Traditional scouting is gone. During a global pandemic, there are no games for talent identifiers to watch -- outside of Belarus, that is. And whenever games do return, they will presumably be played in empty stadiums, with nowhere for outside employees from potential buyer-clubs to sit.
Of course, certain analytically minded decision-makers across the sports world have been trying to do away with "traditional" scouting for a while. As former Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane told his scouts in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," "We're not selling jeans here." While Beane was focused on how past production might predict future results, his scouts cared more about what kind of body a player had or how his swing looked. Like any attempt at gut-level prediction, the field of scouting is riddled with psychological biases: scouts tend to stick to whatever their first impression of a player is, and they view new players through the lens of guys they've scouted in the past.
One of the soccer-specific issues with scouting is translation: How will a player perform in a new country, league or tactical system? And how much of a player's performance -- the thing the scout is grading -- is created by those specific circumstances that will fade as soon as he leaves that team?
"When players move teams, they face all sorts of challenges on and off the pitch: a new home, sometimes a new language, new teammates, new boss," said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club. "Being able to minimise the disruption to the things that made him successful in the first place -- that made you want to recruit him -- means you reduce the chance of him not settling in.
"One of those things, clearly, is the playing style he's used to. While each coach is different, there are some consistencies across teams, and ensuring that the player has reasonable experience of how you approach games means that he's more likely to hit the ground running."
While scouts can't travel anymore, they can still watch video of whatever they want. All the final-third tackles completed by Eibar's left-sided centre-back? I'm in. Every failed cut-back pass attempted by an under-23 attacker in Portugal's Primeira Liga? ABSOLUTELY. Vast databases can sort through granular details and spit out the tape in a matter of seconds, and while focusing on scouting similar teams reduces risk in recruitment, it also can provide direction within an endless-seeming trough of tape.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a handful of Premier League clubs and pinpoint their playing-style proxies -- basically, the teams whose styles and tactics match up well enough to make for an easier player transition -- elsewhere in Europe.
The Gunners are currently ninth, while Real Betis sit 12th in Spain, both sides hovering around the middle of their respective tables. Their underlying numbers are strikingly similar, too: Arsenal average 1.44 xG per match compared to Betis's 1.47 xG. Defensively, there isn't much difference either, as Arsenal sit at 1.67 xG allowed and Betis are slightly better at 1.62.
Of course, you don't want to necessarily scout from a team just because they're roughly as good as you, but you do want to scout from a team that plays like you. Both clubs maintain an above-average amount of possession, they move the ball up the field at roughly the same deliberate speed, and their average possessions contain about the same number of passes. They also press their opponents at roughly the average rate and win the ball back at a slightly below-average distance from their own goal.
Therefore, it's reasonable to imagine a top performer in the Betis side slotting comfortably into Mikel Arteta's fledgling system.
Nabil Fekir is the biggest name with the biggest price tag, but he'll be 27 in July, has a long injury history and hasn't produced the goals and chance-creation he did while with Lyon. Twenty-year-old right-back Emerson is the youngest consistent contributor in the Betis side, but he's still partially owned by Barcelona.
There's no obvious name for the Gunners to go for, but if they move on from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette (or both), perhaps Loren Moron could be an affordable stop-gap option up top. He won't be 27 until December, and he's in the top 10 in La Liga in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes.
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"It's appropriate that Chelsea have already recruited an Ajax player this season in Hakim Ziyech and have of course played them in the Champions League, given the similarities between the two this season," said AJ Swoboda, managing director of the Americas at 21st Club. "Chelsea aren't quite as proactive out of possession as Ajax, nor as slow and patient in attack, but Ajax's young, attack-minded squad means there are plenty of transfer targets to suit Chelsea's similarly young, attack-minded team."
Chelsea are one of the richest clubs in the world. Ajax are one of the best at producing young talent. Given those two factors, it follows that Chelsea would, at various points in the future, be looking into purchasing Ajax players. The fact that Lampard just so happens to have his team playing a similar, high-flying style to the Dutch giants makes it so those theoretical purchases will all have an easier time fitting in. Galaxy-brain-level genius.
Leverkusen are the purist's version of Liverpool: even more pressing, even more possession, even more fast breaks and all of it to a significantly worse effect. In some ways, Peter Bosz's side evokes the early Jurgen Klopp years at Anfield, when the team performed at a relatively high level over the course of a season but was incredibly volatile on a game-to-game basis. They give up some of the best shots in Europe (0.15 xG per shot, compared to the European average of 0.12), and they cross the ball a lot -- two hallmarks of the over-aggressive Liverpool sides that often struggled to break down packed-in defenses a couple years ago and would get ripped open on the counter.
However, Liverpool and Leverkusen both rank in the 90th percentile or better among Europe's Big Five leagues in both possession and shots per game from fast breaks. Leverkusen press like maniacs, but Liverpool win the ball higher up the field on average. Leverkusen enter the ball into the box frequently and score a lot of goals, and Liverpool does way more of both of those things.
