Tiago Estêvão, a Scouting/Recruitment Analyst at AC Milan, has broken down exactly how the process of selecting and signing a player works.
He spoke in the podcast ‘A podcast about tactics’ and explained the work he does at the club, outlining the process of scouting a player and then working out if they are the right fit for Milan, with MilanNews transcribing his comments.
There is a famous quote from Guardiola that says “the only thing I can do is get my team to the last third of the pitch, from then on it’s up to them to score”. From the point of view of offensive scouting, do you agree that we need to look at the qualities of the players in the last third and that these go beyond tactics?
“Those who scout are asked for a certain role, a certain type of player or certain characteristics, and you start from there. And, in most teams, it’s true that forwards have freedoms that the rest of the team don’t, but you are still given guidelines for the kind of profile the club wants,” he began.
“For example, if the target is a number 9, you need to figure out if you want someone who focuses a lot on coming to meet and playing back to goal or if you want one who cuts behind and goes deep, or if you want one who maybe does both, which is why Vlahovic cost what he cost.
“For the wings you have to consider if you want a classic winger or you want one that comes inside the pitch, nowadays many teams want both, that is, one who knows how to play in the open field but also in half-spaces.
“In addition, you get a lot of requests based on the role but also based on how to integrate the players you need with the ones you already have, so if you have to take a winger the choice also depends a lot on which tip you have, what is the full-back he will have behind him, the type of midfielder (if in a couple or a trio), etc.”
When you are a manager and you arrive at a club, you certainly have an ideal system that you would like to apply, but you also have to deal with the characteristics of the players you have. How much does this affect a scout?
“I think there are more and more coaches who have a dynamic play model and an adaptive play system, and who want to experiment. If this is not the case, then if a manager arrives who is very rigid on the scheme and the way of playing, if your club is well managed they will be very clear/explicit in the requests, all those involved will understand that from that moment on is a specific need for certain things.
“But, as I said before, lately there is a strong growth of the other type of coaches, those who experiment and adapt, and this is where the versatility of the players comes into play. And I’m not just talking about the ability to play in multiple positions, on the contrary I think the concept of position is a bit overrated in some respects, I’m talking about the ability to play in different systems and perform different tasks, this is the really important thing.”
So is the flexibility of a player something you consider? For example, a player who is currently not exactly the ideal player for a certain role but who has the ability to become one in the future?
“I think you have to try to understand what characteristics a player has as innate/inherited and which ones he can develop and acquire, a big part of a scout’s job is this. In general, what you need to look at when in possession of the ball, apart from the technical skills of course, is above all decision-making.
“This is a feature that can be developed as the player gets used to being in difficult situations. Obviously always up to a certain point/limit, but I think it is the thing that can be developed more in the possession phase.
“On the other hand, when he is off the ball, you look at the general behaviour, the movements, the positioning, both in defense and in attack. One thing about a player that you cannot develop is speed, because it never changes (unless of course he is over the years), while it can greatly increase muscle mass.
“You also need to know the manager and his staff well, this can greatly affect the % improvement a particular player can have. For example, if you have a manager who is very good at improving the defensive phase of the players, you can bet on a full-back who is offensively crazy even if he is not very defensively, because you know that he will be made to improve.
“This concept is valid not only with the manager and his staff, but also with very experienced players in certain team roles, especially center-forward and central defender. If you give a young striker 6 months of training with an experienced striker with the same characteristics, he will help him a lot with movements in the area, runs without the ball, etc. Same thing for the central defenders.”
In your scouting work, do you also look at players in the form of KPIs (indicators), outputs and things like that?
“I have discussed this for a long time with Ben [Ben Torvaney, who he works with at Milan] because I think it is a very interesting idea, but I also think it is very difficult to apply to football,” he said.
“The point is that systems are not static, but rather tend to adapt to the context and therefore inevitably change. I still think it’s not something to be avoided completely, but it’s an interesting idea. Perhaps this type of strategy can be considered in a context where you are a small team, with big budget constraints and players to draw from.
“In such scenarios, it may be worth considering replacing players who have certain outputs with other players who have similar outputs. Today, however, it is much more something to discuss rather than something I work with on a daily basis.”
So you don’t do like in “Moneyball” where you sit down, take a player who can do 3 things and replace him with 3 players who can each do one of those 3 things?
