Since 2011, Chris Badlan has been involved in elite player recruitment in a career has now sees him at Coventry City, where he is Head of Recruitment.
Chris' career began at Wolverhampton Wanderers as a Technical Scout and then as Head of Emerging Talent. More recently, he was Head of European Scouting for Norwich City before joining Coventry City this summer.
In this blog, he tell us about the challenges faced by non-Premier League clubs in executing an overseas recruitment strategy.
When you breakdown recruitment across all current first-team Championship squads, you will find that more than one in five players have been recruited from abroad.
In total, there are 138 players who have been recruited from a league outside the British Isles. Five years ago, this number stood at 92.
So it is pretty clear that more clubs are looking abroad to bring in players. Part of the reason is because the domestic market is pretty saturated, which is making it harder for clubs to recruit at home. Good English players come at a premium and this is only going to increase further when the Football League’s home-grown quota increases next season.
That said, this doesn’t mean you should be going into European markets all guns blazing. Your first objective is always going to be to look for players meeting your criteria based in England, because they are more of a known quantity on and off the field and less upheaval is required.
However, before you even start looking at devising your recruitment strategy, both at home and abroad, you need to establish five key things:
- What is your club’s playing philosophy?
- What is already in the system?
- Is the club achieving its home-grown quota?
- What can your club afford?
- Which markets can we operate in effectively?
When it comes to philosophy, this is more than simply establishing your manager’s preferred formation and way of playing. Formations now tend to be interchangeable in and out of possession and with regards to your playing style, each position will have its specific KPIs.
You also need to know the club’s succession plan. Which players are coming through the club’s system and will any of them be part of the first-team picture in the short and medium-term? It is vitally important that the club protects these players’ pathways, so you don’t want to recruit a player which is going to block that.
Knowing your markets
Given the resources at a typical Championship club, it is very difficult to know everything about every player in every European league. If you attempt that, there is every chance you will become a jack of all trades and the master of none.
Personally, I prefer to identify specific markets which are realistic to your club, where you are going to be able to pay the fees and wages and not be in direct competition with clubs operating at a higher level. You then need to know these competitions in-depth: every player in every team. This even goes for the players who may not be on your current radar.
Every league is very different though, so the combination of your positional profiles and their KPIs will inform the type of leagues you focus on.
For example, Holland and Spain are both very technical leagues and matches are played at a different tempo to what you will find in France, which is a technical league but with greater physical and athletic demands on players in terms of getting up and down the pitch. There is also a case for targeting specific leagues for different positions, so if you are in the market for a technical number 10, you may look to the Netherlands or Spain. If you want a midfielder that can get from box-to-box, you may look at France, or if you want a player with leadership qualities you may look at Germany.
Trend analysis is another way of identifying leagues, by establishing where players are moving from with success. However as we have seen since the success of Mahrez and Kante at Leicester, the asking price of players based abroad, even in the lower leagues, can become inflated when a selling club knows that an English club is interested.
This has meant that if you want to be successful in France, you have to identify players earlier. If you can afford to have scouts on the ground you can start assessing players from 17, 18 or 19 years old when they start appearing for the B teams in the lower leagues. The same thing goes for young players in Spain, Germany and Holland too.
To highlight why these countries are important, here is a summary of the most popular overseas markets for Championship clubs at present and a comparison of how many players were being recruited from these countries five years ago:
For example, if you are in the market for an attacking full back, you can start comparing players based on their final third entries, crosses into the box and their number of forward passes. To compliment that tactically, you may also be looking for a creative winger who cuts inside.
Although it sounds simple, a heat map enables you to visualise where a player is creating opportunities on the pitch across multiple matches, so you can differentiate a traditional wide player, hugging the touchline, from one who roams infield. This is a useful way of presenting these characteristics of a player to the wider scouting and decision-making team too.
