Some of you will have noted my starting with League One in this series. Why? Well, simple: the method is looking for the very best players by looking at elements of teams that are performing exceptionally well relative to other teams. Those teams will usually be towards the top of the league, so is it realistic, in our position, to be cherry picking the best players from the best teams? Not at all. But you can probably do that with the best players in League One.
Anyway, all well and good. But where does this leave us? A load of names that might or might not lead to anything. Thing is, we can easily back check the method. It’s a manual process so I’m not about to do to much, but in the interests of validation I’ll do the Championship seasons 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Here’s what the method would have led me too. In short, it’s effectively an approach that says “Dear Mr Scout: watch x team and pay attention to players in y positions”. So:
Norwich: Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan
QPR: Kyle Walker
Swansea: Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, Angel Rangel, Joe Allen
I’m really happy with this group. Holt might not be everyone’s cup of tea but he was certainly effective. Hoolahan’s a terrific player. Any of those Swansea players would have been a big asset to Fulham.
Forest: Wes Morgan (now Leicester captain)
Southampton: Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana
West Ham: Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole
Same here. The West Ham cohort will raise the odd eyebrow but these are effective players, and the point here is that the system was looking for the best players in the Championship – it’s hard to argue that these players were not among the best players in the Championship. The Saints players were clearly legit, and Wes Morgan probably would have represented something of a diamond in the rough.
I’m cherry picking after the fact but not by much. The whole point here is, as noted above, to provide scouts with areas to explore thoroughly. Any scout told to go and watch Southampton and to keep and eye on the forwards would have come back with glowing reports on the above players. Ditto Swansea’s defenders. It works.
So there’s no reason you couldn’t do this for Sweden, for instance, or Denmark. If I may name drop for a second, while writing my Roy book (four paperbacks left – or find it on Amazon!), Erik Nevland really stressed to me the importance Hodgson and Lewington placed on professionalism, on character. It’s no coincidence that they dipped into Scandinavia so often. There’s no reason we couldn’t do this now. We have a fair idea that the method works in identifying the better players, but we also know that we’d be paying a premium for the kinds of names we’ve been finding. But dig around in Scandinavia, focus your search on the parts of teams that are excelling in their particular job, scout them intensively (note: you cannot, cannot, cannot, do this kind of thing with analytics only; you need every kind of information available to you, and attempts to create false dichotomies are a waste of brain-space) and see where it leads you.
This isn’t particularly sophisticated analysis, but it’s searching with a point. Also during my research for the Roy book I found some really good quotes from the WBA chairman, who, after hiring Hodgson and director of football Dan Ashworth, was scathing about how English clubs do business:
“It reached a watershed seven years ago under Bryan Robson when we were bringing in older players who had maybe had their day. I thought to myself: ‘If I’m spending the club’s resource, based upon recommendations made by people who might not be here in a couple of years’ time – for whatever reason – and we are left with those problems, I’d rather make the decision driven by the right methodology rather than on a whim. Basically, if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d rather make it myself.’”
So he went around Europe to see how other clubs did it. They found a role – sporting director – which English clubs really didn’t like, but which European sides felt was all but essential. “They were all looking at England saying: ‘We cannot understand what is going on when we deal with England. The clubs there pay top price, they don’t really check what they are buying.’”
Hmm. If that doesn’t resonate, it certainly should. This is why there’s a need to think about rigour, about processes, and yes, about backing up some of these decisions with analysis, not just the whims of people who might or might not be good judges.
Look, analytics is a dirty word among football supporters. But it was among supporters in other sports, and in those sports, the teams that have failed to embrace all available sources of information have fallen behind. Literally every misgiving you see about statistics on fans’ sites is not a reason not to do this. Yes, football is complicated, yes you can prove anything with stats, yes you can mis-read stats, but that’s why you have some of the brightest people in the world moving into these fields, to guard against exactly this (against this, Sir Alex Ferguson apparently sold Jaap Stam because he misinterpreted some tackling stats – it happens!). It’s a slow process, a hard one, and even when clear truisms are being found, getting buy in from the football side of things won’t be easy. But any forward thinking club needs to do this. It doesn’t cost much, but the rewards can be great.