“From this point of view it is not so bad, there is a certain logic behind it and I repeat, there are scenarios where maybe it even makes sense to apply it. However, I don’t think this has ever been experienced in football. Or at least, I’ve never done it.”
You talked about evolution and evolving positions, in this regard, do you consider age as an important factor? I mean, are you less worried about signing a young player, as by this time he will surely have played in more flexible football than older/more experienced players?
“Look, first of all I think if you are looking for a ‘classic’ winger nowadays he will probably be 55 years old. Already in the 2000s there were many reversed-footed winger… in any case I think that what you say can make sense, even if you have not explained it very well.
“But it’s not a question of young or old, it’s more a question of what experience they have had, where they come from. All young players in general are more malleable and trainable, for the more experienced ones you have to see if they have had experience in different types of systems, this is a plus, or people who up to 25/26 only played a role and only a system, this is absolutely not a plus but rather it is worrying, especially if you buy it to make it do something different.
“In short, not all “old” players are the same, what is valuable are the experiences they have had. And experience is a value that I have underestimated in the past and that instead I am gradually taking into account more and more, both from a tactical and a personal point of view.”
Now let’s talk about more central players, and about physical vs. technical, because I believe that the importance of physical qualities in players has grown in parallel with the growth of game systems based on intensive pressing…
“Honestly, I think it’s not just about the players in central positions, it’s also crucial for the flanks. Indeed, I could also tell you that for the wide areas it is just as important as it is for the centre-forwards, or at least it is important in our system. You were talking about technique vs. physique, I actually don’t think that a little basic technique is a compromise for a player’s ability to press. It is full of technical players who are very good and very smart in pressing.
“You can find 3 types of technical players:
– Those who are very good at pressing;
– Those who have the physique and athleticism suitable to be able to press but who do not. In particular, and this can be seen from both the data and the naked eye, when you talk about players who have an average or slightly below average pressing output but are very athletic / physical players who play in a context where you don’t press, you can be quite confident that if you put them in a context of pressing then they will improve their pressing output and will be much above average;
– Those who have a pressing output so low that it is simply part of them, you will not be able to transform them into players who press, the best case is to be able to bring them with an average pressing-output.
“Obviously with the latter you have to be very careful, and in general it depends on the context in which you operate. If you have a system where pressing doesn’t have much value then it’s okay to get one like that.
“If, on the other hand, you are in a context where pressing has a lot of value, then you have to start considering whether to accept the compromise in case you need what it gives you in the possession phase. And we have players like that, so it’s absolutely a possible compromise, it’s not something that completely prevents you from signing someone but it’s definitely an important part to consider.”
How much does the eye test also influence in judging the pressing? Do you watch videos or do you rely only on data?
“It depends on the role, if you need to take a player who arrives and is immediately a starter in a position where work without the ball and pressing is fundamental, then it is important to really understand how good he is beyond what the numbers say, so look also videos.
“As for a young player signed to be a substitute, or in any case a young player taken to grow with the team who after a few months can be a substitute, then it is not very important if he does not have a good pressing phase, because we are a team that presses well.
“If I were in a context where I did not have confidence in the ability of the staff to improve a player’s pressing phase, then I would probably be more careful. By now, however, most of the coaches are very rigid and attentive on the pressing phase, therefore the”
Sining a player and teaching him to press is much more feasible than developing and improving his technical skills. It is as if, in the event that they have certain physical/athletic characteristics and are mobile, through the scouting of this type of players it is possible to obtain added value for the team…
“Yes, and as regards the offensive players, if they are in a context where there is no pressing and therefore have few opportunities to press in the attacking zone, for example we are talking about a winger and you see that it helps a lot the full-back on his side, follows the opposing winger, etc. this is already a good sign, it already makes you realise that he has the right attitude. Because the point is that a lot of the pressing phase is done by the player’s will to do it, obviously assuming that he has the athletic / physical qualities..”
Let’s talk about attackers and finishing. There are many articles that ask themselves from an analytical point of view if this is actually a skill, or rather, if the skill is only to be in the right situation to score or if on the other hand, a player has a very specific skill that is related to finishing…
“This finishing stuff is tough… there is a spectrum, there are people who are at one end of this spectrum, who are finishing purists, that is, those who believe this is a skill, and then there are people at the other end who are the ones of ‘xG is my life’. If I were to position myself in this spectrum I would say that I am close to the middle but tending towards the analytic part.
