changed.

The Process Of Surgically Signing New Players

This more surgical strategy comes with different drawbacks; first of all, especially if you are a smaller club, you will not have a hefty war chest at your disposal so your precious millions are not worth that much in today’s insane football economy. Your hard-earned cash might allow you to buy somewhere in the “middle market”, where there is still a lot of noise and plenty of risks.

Secondly, if you are splashing the cash on a select few signings, the one thing you are not doing is spreading the risk around. If your expensive, big-name players misfire, not only have you tied up a huge portion of the club’s allocated funds on a few duds that you will likely sell later at a loss, but your club will almost certainly face the drop barring some good luck and clever management. Uncertainty is an issue for even the safest bet in football. You could sign Lionel Messi for an exorbitant fee only to see him suffer a career-ending injury during a training session.

Setting up your search parameters

With one or both of the above strategies in the back of your mind, you can work on setting up your search parameters. In the case of a surgical strike, you need to assess your actual needs. You can’t expect to maximise the output of the scouting process if you are clueless as to what you are looking for. That means you are going to look beyond the position of a player and look at the role and status a player is going to hold within the squad. Are you looking for a traditional defensive fullback, a more attacking complete wing back or even a modern inverted wing back? What status will they hold within the squad – are they being bought as squad fillers, rotational options, young prospects or instant reinforcements? Assess your needs before looking at further steps. Since your needs are different every time, that is a subject I will not elaborate on any further.

The concept that intrigues most people is the concept I have dubbed the Juventus Gambit. While I ultimately ended up calling it the Juventus Gambit, I could just have easily called it the Chelsea gambit, or the Manchester City gambit, or the FC Bayern gambit. Virtually every major club in the world is doing it, some are just less successful at it than others. You start off by hoarding players. Ideally, you want to sign young promising players, but there’s room to manoeuvre in this department. Just start off by stockpiling talented players.

The Juventus Gambit; Why Hoarding Players Can Pay Off

After assessing their usefulness regarding your own squad’s needs, you ship out the excess players on loan deals. In reality, that means around 90% of the new arrivals are immediately moved on to other clubs. These can be feeder clubs, or you can just offer these excess players out on loan deals. Keep in mind that feeder clubs generally do not pay you any money in terms of wages or loan fees.

The profits you make from such a setup are largely dependant on the scale of course, but they are generally reinvested into the structure so as to grow the organisation as a whole. When it is all set up correctly, the financial aid such a setup provides is an excellent way to help a smaller club grow and possibly attract one or two big names.

So when we are scouting for players with resale potential, I generally have a number of factors I take into consideration. I touched upon the subject earlier in part III of this Monchi series. Just to refresh your memory, these are the factors I look at.

With these factors in the back of my head, I have created a number of different scouting filters I use next to each other to identify potential targets from the mass of players my scouts have come up with. On top of the results of my scouts, I often routinely ask my scouts to check out the entire intake for major clubs or just entire leagues worth of players if I think I can benefit from it. Multi-select for the win, right? Since I am paying most of the scouts a king’s ransom, I might as well make them work for it.

When I do set up my filters, I use five separate ones. The first ones to discuss are the ones dubbed “basic”. They are nothing more than a filter of players up to a certain age and with a certain potential (always 2.5 stars or more), often with the added attribute of “determination”, which helps drive development. The filters dubbed “6 months” add the restriction of finding players whose contracts have expired or are due to expire. These are financially interesting targets because there is a decent chance I can get them for free, which makes any resulting loan deal or transfer automatic profit. The final filter gives me players with a maximum age of 25, a potential of at least 2.5 stars and a transfer listed status.

The age settings differ between some of the filters. Some are focussed on the U21 category, whereas others aim for U23 or even U25 players. These age settings are not just a random choice. With most youth players, their potential ability is not clearly determined, making their success later in their career a fifty-fifty longshot. As a player progresses and develops, the chances of selling him on increase, provided he is actually talented. This means that a player’s value also tends to go up as he grows older and becomes more and more of a sure thing. In turn, this means it is of the utmost importance to find the right players when they are young and not yet too expensive.

The potential ability setting has been set to 2.5 stars since this setting yields, at the very least, players who are capable of becoming rotational options in the squad I already have. Their attributes are not even that important since most of these players are intended to function as merchandising tools. This explains the rather robust and simple filters. The determination attribute is there because I hope it is indicative of the development curve of a player.

Assessing the reports

Casting a wide net like this leads to a great many scout reports flooding your scouting centre. Do I study each and every one of these reports religiously? Hell no… I make a pre-selection and look for the five or ten prospects that look most appealing, before reading and assessing the reports of these individual players. In a prior case study, I showed you this process in-depth, so again, to avoid repeating myself, I won’t touch the subject in this article, instead referencing to the older work, that is still relevant here.

A Case Study Of Scouting A New Star

A factor I have not discussed earlier is the pre-selection bit. How do I select the most promising options out of the lot? I essentially use a customised view, that shows me a lot of the variables I find interesting. I then use this view to select the five or so players that tick most of the boxes that I find intriguing.

In one fell swoop, I can see the important information I need. I don’t look at a player’s actual value but at the value the scouts reckon he has. Similarly, I do not look at his current wages but at his expected wage demands. The rest of the filters are pretty much self-explanatory. I did add an extra column for the injuries. If a player has any recurring injuries, I want to be aware of those before actually signing said player. Such an overview helps me select the players whose reports I want to look.

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