There is a new piece of data software doing the rounds in football circles.
Pitched as a recruiting tool, it uses artificial intelligence to crunch player data and work out how influential over 90,000 players across the world have been in their leagues – before further refining the data so that the same up-and-coming stars can be compared by position, player role, age, nationality or even league.
It gives clubs who pay the subscription fee a definitive list on, say, the best 23 year-old left-backs available for under £5 million in 250 competitions across the globe.
It’s the work of Dutch data firm SciSports, who are working with more than 75 clubs worldwide and who are trying to boost their influence in the Premier League market, and have developed a razor sharp algorithm that, they claim, can give clubs a recruitment edge.
One of the features they’ve been showing off to English clubs recently is the shadow squad option. This crunches the data for every club in the Premier League and allows them to measure the quality of the squad against various league positions. So if you pick top four and then connect it to, say, Newcastle it’ll be able to flag up how many of United’s players would – according to their algorithm – be capable of stepping into a squad challenging for those positions.
Welcome to the world of recruitment in 2019: the growing influence of insight, data and artificial intelligence is a noticeable trend in a world that is becoming the testing ground for some really groundbreaking work.
But how do you bring that new new world order together with the established order of scouts who still have so much to offer and agents and companies who hold the key to players?
The rise of so-called transfer speed dating is one way – and an agent based in Newcastle has one of the UK-based events that is growing increasingly influential.
Middlesbrough-born Tony Sharkey was a young pro at Leeds United before become an agent almost 20 years. And his new venture – the Football Transfer Forum – is one of the so-called “transfer speed dating” events which enables agents, club recruitment officials, sporting directors, sports lawyers and Chief Scouts to network in the crucial weeks before the transfer window.
December sees the fourth edition of the event at Anfield and around 150 professionals from clubs across the four professional leagues and the SPL – as well as La Liga – will pay up to £350 for a place.
There are keynote speakers – Dan Ashworth, formerly of the FA and now at Brighton, has given a speech, as has Steve Walsh, the man credited with spotting many of the players who helped Leicester to win the note. Companies like Football Manager – who want to roll out their extensive database to professional clubs in England – and player insurance firms also pay for tables and introductions.
Newcastle have been among the attendees at previous events – at the Riverside and the Etihad – and the company who connected Ludwig Francilette to United in the summer are one of the firms who have made the most of the opportunity to alert clubs to players who might not be on their scouting radars.
And it is the recruitment work that is the basis for the event. It’s a fascinating way for “prep work” for transfer windows to be carried out, giving clubs the chance to lay the groundwork for their target lists and also for intermediaries to alert clubs about potential players – and vice versa.
“It’s basically pre-work before the window. I’m an agent so what might happen is someone from one of the clubs might say ‘We need a left-back this January’ and I’ve got a left-back or know someone who has one, it gives them something to work on,” Sharkey explains over coffee in a Jesmond cafe.
“This is a networking event and it’s bringing people in the football business in the recruitment and transfer of players together.
“It’s just one day before the transfer window but it brings them together: some won’t have met, some will have had phone calls and know each other over a period of time but it’s a good way of touching base with everybody. There’ll be a lot of clubs, a lot of agents and some good companies as well.”
Sharkey sees a more modern generation of recruitment professionals are entering the game who are brilliant at using the tech – scouting platforms Wyscout and Scout7 or video analysis tool Hudl – with their route into the game through university degrees, analytics or science rather than having played the game. Maybe they haven’t had quite as much experience of pressing the flesh as their senior colleagues.
Transfer forums, and Wyscout also hold their own event in Amsterdam this November which draws clubs from across the Continent, are one way of changing that.
“I’m starting to see younger element now coming into the game,” he says.
“Scouts being employed by clubs are very good with the computer, they watch games on screens with the different data packages and are incredibly data savvy. They’ve been brought up on Football Manager or FIFA and that younger breed of scouts are coming into the game which is freshening things up a bit.
“They probably know each other on LinkedIn or one of the other platforms but to actually go and meet in person is a benefit.”
Each club is given a table and agents and intermediaries book “appointments”. Clubs can also network between themselves with five minute “dates”.
Sharkey explains: “It’s five minutes of ‘speed dating’. It’s done like that but there’s lots of time during the day and the evening where you can meet informally.
“The clubs have a table and then agents and some people from the companies that come, they book in an appointment with them. It’s a five minute conversation, an exchange of details or business cards or just a catch up and that’s how it works.
“The clubs also have a special part during the day where they get a chance to network between themselves so they have an informal space to network. Our regular people who have been coming with us for three years – it’s a chance to catch up.
“People talk about players all the time. What people used to call ‘tapping up’ back in the day, well clubs and agents involved are talking about players 24/7. It’s part of scouting to know what players are about and to be able to talk about that.
“I do know we have had one significant transfer off the back of the Transfer Forum as well.”