“I think in general the players who consistently score are the ones who are consistently in position to score, but you need a large sample (of data) to say for sure. If you have access to information about the player’s personality, the mentality he has, if he is composed, etc. I believe this plays its part in finishing.
“But everything that concerns the personality of the footballer is dealt with by the director of the technical area, it is he who has access to this information, who meets with the player, who meets with agents, who meets with old coaches, etc.
“If you don’t have access to these things there are other things you can look at. For example, the shooting technique should have a certain weight, there is a slice of players who have a very good shooting technique from outside the area, which was overrated by old-school scouts but which we are probably nowadays coming to underestimate, or another is the positioning of the ball, especially for the centre-forwards.
“And then you have to evaluate what kind of scoring chances they are in: there are players who consistently score more than their xG, but this may be because they are especially good from a certain position in a certain type of shot.
“An example that is often given for this type of player is Son of Tottenham, there is a specific type of shot where he is legitimately the best player in the world. I think this isn’t necessarily a bad thing indeed, it has value as long as you understand the repeatability of that type of shot.
“The player is not a magician, there is simply a certain area of the pitch where he has developed a muscle memory that makes him an excellent finisher. Also I think that if a player is particularly good at being in positions where he has a good chance of scoring (and there are players like that) and at the same time he is not very good at finishing (and there are players like that) you can fix it.
“You can actually solve the other way around too, but it’s more difficult. I mean, there are more chances of transforming from below average finishing player to average finishing player one who is consistently in good position to score (and by the way doing that also means getting a lot more goals, because the player is already good at being in good areas to score) compared to an excellent finisher who, however, cannot put himself in situations to score continuously, because this is a bad habit that is difficult to change.
“However in general it is complicated because it depends on too many things, there are many studies about it and I think they do not conclude much. Most of the arguments that have been made about Vlahovic and the cost of his transfer have been about whether he finishes more than his xGs and whether he could keep this in the new team as well, and very little has been said about the fact that this guy is top-notch in two things: running deep behind the defence and coming across to pick up the team.
“And all this by having one of the best physicists in the world for a centre-forward. All of these things are much more important than xG, especially if you are a dominant team that dictates their game, because in dominant teams there will certainly be other scoring sources and your striker generally does a lot of things besides the last touch to score.”
Now let’s talk about defensive scouting, we often mention the greater difficulty of representing through data the defensive characteristics of a player compared to the offensive ones. But I think this also applies to the human eye, scouting defensive characteristics is more difficult, do you agree?
“Of course. Let’s go specifically, and when we talk about defensive scouting we are talking above all about central defenders. Scouting for central defenders is very difficult. Even beyond the data analysis part, with central defenders there is much more of a tendency for people to be unable to distinguish how they like a defender to defend against what is right or wrong to do.
“And I’m not saying that this doesn’t concern me too, but today it concerns me much less than in the past. When it comes to strikers and midfielders, people understand roles better, and maybe in the future they will understand central defenders well, but what I think is that nowadays today the central defender is a role in which people’s opinions (and by people I don’t mean just people but people who make decisions) are based on what THEY think is the defensive approach they like, or in any case an approach in which they review each other, and let this affect the judgment of a right or wrong defensive action, or even the judgment of a player.
“And I repeat, I too have been guilty of this thing in the past, and certainly the central defender is the most difficult role ever to judge even with the naked eye. This is because it depends a lot on the system, it depends a lot on who the ward mates are. For these reasons, the way of judging a defender is purely individual. And by individual I mean it depends on the individual who is judging.
“Judging central defenders is very difficult and the data you have to do so are far from useful. So you have to understand that and the approach to central defenders has to be: if I don’t know how to use the data, it is completely useless; if I know how to use them well, this will give me a very small amount of information I need.
“This obviously is not valid for any other location where the data is very useful. Nowadays, I think you can create a series of gauges that consistently find you centre-backs having a ‘pro-active’ style. We did, and I’m very confident about it, especially when you manage to add the speed data, you can get a dataset that makes you feel confident that a defender who qualifies from this dataset is a good defender, as long as I repeat that this is a ‘pro-active’ defender.
