By Tony Attwood
Following the announcement about the breaking up of their scouting team, the media has been unsurprisingly quiet on the issue of what Arsenal are going to do about recruitment of young players in the future. Unsurprisingly quiet, because working out what Arsenal’s plan is means undertaking a little bit of research and putting two and two together while trying not to make five – neither of which activity is something that the media or most bloggers know anything about.
To unravel this we must remember that about fifteen years ago Arsenal started to invest in digital analyses of player movements from matches around the world. In this way the number of potential signings was quickly reduced to a handful of players from all over the world whose stats showed particular potential.
That approach has reduced the need for the number of scouts, although it was Mr Wenger’s idea that the new technological approach should be used to whittle down the number of potential signings so that the scouts could more effectively focus on players that were not being noticed by other clubs; not that the scouting network should be wound up.
But inevitably other clubs have caught up with that idea, and that statistical analysis only tells the club where the player is now in terms of performance, not where he might be able to get to in the future. So Mr Wenger started to look for an additional approach which could be used to explore how much a young player might be able to change if he was brought from his homeland to Arsenal.
The aim was to incorporate this new evolution into Arsenal’s scouting technique, but the card carrying banner waving “Wenger Out” brigade scuppered that development, forcing Mr Wenger out and leaving Arsenal in the lurch.
Fortunately however Mr Wenger did not abandon his search, and some 15 months ago he started to work with the PlayerMaker company. This company had developed a tiny sensor which is attached to a player’s boots and which tracks everything the player does. How he moves, how quickly he moves, the power in a shot, how he recovers from a tackle etc etc etc.
Now clubs are notoriously slow to change age-old practices, and even slower to adopt new technology so it is not surprising that few clubs have reacted to the new approach… especially since it was not developed in England (“another foreign fad” was how one senior official described it).
But undeterred, in what must have been an amazing event to witness Playermaker arranged for a match to take place in Mr Wenger’s garden (honest!) with young players wearing the boots.
Since then (as reported by Forbes) clubs in America playing in MLS are adopting the use of the kit. And now it appears Arsenal are taking up the scheme.
This system has the benefit not only of telling clubs what the player is doing, but also where improvements can be made. In short you take a player whose videoed performances look promising, and then make that player an even better player by analysing every little area where he can improve.
As Mr Wenger reminded the Forbes journalist who covered the PlayerMaker launch, “I worked on performance ratings in 1987-88 with friends of mine on computers. We worked day and night to measure performances of players. We were 20 years ahead at the time. We made some good improvements to judge players, we discovered some players who were not really stars and became good players after….” That of course is well known – and we saw the arrival of Vieira in Mr Wenger’s first month at the club and that showed those of us watching exactly what was going to change at Arsenal.
But there is more, as Mr Wenger continued, “I think [Playmaker is] the most accurate system that I’ve seen and the least disturbing. The system we had until now was you put your equipment around your chest. I’ve seen many players throw them away during games and training….
“I believe that science can help us to understand the world around us. Objective measurements can make us stronger when it’s well used. Basically you cannot cheat any more when you practise. When I played you had some players who would go in the forest and hide behind the trees and wait until the rest of the team came back!”
It appears that Arsenal are now investing in this new Wengerian approach, and combining it with their highly sophisticated computer monitoring system of young players from around the world.
In stage 1 the player is identified in a video. In stage 2 the club to whom the player is attached is asked if they will permit the player to wear the new PlayerMaker tracker. If not, Arsenal walk away. If yes, they get the data. If the data is good, Arsenal bring the player over for a trial. The need for all those scouts is thus reduced. Hence the redundancies.
So it turns out the current round of redundancies it is not so much that Arsenal are trying to save a few pounds, but rather that thanks to Mr Wenger they have just found a faster, more efficient, and cheaper way of seeing just how good prospective young players are.
It would be tempting to say that it is astounding that none of the national papers have covered this part of the story, but then, they haven’t been covering the events at Fifa much either. Nor Wolverhampton’s financial problems (of which we will have more later, as there has been a rather interesting development).
We were surprised when the redundancies were announced, and ran an article saying so. But at least we got there in the end – and before the rest of the media. Perhaps Untold does have a use after all.
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