Examples of two different types of emerging winger in Ligue 2 this season. The map on the left displays all the take-ons of Didier Lamkel Ze, with Daniel Mancini’s appearing on the right. As we can see, Mancini has fewer take-ons from wide positions within the final third.
Of course it is also important that your scouts continue to assess players live and data is very complimentary to that in two ways. Firstly, data can highlight key performance trends over multiple games which may be missed in a one-off performance and secondly, we can use data internally to produce our own reports which we can share across the department, highlighting the best performing players each month relative to our KPIs.
In most cases, our scouts will already be familiar with the players but there may be occasions when an emerging player is hitting scores which they haven’t done previously and then you can start building a diligent process of objectively assessing the player in-depth. This is a great example of showing how both data and live scouting sit hand-in-hand with each other.
As well as the performance attributes, it is also important to have contacts locally who can give you strong and reliable information. You must use your time wisely and not waste time chasing players in markets which are out of the club’s reach.
How can you get the most out of your resources?
Whilst data is vitally important in helping you filter down players, I believe that your scouts are the foundation to which you are going make rounded, well informed decisions.
I like different opinions, so I want as many of my scouts as possible to assess a player. One may see something which everyone else has missed and that makes you ask important questions during the process.
Obviously as a Championship club it is very likely you are going to have budget constraints, so it is very difficult to see overseas players live regularly, unless you have scouts on the ground in the country. Therefore you have to do a lot of your preliminary work on video.
To do this effectively, your scouting coordinator is vital. They typically sit right in the middle of the department, acting as the link between the head of recruitment and the scouts. They will establish the matches to watch and then post-weekend, provide a summary of key information shared with senior management.
They also need to ensure the scouts’ information is specific to our positional profiles.
When organising trips abroad, you have to be mindful that this is something which you cannot be doing every week so when it comes to selecting games, we need to make sure we come back with information which enhances decision making. That means games need to be competitive and relevant.
What are the key challenges?
If you are going to be successful with your recruitment, you need to have longevity in your approach. You cannot chop and change your philosophy or your KPIs. That means that in best practice, the recruitment should always be club-led.
As a department, you are typically working about two transfer windows ahead and planning for different scenarios, such as promotion or relegation. If you need to make any changes to your process, due to a change of management, you want them to ideally be small tweaks as opposed to wholesale change.
External factors also influence recruitment processes. For example, player agents are a big part of football whether you like it or not, so you have to maintain good relationships. If they approach your club regarding a player, you want your department to already have an archive of information.
Unfortunately it is a fact of life that every transfer is going to carry with it an element of risk, especially if you are bringing in a player from another country. All you can do is ensure you have done as much diligent work as you can. This not only relates to performance data analysis and scouting, but also off-field information.
Engagement and control within the club
Whilst I believe an approach needs to be club-led, it is absolutely vital that the manager or head coach is fully engaged with the process.
Ideally you want to get to the stage where you have a shortlist of three or four players fitting your profile, which they can then have their say on. If for whatever reason they don’t want any of the players, you then look for alternatives.
The manager may also come to you with a player they like, then it is up to you to compare them against the players you have identified and provide an opinion as to whether you believe they can fulfil the role needed.
Daily communication across departments is also vitally important. Coming back to succession planning, it is important that the head of recruitment knows about the progress of players in the academy and any knock-in effect that could have on recruitment strategy.
One challenge remains staying on top of all the information coming in from key overseas markets day-to-day. All the information is stored and archived centrally and it is the job of the coordinators to review and flag up any major developments in the markets.
At the end of the process, you want to be able to put together a dossier where all your boxes are ticked. Do we need a player in this position? Does he tick all the KPIs on our positional profile? Does he fit our philosophy? Are the scores from his scouting assessments consistently high? Is he a good character? Would he come to us? Can we afford him?
Ninety-nine percent of scouting is actually about ruling out players, so when you are recommending players, you want to be doing it as a result of a diligent, controlled process based on the key objectives defined from the outset.
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