“I also think that there is an increase in pro-active centre-backs, and an increase in the need for this type of centre-back. So in general this is a good time to scout for centre-backs, as we finally have a certain type of defender profile that we are confident we can find fairly consistently.
“This obviously knowing well what the limits of the data are and at the same time knowing well how to work them to extrapolate this specific type of profile, and it is something we have done on purpose because we have a preference for this type of proactive defenders.
“If, on the other hand, we are talking about ‘reactive’ defenders (or cats as you call them, I cannot call them cats and dogs when I report for the club I work at, but I call them proactive and reactive) I think it is really difficult to find them through data.
“I don’t mean they are useless, there are some things you can look at like aerial duels he wins or things he does in possession, but the defensive part is really tough. Obviously, all I’m saying is from the point of view of a dominant team.
“This is because if you are a non-dominant team, or in general a team that approaches games from low and does not defend high, but with a slightly more defensive mentality, in that case I think you can easily find defenders through data, this is because you will have defenders who do a lot of defensive actions.”
Let’s talk about three-man versus a four-man defence. What are your considerations about it and what difference does it make in terms of scouting?
“My point of view is that this is a very important factor, we talked a lot about the context and how much the central defensive players are much more influenced by the context than other roles.
“For a defender, defending in a 3 or defending in a 4 is completely different. That said, in my career I have never yet worked for a team that consistently uses a three-man defence. So when I approach this topic, I almost always look at it from the side of converting a 3-player to a 4-player defender, never vice versa.
“I also believe that the conversion from 4 to 3 is much easier because for a defender there is a lot more freedom, etc. I think the context of the three-man defence is very underestimated.
In particular, I think that a player on a team who plays 3 on a small team would move more easily to a dominant team who plays 4.”
Another topic is the build-up phase, how much more important has the construction phase become in scouting for full-backs or centre-backs than 5 years ago?
“I think it is very important. And this is because not only the great possession teams use defenders to build, but there are many teams that are not dominant from a possession point of view, but which are based on the counterattack which however build from behind when they have the ball.
“I think the biggest difference compared to the past is this, even those teams that have few possessions per game now build from the bottom up. So there is more and more a growth of central defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet.
“The way I see football, I think I’ve often overestimated a central defender’s ability with the ball in the feet, especially early in my career, which is probably the opposite answer to what you expected. And I’m not saying that the build phase isn’t important, it actually is and a lot, but I think you have to consider it important based on your system.
“As in all things, it must be considered that you will never have a very strong defender in everything, so you have to accept some compromises and understand what is a priority and what is not. As I said for the attackers, there is a spectrum: at one end there are defenders who are very good at passing the ball or as ball carriers, and these impact the game in such a big and positive way that you almost build your system around them, or at least part of the system to protect them and allow them to give your system what they can do.
“On the other end there are those who are totally unable with the ball in their feet, and these pose a big problem. I’m not talking about players not able to make a progressive pass, I’m talking about players who are unable to receive a ball under pressure, players who already know they will be targeted by the pressing phase of any team that is pressing against which you will play, teams that will lead the pressing towards him and you already know that he will lose the ball.
“Most central defenders are obviously in the middle of this spectrum, i.e. they are technically good enough players to play in a possession team, because they grew up in good academies or because they played in midfield as a child, etc. and they don’t have a lot of ball progression, either in the form of passing or conducting the ball, so they don’t often break the line of pressing (and this can be frustrating if you’re me, because I have often overestimated this thing).
“But anyway if they have the rest of the skill-set, and if you have the rest of the team that can fill those gaps, that is, if you have midfielders who are very capable of guaranteeing you ball-progression, or if you have a system that is so good at offering solutions in passing that it doesn’t matter if the defender is good at breaking the line or not, because anyway he will have no choice but to break it, then that’s okay.
“In any case you have to understand what you need, maybe you already have a good centre-back in the possession phase and you don’t need another one of the same level. Or maybe you need it, and then you have to find the right compromise because maybe that player is a bit poor on aerial balls, or maybe he isn’t able to defend the space well.
