How to scout a future Ballon D’or winner
One of the most discussed things in football is the scouting of youth players. Every year there are young players that go viral for being the next big thing or even every year young players who just made their debut in a professional team get bombarded as the next big thing.
Scouting a youth player has as a main goal to identify potential first-team players that will contribute to the success of the club. This can be in the form of winning games, but also by selling players for money. Developing a youth player that makes it to the first team and selling this player is one of the most lucrative ways for a football club to earn money. It costs money to have a youth academy, but these costs can be earned back fast if you develop a big talent that gets sold for a lot of money. Almost all clubs in the world have a youth academy.
There’s only a handful of clubs that say, we don’t develop our own players, we focus only on the first team. For example, Brentford, who decided to quit the youth academy and only have an A-team and a B-team. They use the B-team for developing players between the age of 17 and 23 years old. Huddersfield also decided to quit their youth academy.
But most other clubs have their own academy, with of course the most famous ones as Barcelona – La Masia and Ajax – The Toekomst. But also lesser-known academies have produced many talents that now play in the highest leagues. For example, teams like Partizan Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, and Stade Rennes to name a few. For a look at the clubs that produced the most first-team players from their academy look here:
So most clubs have a scouting department, especially for the youth academy. But how do they work?
A scout at a professional club has the responsibility to scout youth players. With as a primary goal to find players that will develop into first-team players. So where a first-team scout, wants players who can contribute to the team’s success in the short term. A youth academy scout picks players who will develop into first-team players. This can mean that he picks a player who now at his current age is a worse player for the results of the youth team compared to another player, but has in the opinion of the scout more potential in the future.
Much has been written about the scouting of players from a young age. If it’s effective and if we really are able to pick out the best talents. But the fact is that almost every professional football club is scouting players from as young as 6,7, or 8 years old. From a younger age, more players will get selected and the older player gets, the more difficult it will be to come into a youth academy.
The question will always be do we really manage to scout the best players from this age or do we develop them into top players because we give them all the possibilities and facilities to become a top player?
How does a scout at a youth club work?
The logistics of youth scouting are a bit more difficult compared to senior-level scouting. In youth scouting most of the time you have to watch the player live, since not a lot of youth matches get broadcasted, especially not at a young age. So the process of a youth scout is that he watches several youth matches and if a player catches his eye the scout writes down the name and the player will get scouted several more times by the same scout or someone else of the club.
A lot of clubs also have databases in which they will write down the names of these players. If several scouts write down the same name, it’s a sign that several scouts see the talent and that this player needs to be scouted more thoroughly.
This often ends in the player getting an invitation to train with the club and play some training matches, so the club can see how this player fits in within the standard of the club. If also this period is successful the player will normally start at the club the next season.
How does a scout see if a player has potential?
But how does a scout judge the qualities and potential of a player to reach the first team? This is probably the most important question and also one where a lot of people disagree. There’s still no clear definition of talent, and what causes that one player reaches the top and not the other. We’ve all heard the stories about players who ‘had the talent’ but not the mentality. But you still need talent, with the only mentality you don’t make it to the professional leagues either. But scouts are sometimes blinded by the short term, they see a player scoring five times and think this player has to be a top player. But when age catches up and the physical differences become less, this player turns out to not have the skills to make it to the first team. This is something that’s called the age effect. But there are also enough examples of players that have always been the best. This is what makes scouting of youth players so difficult, and we probably miss a lot of talents, because we don’t know exactly how talent works and/or we don’t give everyone the opportunity to develop his talent.
That being said, most clubs try to identify talents and they often do this with a framework for scouting players, all of them have the same parameters by which they judge a player, the difference is that clubs have different demands for these parameters. The parameters a club scouts a player on are Technical skills, Tactical skills, Mental skills, Physical skills, and Personality. We will write more about this in our blog about scouting reports.
At Tactalyse we believe in youth scouting on tactical skills. We’ve found that the technical, mental, and physical skills are largely teachable. But the cognitive level and thus the ability to learn tactical skills of a player is difficult to teach. Yes someone can become a better player tactically, but the Tactical skills are the most important parameter if a player makes it to the first team or not.
But to really minimize the loss of talent we would suggest a different structure in youth academies. We would keep the number of players at younger ages higher because it’s so difficult to predict who’s got the talent to make it. So by keeping more young players, let’s say between 4-6 teams per age group until U14, then go to 3 teams U15, U16, and U17, and then in the last stage, you go down to two teams U18 & U19. In this way you maximize the chances for players and minimize that hidden talents don’t make it through.
This is in short how a youth academy scouting department works. In the next blog, we will discuss the use of data for scouting.
If you have any questions or disagree with something. Please write in the comments, so we can discuss and become more knowledgeable.