PODCAST: The Evolving Role of Data and Analysis in the Recruitment Process

In recent years, the number of recruitment analysis roles in English football has increased substantially, as clubs look to optimise their recruitment and make more well-informed decisions.

These roles are not just confined to the riches of the Premier League either – the processes first established in the top-flight a decade ago have now filtered down to all levels of the Football League and into the Conference. Today analysts are working closely with scouts, managers and in many cases, club executives to ensure their club is making the right decisions, at every stage, to identify and recruit players meeting their requirements, all driven by the club’s philosophy.

However, having access to detailed biographical, event and performance data relating to thousands of elite players remains a relatively new industry phenomenon – and given that many experienced scouts possess proven track records for successfully recruiting players, using their tried and trusted processes, how can data and analysis be applied to support these existing processes and reaffirm key decisions?

To try and establish answers to these questions, we have assembled an experienced panel of experts for our latest podcast, who have all been involved in first-team recruitment at the highest level of English football.

Our first guest is Huddersfield Town’s Chief Scout Josh Marsh, who is supported day-to-day by a number of analysts, including Luke England, who is referenced in the podcast. Marsh also previously worked together with our second guest, Andy Stone, at Southampton. Stone worked at St. Mary’s for six years as the club’s Head Analyst, before joining Aston Villa as Head of Performance Analysis and Technical Recruitment.

The panel is completed by Rob MacKenzie, who has worked as Head of Technical scouting at Leicester City, Head of Player identification at Tottenham Hotspur and most recently, Director of Recruitment at Derby County.

The Podcast Panel: Left to right, Andy Stone, Rob MacKenzie, Josh Marsh

During the podcast, all three are in agreement that if an analyst is to offer something to the process, they have to be able to interpret data in the right context. This is because all questions raised by data will be different, based on each club’s own unique philosophy. What may be relevant to one club may be totally irrelevant within the environment of another.

Data should also be applied with the objective of making departments more agile, so that they can react quicker and more decisively when making decisions. Week-to-week processes leading up to a transfer window can be very fluid, which means that all analysis work has to be time-bound. Therefore staff looking to undertake extensive, in-depth analysis, which takes several weeks to compile, may not fit in with the real-life pressures of a club environment.

Being able to make a decision quicker than your rivals is key, but doing it in a way which doesn’t compromise your process is crucial, so you have the conviction to act at a time when your rivals are still undecided.

Most important than anything though is having the ability to develop relationships internally, both with the scouts and with the management staff, so that they value an analyst’s work and crucially, trust their input.

Therefore the way information is presented and the language used by the recruitment analysts is vital. During the podcast, Stone refers to the importance of being able to take key data relevant to the way your team is going to play, which a manager can understand, then add context to it in a visual way, so that it can be evaluated to support a decision. MacKenzie also discusses this in greater detail in a Blog recently published by our partners, OptaPro, on their website.

Of course data analysis in isolation doesn’t make a club recruit a player, but it can provide key evidence to support decision making, which will be made using a combination of technical, profiling and performance data collected over a long period of time.

One recent example of this has been the ability for all English Premier League clubs to access GPS data from all Premier League games, which can help a club understand how well a player is fulfilling their role on the pitch week-to-week. But again, as MacKenzie points out, a player’s GPS-generated match stats will still need to be reviewed in context, based on how his team was set-up during that game and what the player’s specific role was. If the stats suggest a player didn't achieve certain outputs, it doesn’t necessarily mean he cannot achieve them, as he may have been playing to instructions which will be the biggest factor in his data outcomes.

With this in mind, it is also fascinating to know how forward-thinking staff, working at the highest levels of the industry, are in terms of being proactive in finding out what new information will be potentially available to them in future. This isn’t about people getting excited and carried away about new types of data in itself, instead it is about them doing their homework early, so that they can develop an understanding of how that data can help their club reach key outcomes. Again, it is about separating the relevant information from the irrelevant.

However, bringing things back to the key question about the role of data and analysis in recruitment, the main conclusion drawn from the experts is that more than anything, a club has to have a clear idea of who they are in terms of their philosophy, and what they are looking for in the players they are looking to recruit, if they are going to get anywhere near optimising their processes. If a club has that in place, then the scouts and the analysts can work together to identify suitable prospects meeting their recruitment profiles, using data tools to support the process. Otherwise, they may find it difficult to identify players who fit the club’s needs.

You can listen to their hour-long discussion by clicking on the player at the bottom of the page.

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by Andy Cooper PR & Project Manager

Published 15 December 2016