Diary of a scout: How COVID-19 has impacted the search for new talent
Football is largely back in various forms across the globe, but the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt how things normally operate in the sport. Club scouts in particular have been hugely affected as they are used to travelling to games to watch players and, while live matches have returned, scouting is far from being back to normal.
Although some clubs started sending their scouts to games again around August/September as travel restrictions relaxed and access was allowed for scouting purposes (though sadly not for fans), this has largely stopped again. The pandemic has caused many last-minute cancellations and changes, leaving some scouts stranded in their hotels for several nights.
Watching players online has always been an option through such platforms as InstatScout or WyScout, but COVID-19 has changed the world and football scouts are having to adjust.
As Europe finds itself amid the second wave and lockdowns have been implemented across various countries, ESPN talked to a number of top scouts — who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their work — to find out the “new normal” for them.
Monday: Rest and recharge
Under normal circumstances the first day of the week would typically be spent on the road, either crossing European borders in a car or negotiating time-consuming air travel. Now, however, it’s often the most convenient time for scouts to take a day off and clear their mind after two marathon days in front of the TV/computer screen watching games. Of course, there’s also the opportunity to type up their findings from the weekend and planning for the week ahead too.
“Monday is generally the day of the week with the fewest relevant games. Sure, some of the bigger leagues play games in the evening, but it’s not something we prioritise massively. We usually already know all the players inside out and if a new player or a youngster makes a debut, or something similarly interesting happens, we can catch up with the games online later in the week. Monday night is my preferred night off, the way things are now.” — The chief scout of a European club in the Champions League.
Tuesday: Planning and games
The proper starting point of the week for many scouts as a congested fixture program, with games coming thick and fast, means that Tuesday — often with league and European games aplenty — is about spending time in front of the TV for the scouts.
First up, though, is going through last week’s work and observations with the wider scouting/recruitment team before setting sights on the days ahead. Right now this assumes extra importance as clubs are in the “detection phase” ahead of the January transfer window. It’s common to have lots of names brought up in meetings, where they will bounce ideas around with their team and narrow down a shortlist in December. Like the rest of society, the use of video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype for these meetings is booming.
“We usually spend the first few hours going through the European scene, exchanging notes and observations from the games at the weekend. Then after lunch, obviously with the time difference in mind, we connect with our two South America based scouts and there’s the same drill there; we go through names, abilities and performances. Usually, the session finishes off with the South Americans flagging up players from their part of the world for us to study before we regroup and offer feedback next week.” — Chief scout.
If you want to scout the best talent, having a team based across the globe is key. It’s been practically impossible to travel, let alone access games outside Europe, since early March, so having somebody “on the ground” is proving an even greater advantage now.
Wednesday: Games, games, games
Nowadays this is another heavily loaded day of televised games with a routine that doesn’t differ too much from the days preceding or following. However, some clubs are taking extra care to follow up with their remotely based scouts, for work and mental health, and that midweek is a fitting day to check in for an extra hour or so.
“Some of our locally based scouts are still able to pop in physically to take part in meetings or just grab a coffee. Those who work for us abroad are kind of stuck now. We’ve decided against assigning them to go to games even though they might get access one way or the other. At this stage it’s about personal safety and trying to restrict movements.
On the other hand, we can’t demand of them to sit for hours in front of a monitor watching games from their own countries or those neighbouring. They already know all the players well and having them watch the same talents over and over again will drive them insane. For that reason we try to involve them more by giving them new leagues and players to watch. Either myself or the chief scout calls them personally once or twice a week. Even if we live far apart, they’re still a part of our team.” — A European sporting director.
Thursday: Rest day
Many clubs encourage their scouting staff to take a clean break from football at least one day each week. Given that weekends are so busy, Thursday is a good option if Monday doesn’t work out.
“I know that busy days will come, so I try to make sure there’s a day or two off to spend doing other stuff or be with friends or family. I demand a lot from my scouting staff; I can call and text them around the clock. In just a few weeks we’ll be approaching the next transfer window and things will be even more hectic.” — Sporting director.
USMNT defender Matt Miazga tells ESPN he is excited by the rise of young American talents in Europe.
Friday: A final catchup and an eye on Ligue 2
In non-pandemic times, Friday is spent travelling but that has been replaced by the week’s second opportunity for a digital catch-up. After a few hours of reviewing the work from the previous few days and setting out a plan for the next, some sign off the day by following a Ligue 2 match — the second division in French football — unmissable for scouting purposes for most European top league clubs.
Ligue 2 is the best option to spot up-and-coming talent, according to most scouts, given that their normal go-to of youth football has been severely curtailed in the pandemic. UEFA has cancelled its youth national team competitions and many tournaments further afield have been similarly affected, while those that are still running are generally not available on TV.
So the focus now is geared towards senior football and what is available on TV, although the pandemic has forced clubs to give youth players already on the books more of a chance in first-team.
“At first it was a relief to spend more time at home, but when the borders and stadiums opened in July and August I really enjoyed getting back into it. Now that everything is closing down again it’s just frustrating. The travelling has become a lifestyle to me. I miss it!” — An international scout with 10 years’ experience.
Saturday/Sunday: Full steam ahead
While logistical shortcomings used to prevent scouts from physically attending more than a game or two per day over a weekend, the wealth of live TV games now allows for an action-packed itinerary from the comfort of one’s own home.
“Of course, games can be watched whenever you want online, but I enjoy the novelty of being able to watch games with a professional eye on TV while the result is still unknown. My main priority is assessing players and reporting on their pros and cons, make no mistake about that, but having the added suspense of seeing live footage is generally a boost to me. It does make it slightly more exciting to check out a player in a live game, rather than already knowing that he came off after 68 minutes when catching up a few days later.
“I usually start off with a Dutch game around lunchtime; then Germany in the afternoon. In the evening there’s often an interesting Ligue 1 game to pick up. Three games in a day is enough for me. After all you don’t want to overdo it and lose focus.
“Nothing beats being at the stadium though — neither from the experience of a fan nor being a scout who wants to pick up as many details as possible. Perhaps TV and streams give you 80% of the total picture, but there’s still something missing if you’re not there.” — An international scout.
But as the world adapts to COVID-19, so will clubs. The recruitment side of many organisations have been working reasonably well in spite of the adverse circumstances, and may lead to some changes when things return to normal.
“We already had a comprehensive database from previous live scouting, which means that we haven’t been as impeded as we thought. The online tools have also helped us organise ourselves well and delegate the work efficiently.
“We’ve attended fewer games this year, like everybody else, but actually our conclusion is that we travelled too much without purpose before the pandemic. Now our work is more targeted.” — Sporting director.