Essentially, anyone leaving Leverkusen for Liverpool would just be joining a better version of the team they're currently on.
While Kai Havertz has seemingly been linked with every big club, winger Leon Bailey would meet a couple requirements for Klopp and Co. One day, they're going to have to move on from the famed front three of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, but to do so they'd need a young player who 1.) would be willing to play second fiddle (fourth fiddle?) for a season or two, and 2.) has the potential to one day perform at an elite level. Only 22, Bailey can play multiple positions and though he's struggled with consistency, he's been one of the most electric attackers in the Bundesliga at various points in his still-young career.
Manchester City: Barcelona
Take what I just wrote about Leverkusen and Liverpool, and apply it to these two teams. Both sides are in the 99th percentile for passes per possession and average time per possession, and they're each north of the 90th percentile in possession percentage, pressing rate and passes completed into the penalty area. The main difference: City turns all of that dominance into shots and high-level chances while Barcelona don't. Pep Guardiola's current team take 19.36 shots per match and create 2.71 expected goals, while his former side checks in at 12.74 and 1.86 in those categories.
Of course, compared to the previous example, the difference here is that the better team is the (slightly) smaller club. Plus, unlike Leverkusen, Barcelona don't have many young standouts and they presumably won't be selling the ones they do. But if City really were going to try to prise someone free from the Camp Nou, then maybe one of the young-ish French centre-backs -- Samuel Umtiti (26) or Clement Lenglet (24) -- would be a fit. And, well, if Lionel Messi was ever going to leave Barcelona, there's no place more like home ...
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Manchester United: Schalke
"While Schalke are well below United's level -- we rate them as the 91st-best team in world football -- stylistically there are similarities, especially defensively with both teams deploying a reasonably high press," Swoboda said. "Schalke have also given six players under the age of 24 over 1,000 minutes this season."
If United want another centre-back to pair with Harry Maguire, Ozan Kabak just turned 20 and has been an above-average performer in just about every phase of the game, especially when it comes to winning balls in the air. Meanwhile, nominal midfielder Weston McKennie has played minutes at just about every position on the field; every team can use a jack-of-all-trades type, no?
However, the area United have struggled most this season is in moving the ball into the penalty area. Enter Schalke's 22-year-old attacker Amine Harit, who has completed more passes into the box than all but nine players in the Bundesliga this season. He's no Jadon Sancho, but perhaps he's a cut-rate fallback.
One of these teams has successfully employed a passive defensive strategy, centered around team-wide organization and the ability to counterattack into space. The other team is coached by Jose Mourinho.
"Under Mourinho, Tottenham have tended to sit deeper and control the ball less; Lazio have adopted a similar approach in Serie A with great success both defensively and especially going forward this season," Swoboda said. "However, like many teams in Italy, Lazio are not awash with young talent to poach."
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Joaquin Correa are both 25, and they both seem like the kind of physically intimidating players that Mourinho loves. But neither one necessarily fills a clear position of need. However, the back line needs some refreshing, as Toby Alderweireld (nearly 32) and Jan Vertonghen (nearly 33) age deeper into their 30s.
On top of that, centre-backs seem like they're at the whims of the managerial system: a high-pressing, high-passing centre-back and another one who sits deep, clears crosses, and blocks shots might as well be playing different sports. That could make the 23-year-old Luiz Felipe an intriguing option for Spurs.
As Ajax is to Chelsea, Lyon is to Leicester City. Given all the talent that comes out of the OL Academy every year, Brendan Rodgers has the Foxes sitting pretty. "Like Leicester, Lyon play the technical, defensively aggressive style of play typically associated with young teams," Chaudhuri said. "While Lyon are struggling this season, our models suggest they have young players who are more than capable of playing Champions League football."
Meanwhile. Burnley, Newcastle United, and West Ham all stand out as teams that sit deep, move the ball up field as fast as they can, and then whip the ball into the box. Rinse and repeat, again and again and again. Same goes for a handful of other teams across the continent: Real Valladolid, Augsburg and ADO Den Haag, for instance. The latter's manager? None other than former Magpies boss Alan Pardew.
Bournemouth and the Bundesliga's Paderborn fit into the bottom-30-percentile of possession, pressing rate, and shots conceded, and they both move the ball up the field at an above-average speed. "Our models suggest Paderborn's best players are capable of playing for mid-table Premier League teams," Chaudhuri said. "They have other similarities to Bournemouth, too, having got to the top flight via back-to-back promotions."
The ideal proxy from this exercise is one that's really only possible for an underachieving Premier League side: a team that plays like you, has less money than you, and is better than you. Forgetting the financial constraints, that seems like a solid scouting heuristic for just about any club: Find teams that play the way you do, just at a higher level, and then try to steal their players.
"Southampton are one of the fewer mid-table teams in the major leagues who press as effectively as leading teams, though Wolfsburg are another team that does so, while also having a similarly direct approach when they do get the ball," Chaudhuri said. "What's more, our World Super League model rates Wolfsburg as the better team of the two, meaning they're likely to have players who could improve Southampton."