“So the build-up phase is something that you definitely take into consideration, but how much weighs in the choice then depends on what is required of you. Because maybe you think that the team needs certain characteristics but the director of the technical area, the scout leader or whoever is the leader in your context asks you other things, then at that point it is clear that you cannot make those characteristics weigh so much in the choice.
“You do your job and find someone with the skills they require, or at most ask why you are asked for that rather than anything else and a discussion about it opens up the scout leader or whoever is the leader in your context asks you other things, then at that point it is clear that you cannot make those characteristics weigh so much in the choice.”
Regarding defensive midfielders, in the past they were players of ‘destruction’, today probably the possession phase counts for them too. How does what you mentioned earlier about defenders apply to defensive midfielders?
“I think it is clearer than the defenders, people understand it better, they have had the examples of Pirlo and Gattuso, they have experiences with both types of players and they know they are profiles with different characteristics. Here too, the choice of a midfielder depends on what is asked of you, what system he will play in, which partner he will be supported by.
“It’s like with the wings, the position has evolved lately but even here, it doesn’t affect me much in general but more on the ‘there are few players with these characteristics on the market’. In short, the same speech made before.”
Let’s talk about full-backs and wing-backs, talk a little about the differences between the two positions and in general about the role and characteristics…
“Yes, I think there is actually a right-back who is very good at everything… But anyway, before I talked a little bit about people who play the 5-man defence and how they can adapt in a 4-man defence. general I repeat, the speech is that the transition from lateral to 5 in a small team to full-back to 4 in a large team is much easier than doing it from a large team to a large team.
“This is because the sides of the dominant teams probably 6 months ago were pure wingers, and do not have an adequate defensive phase to play as full-backs. Full-backs are probably the position in which there have been the most tactical evolutions in recent years.
“Once, let’s say the end of the 2000s, there was this evolution with super attacking full-backs that completely detached themselves from the more defensive full-backs that were there before. Now we find many types of full-backs, not just offensive vs defensive full-backs.
“There are many types of offensive full-backs: full-backs who play inverted, full-backs attacking half-spaces, full-backs who are good at construction, full-backs who are constantly dangerous in the goal area.
“And there are many types of defensive full-backs that are no longer ‘simple’ defensive full-backs: there are more and more asymmetrical formations in which on the one hand you have an attacking full-back who is almost a winger, while on the other the defensive full-back is not only a ‘piece’ of the defense, many teams try to put in this position a full-back who is very strong in build-up, or one who is the third midfielder.
“This is why I say that it is the role that has evolved the most but at the same time, these are things you see in the top clubs. If you look at small teams, which is what scouting is all about, this role tends to be the standard one.”
From your experience, is it possible to get an idea of the adaptability or the ability to understand a player’s tactics through social media or interviews?
“I think for sure there is a type of player with personalities that lead them to do interviews, especially if we are talking about young players. In any case, I think it is better not to speak directly to the players, by now the world of football is very connected so you will almost certainly be able to find someone who coached that player, someone who played for him, someone who knows him, etc. In short, you can find many connections. and I think it is better to do so, but surely listening to the various interviews he has done can be useful.”
Do you do a lot of research like this in your scouting business?
“Lots of it. When you study a player you inform yourself as much as possible about any aspect that concerns him. Many players are quite neutral, you look at their social networks and they are normal, or you try to google and go in depth but you don’t find much because they are normal people.
“Maybe there are rumours about a player’s personality that he doesn’t actually have, or vice versa he seems like a regular person but actually has a strange personality. It has happened in the past that he had to do extensive research.”
How do you make suggestions/proposals or in general how do you approach your superiors?
“You have to build trust. Obviously, basically you have the confidence of those who put you under contract at the club, but for most clubs there are many people who decide, it takes many steps to then get to formulate an offer. To get listened to, you obviously have to build trust, with that I’m not saying I’m making the decisions.
“You build trust by working together with someone, sharing information, spending more time listening than talking (especially with older and more experienced people) and, of course, making the right suggestions and proposals. And this does not necessarily mean within the club, maybe you have built a set of players that you have pushed hard on for some time and they have done well both in your club (if you have them) and in other clubs (if you don’t have them).
“In the long run, this builds confidence, or at least builds confidence in the department you work in. But again, this doesn’t mean that you make the decisions, but that the work your department does go to someone who recognises its value.”