In search of defenders


Centre backs with attacking attributes are in high demand by clubs. What are football scouts doing to find them?

They’re responsible for kids changing teams each year. Grassroots talent depends on them to get into top teams. Armed with a camera, paper and a pen, they travel around grounds in search for the next Messi. Or simply to cover a position that’s opened up in their clubs U-16s. They travel, observe, analyse, comprehend, gamble, spy… They are star hunters. They are football scouts.

“Scouting is the backbone of the sport, especially on a competitive level”, explains Carlos Merino Torrecilla, ex-scout for Real Madrid CF. “Capturing new talent is vital in football, but only top level clubs have employees specifically devoted in searching for the talent. Their financial power allows them to have a good network of scouts and see a lot of players, not only in Spain but all around the world”.

Merino, nowadays is a coach for Getafe CF U-16s A team, tells us how he did his work whilst at Real Madrid. “Each scout was sent to specific zone. On a weekend, you could see up 7 matches. After each match I had to write up a report on the players that stood out. Sometimes the club would tell me which matches to watch. Other times, I would just try and go to the best matches of each category. Information available on the internet is a huge help when choosing which game to watch”.

Technology has changed the way scouts work, giving a huge range of possibilities that weren’t available before. “Videos and computer software on the internet can give you all of the statistical data on a player and allow you to watch them a lot more and in different situations”, points out Alberto Martín Barrero, scout at Real Betis Balompié and head of the Training Methodology Department at Marcet’s High Performance Academy.

Statistics can deceive

However, according to Martín you always have to take statistics with a pinch of salt, because sometimes they can be deceiving. Having more data doesn’t always mean that you’ll have more success. “You have to know how to analyse them, collect them correctly, understand them, contextualise them… This is what makes a good scout”. And this is where technology becomes vital. Particularly with social media, where they can possess information outside of the sport. “They can tell you how a player thinks, their attitude, the type of people in the circle and the relationship they have with them… There have been cases where certain clubs haven’t signed players due to the lifestyle not fitting in with the philosophy of the club”.

What do teams look for? “Each club has their specific type of player, but it is true that the criteria has changed a lot over time”, Martín explains. “Before scouts would only search for players that stood out in teams, nowadays they look at more long-term aspects, keeping in mind biological maturity of a player and assessing their on and off pitch actions. “Football is a very complex sport, where a lot of factors can intervene. This is why it’s important to look at players during training session as well. You have to get to know their family and assess their surroundings. At the end of the day these settings that can mark a players performance”.

The more aspects analysed the better the report that the scouts puts together will be. Resulting in more possibilities to convince his superiors in giving the scouted player a chance to go for trials. “It’s crucial for the report to include videos, because it’s easier to digest through the means of video”, Merino tells us. However sometimes it isn’t possible to obtain videos of the matches. “At certain stadiums I had to go as a spectator”, Real Madrid’s ex scout ensures “At some big clubs it is prohibited to film games, unless the visiting squad are recording them or someone asks for permission beforehand. Also there can be issues with the law for filming minors, but in the truth is that most grounds won’t complain about it”.

If scouts are forced to fend for themselves at certain grounds, this is mainly because their job is in lack of an official agreement. Nowadays scouts are mainly coaches that are specialised in signing players. In fact the majority of scouts are coaches that can only put in part time shifts into scouting. “It’s hard to be able to earn a living being just a scout, unless you work with an important club”, Martín says. “It always depends on the financial power of the team, by the income they have and the part of the profits that they put into grassroots football”.

Key positions

On one hand, you have big clubs with specialised scouts that cover a big part of the national territory and also at times cross borders. On the other hand, the vast majority of team have coaches that dedicate part of their time in search of new talent on a limited geographical scale. But there is also a third option: freelance scouts, they aren’t part of any club but work closely with football representation agencies or scouting companies. It’s a more creative and independent way of working in this profession, but it’s riskier.

However they work, every scout is looking for the same thing: players with talent, margin for improvement and an ability to adapt to new settings. And if they’re defenders, even better. “The positions that are hardest to cover in football are the defence and in goal”, points out Merino, explaining that in these positions there “isn’t enough clear stats”, the same occurs with forwards. “Currently there’s a need for defenders with attacking attributes”, highlights Martín. “The positions in highest demand are left backs and players that play on the wings in general, including wingers. They have become more popular in recent years. Above all it’s important for them to have attacking potential and to be able to beat an opposition in a one-on-one situation”. And basically to play the best game ever when a scout is watching them from the stands.

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