With data analysis set to revolutionise the way player performance is measured, Adam Bate caught up with Hamburg's head of technical scouting Steven Houston to find out more.
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 30/11/12 10:11am
The image of the wizened old scout stood in the cold scouring for talent at a provincial football ground remains. But like other facets of the game, scouting is changing. And technology is driving development. These days a football player is as likely to be discovered on a computer database several time-zones away as on wet and windy Tuesday at Tranmere.
Hamburg chief technical scout Steven Houston is part of the new breed of modern scouts. Houston left Chelsea last year to join the backroom staff of former Blues sporting director Frank Arnesen and is the man charged with building the German club's scouting network. He believes the world of technical scouting is no longer seen as the preserve of the geeks but an essential part of the process.
"I think we are winning the battle," Houston told Sky Sports. "When I started in 2008, technical scouting was a very new word. You were limited in terms of the products you could buy to help in that area. Now it's almost a mini-revolution in scouting where teams have technical scouts and are buying products that allow them to have coverage of various leagues.
"It's definitely something that a lot of clubs are now paying attention to. I think the Premier League remains very innovative. If you look at the conferences now most of them have full attendance from Premier League clubs and from my point of view that's really exciting to see that kind of movement compared to 2008."
It's not that Houston regards traditional scouting methods as dead - far from it. Clubs still have to see the players in the flesh. But the old methods were not systematised and scouts could end up seeing certain clubs more often than others for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the potential of the market. Efficiency is the name of the game.
"Stats are central to how we work but you need great scouts," he explains. "You need them to watch players live. What technical scouting can do is allow you to be more efficient. Scouts can't watch every game; they can't watch every team. There are only so many resources you have and it's about trying to use those resources efficiently. Are we watching the right games and the right players?
"For example, if we are looking to sign young players then why are we watching teams where the majority of the players are older? But it's also interesting to look at whether you are looking for the right type of player. You often hear teams saying they need a striker. Do they really need a striker? Are they really sure - does the data show that?"
The public's appetite for greater football analysis appears to know no bounds as the popularity of companies such as Opta and websites like Zonal Marking continue to grow. Twenty years ago it would have been unusual to hear talk of assists. Now Leon Britton's pass completion rate is common knowledge. But for technical scouts like Houston even that is considered too basic. They must drill far deeper.
"It's no longer a case of saying a player has scored X amount of goals or a midfielder has created X amount of assists," he adds. "You only have to look at something simple like a goal. There are so many types of goals - the difficulty of the goal, the quality of the goal. And with passes there are passes and then passes in the final third. We are now able to break down into it. The hardest thing is to work out what is important and what isn't important - at a team level but also for individual players.
"For example, I think if you just looked at the players with the highest pass completion you would just be getting defensive midfielders like (John Obi) Mikel (at Chelsea) who tend to make shorter and less incisive passes. Passes in the final third are much more difficult to make and through-balls are passes that create higher quality chances for forwards rather than, say, a cross or something like that.
"You also have to factor in the team and you have to factor in the league itself. That's where you really are starting to do data analysis and crunching data. I think as opposed to saying he made X number of passes per game you start to look at how many of his team's passes did he make. After all, a player at Barcelona is always going to make a greater volume of passes than any player at a team that makes fewer passes.
"There are lots of examples. In Holland there seem to be more goals scored so very often you find a lot of strikers scoring over 20 goals per season. How does that translate into other leagues? You can look at historical trends for players who made that transition. That's what a lot of teams are trying to find out - how you can effectively make that translation.
"You need to ask how many times we have seen them and have we seen them against top-quality opposition. Injury information is also very important. We took a player on a free transfer called Rene Adler who is now back in the Germany squad. He had a knee injury and he was out for a year but he was a fantastic goalkeeper before that so there are lots of factors to consider."
Adler was clearly a bargain but it is telling that this is the first time Houston even mentions the cost of signing a player. First and foremost, he sees his role as identifying just how good players are. "Generally the rule of scouting is about quality," he explains. "So we're trying to find the best quality players and then the next stage is to ask whether we can get them. But obviously you can use all the tools in the world to tell you Lionel Messi is the best player and you still won't be able to get him!
"The next stage is to find out which players are undervalued and that's where technical scouting can really bring some big benefits. Can we find players who have traits of big players? Perhaps in leagues that aren't as well known or as popular? Hamburg is a club that's had a financial issue with debt and in a way that makes the role more important because you're trying to find undervalued talent but you're also looking for players of ages with a resale value. But the first thing is always quality."
So does Houston think we'll ever be able to put a single number on a player to identify their significance? A 'goals-added' stat that would be the football equivalent of baseball's Moneyball revolution? "I think it would be ideal if there was an easy answer," he admits. "But football is not baseball, where you can have the Moneyball approach. It's a beautiful mix of science and art. The challenge is trying to break down what's important and what isn't important and that's not always so easy. There will be progress but you have to know what you can't do as well as what you can."