smarterthinking

Smarter recruiting: The total package

Players are people, not just assets in a portfolio. In recruiting, it's important to try and understand the complete person – and that means going beyond the data and video to look at how a player is evolving both on and off the pitch. Here are some of the key areas to consider.

Injuries. Several clubs have tried to use data to predict injuries, and some have had a measure of success. In particular, sports scientists may be able to identify the risk of excessive training loads. But for new signings, the best predictors of future injuries are usually past injuries.

A few injuries have a special tendency to recur, notably Achilles issues, ankle damage, cruciate ligament tears, hamstring pulls, and meniscus problems. A player like Jack Wilshere presents a dilemma: a prodigious talent whose ankles just can't seem to hold up for a full season.

These kinds of injuries are much bigger red flags than, say, breaking an arm in a skiing accident – indeed, a contract might specify that a player must stay away from potentially dangerous sports during leisure time or forfeit the deal.

Psychology. There isn't just one type of player who can succeed at the highest level. Even among the greatest achievers, the differences are plain to see: the big personalities who constantly egg on their teammates, the amiable ones who turn into ruthless machines on the pitch, the locker room jokesters, and the solitary ones who pack up and go home without a word as soon as their post-match warm-downs are over. The key is to find players who will fit in with the group – and optimally raise the level of the people around them.

Equally important is to ensure that the player isn't being set up to fail. A player who has never been far from home, who will be the only one in the squad from a certain background, who isn't used to the climate, or who is being asked to switch positions may come under unusual stress after a transfer. The club that still wants to go through with the deal may want to work with the player and/or agent to put a support network in place.

When Iago Aspas came to Liverpool at age 26 in the summer of 2013, he had spent his whole career at Celta Vigo, just across the Ria de Vigo from his home town of Moana. Back in Vigo, the low temperatures never averaged below 8°C. In Liverpool, Aspas would experience a completely different culture and lows around 3°C for several months of the year. He only started while Luis Suarez was suspended; then he picked up a muscle strain, rode the bench more often than not, went on loan to Sevilla, and soon returned to Celta, where he's had at least 19 goals and assists in every full season since:

Ascertaining a player's personality means live scouting, talking to people, monitoring social media accounts, and reading news clippings. Club may wish to commission a profile from a journalist, scout, or someone else close to the club. Some clubs may even want to add psychological tests to their pre-transfer medicals. When millions are involved, risks need to be reduced in every possible way.

Career trajectory. We've already covered the issue of succession planning from clubs' perspective in a previous article. But what about the player's own development? Players have different reasons for joining clubs and seeking specific contracts. Understanding their motivations is critical for productive negotiations.

Younger players may want a stepping stone or a bigger shop window. Older players may be looking for the longest possible contracts to guarantee an income into their declining years. Players coming off injuries or other events that kept them off the pitch may just want a second chance. Some players want to feature in every match, while others are happy with supporting roles.

Adrien Silva played fewer than 1,000' in the Premier League for Leicester, then went on loan to Monaco in January 2019 with the Foxes demanding full payment of his wages. Silva ended up playing more minutes during that half-season in Ligue 1 than he had played in all his time at Leicester:

When he wanted to extend his loan, he was reportedly willing to renegotiate his wages as part of the deal – and he ended up staying for 2019-20 as well.

For some, football is a passion; for others, it's just a job. Identifying a player's objectives can add a new dimension to negotiation, because it means a player can be offered something other than money. Sometimes these objectives can be written into contracts explicitly, such as a release clause if a player doesn't start a minimum number of matches. But clubs should be careful about clauses that might constrain coaches during the season or give them incentives unrelated to winning matches.

Structural roles. The Nobel laureate James Tobin observed two groups of people within academic departments: talented free agents who would go wherever they could find the best deal, and institutional workers who committed themselves to building a group for the long term. The latter types offered extra value to their clubs (like Vincent Kompany). But in football, sometimes the former types may also be needed to freshen things up (like Zlatan Ibrahimovic).

Depending on how a club is situated – challenging for a title, rebuilding, battling for survival – different mixes of these roles could be appropriate. Whatever the circumstances, not every player has to be an ambassador for the club, but every player has to represent the club in a satisfactory way: a credit to the group on the pitch, and at least not a liability off it.

[Photo: Brad Tutterow]

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