Why Premier League clubs’ big money obsession with “real football men” is vastly overrated

Mark Thompson has his say on why more people should be trusting good use of statistics, rather than getting caught up in the old-school way of doing things.

The most startling revelation of the week emerged from the BBC’s World Football Phone-in.

It wasn’t that Mina Rzouki knows Jurgen Klopp better than he knows himself. Or that the nickname for Tim Vickery’s dog is to be ‘Suarez’, after the Uruguayan with the teething problem.

No, the most eye-popping information aired in the past seven days was a confession detailing the quality of influence some bloke with a pair of eyes has over Premier League managers, that he may be wrong about the adequacy of Everton centre-back Funes Mori, who he confidently predicted, and advised, would not be good enough for the top level of English football.

Certain, unnamed, Premier League managers occasionally consult someone called Tim Vickery to advise them on which players to look at when making transfer decisions.

Never mind what their scouts and analysts might have thought – but I suppose that does not matter now. The barely believable part of all this is that Vickery is in no way, shape or form alone in his position.

At Manchester United, similar blokes with eyes remain in the upper echelons and are charged with making similar recommendations on a more regular basis.

It is they who oversaw the club bringing in players such as Falcao, Anderson, and Zaha.

For all the effect these players had, it’s nothing better than a con.

I have used the three players above as examples. But these people are in place at every club in the Premier League, with varying degrees of influence.

Unfortunately, for the likes of these traditional scouts, all the traditional scouting in the world didn’t stop Emre Can from booting the ball into his own defender at Everton, allowing Romelu Lukaku to level.

And all of the cold Tuesday nights spent in dingy stands don’t matter to a Villa team that can barely pass water.

And all of the time that scouts can feasibly spend watching all of a club’s targets don’t matter if United waste god knows how much on wages on Falcao – a striker, I’m informed, that a cursory glance at his non-penalty goals per 90 minutes would have cast doubts about.

It is this generation of all eyes and nothing else kind of people – and every Premier League club has them – who are spinning the football-obsessed public a line in order to make themselves part of the ‘old school’ elite.

As if regurgitating a breakdown of a player’s confidence, passion and heart makes them look good. It [here I deviate from the Moxley script slightly] matters far less than the emphasis currently put on it.

Watching a player cannot tell you if a player’s performance is consistent over the last few seasons and if their current form in the game being viewed is lucky or the norm. Furthermore, if they are used as the sole basis for signing players, we really are in trouble.

What should be key components of any scouting mission? You might think a player’s shooting numbers and quality would count.

You can get that from looking at him – despite the fact that you can get an idea of his, and twenty others’, shooting in a fraction of the time by checking some statistics, some more detailed than others, which can then be used as a basis for prioritising further scouting.

What about their consistency season to season? The likelihood of them progressing into a star based on a history of many other players who had similar profiles?

Are they willing to vary their game? And that includes managers, too, some of whom are reluctant to trust the use of statistics to be used in a valuable way.

Do these “good football men” speak to their contacts in the game who might point them in the right direction or, even better still, say, ‘Don’t touch him with a bargepole?’

Nah, if you can’t get it from your own two eyes, it doesn’t matter. Let’s face it, if the target can run his arse off and show he cares for the shirt, he’ll do for us.

Twelve years ago, we’d hardly heard of analytics.

We see fewer and fewer doing the same thing as back in the good old days, with Southampton’s analytics team helping to take them from League 1 to the Europa League.

If you asked me who has been the most consistent centre-half outside the top four for the last five years, my answer would be that I’m unaware of a solid metric for judging central defenders, and that you’d need to speak to expert scouts who have watched far more games than me for the time being until such a metric can be usefully added to the conversation.

Statistics at the moment on central defenders are a bit of a mess, with very few people knowing how they should be used, and the usage of statistics in football more generally can often be little better.

I accept unreservedly that some ‘proper scouting’ has a use. If you have whittled down your list of potential targets down to a manageable few, then a more detailed look at these players in the flesh, actually playing the game with nuances that we are unable to deduce from numbers, is invaluable.

I get that – so clearly to dismiss it all as rubbish would be over-the-top.

But to have entire buying policies at clubs dictated by old men in big coats who can trot out a compelling list of clichés before owners who are desperate to base their entire business plans on them is utter nonsense.

For there are multiple pieces of data that can aid a club, they only have to be used well (and sometimes they are clearly not).

And as long as I live, that ain’t gonna change.

————–

An adaption of an article by Neil Moxley, here: http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/premier-league-clubs-big-money-6611038

(No offence to Tim Vickery for mentioning him personally)

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