Last week, the media was steered to write a story about how the Ibrox club intends to rejig its entire recruitment process, starting – perversely – with the dismantling of its entire scouting system, and their imminent replacement with a “data driven model.”
Now, listen, data driven scouting is part of the modern game. But as I wrote last week, the two systems have to operate in tandem; you still need boots on the ground in order for this to work. Nowhere is that more ably demonstrated than in our current first team squad.
Three years ago, when we thought that the manager might be Eddie Howe, there was a lot of stuff in the papers about the players we were linked to. It’s almost certain that at least some of those players were on Eddie Howe’s list, and a less inspiring bunch you could not hope to find, guys like Robbie Brady and others.
I’m not saying they’d have been bad signings. Howe would have crafted a Celtic team which did good things and which would have been a formidable unit. He’s proved that at Newcastle. But most of the signings would have been unimaginative and almost all would have been based in Europe. It took the radical shift of appointing a manager with Far East knowledge for us to make the definitive break from our previous policy of looking within our own continent.
Now we look to Asia and the Americas. I think we should also be looking at Africa, and I suspect that we are. This shift has opened up avenues for us to sign people which always existed but were never properly explored. Now we’re exploring them. Now we’re on the hunt further afield than we ever have been before, and that is all to the good.
Having the data at your fingertips is great, and it was given much public attention first because of Michael Lewis’ tremendous book Moneyball, about sabermetrics – a baseball term for the use of stats in predicting how players will perform – and then in the subsequent film of the same name, both telling the story of how the Oakland A’s put together a record-breaking winning run with a team assembled by the number crunchers.
But the upshot of the film and the book is that the A’s never did win the pendant, and whilst the Boston Red Sox did win their first title in decades using some of the same systems which Fenway Sports, and their own John W. Henry, later used to great effect at Liverpool, they didn’t construct an entire team based on data analysis.
They used the data to underpin the work of their scouting teams, blending the two in a way that is now used across professional sports.
They have to be used in tandem, and it doesn’t really matter which comes first, the data or the scouting report that says “this kid is outstanding.” You need to examine both and using both make a judgement on whether or not to proceed with an offer.
Here’s the real issue, and the reason Celtic has spent a lot of time and money on this problem by setting up not only a scouting network but affiliate links all across football. You also need local knowledge, people on the ground who have watched players in the flesh for a long time and can then say to your club “this guy, you should snap up immediately.”
Without that local knowledge, you are sifting through sand. Because unless you have the data for every player, playing everywhere in the world, and a way to filter it easily, you’ll never know where to prioritise your search or how to narrow it down.
We were lucky that Ange Postecoglou had that detailed first-hand knowledge, otherwise Hatate, Maeda and, of course, Kyogo might still be over there or more likely they’d be somewhere else. These players may or may not have been discovered by the use of analytics but it was the calm reassurance of the manager that made the difference.
This is why we invest big money in the scouting department, and as we expand the scope, we need to spend more cash on this than ever before.
We need permanent scouts in these places, and deep roots put down in affiliate clubs and other areas.
This is how we’ll make sure that we pair good data with that actual knowledge which can only be gleaned watching someone play, and then looking them in the eye afterwards.
This is why Ibrox’s master plan won’t work.
They are lurching from one extreme to the other with their decision to dismantle their scouting network and replacing it with nothing but data. Data didn’t find us the Japanese players and so their chances of finding the Kyogo’s and Hatate’s is greatly reduced. It’s typical of the way they work over there, and it’s clear that this is a move motivated by the need to cut costs rather than anything else.
They never will get it. What we do is not as simple as it looks, nowhere near it. I may have criticised the way the manager’s wishes were ignored during the window, but I would put money on the bulk of our signings turning out not just right but brilliantly … and they look at that across the city, and they see what we do, and are convinced that it’s easy.