Successful dribbles. Touches in the box. Distance covered. As the January transfer window approaches, there’s no shortage of statistics clubs can call upon to assess a potential signing’s technical, tactical and physical ability. But how can teams evaluate a players’ psychological attributes?
For years, understanding a footballer’s mentality – the commonly used shorthand to describe a plethora of cognitive skills and internal processes, from awareness to confidence – has remained something of a secret artform. Clubs have relied on word of mouth or the eyes of a trusted scout to weigh up a transfer target’s motivation levels or reaction speed.
Traditional methods are giving way to more data-driven techniques, though. Professor Geir Jordet, who has spent more than 15 years advising leading European clubs, has developed a statistical model which measures a footballer’s ‘scanning frequency’. Using data taken from video footage of in-game head movements, Jordet can show how many times players ‘scan’ (or ‘look over their shoulder’) in the 10 seconds before they receive the ball.
The measure provides an indication of a player’s ability to visually perceive a situation – whether he or she will have time on the ball or is likely to be closed down quickly, for example – and make decisions, such as whether to make a first-time pass, control the ball or turn away from an opponent.
It’s precisely the type of cognitive skill which, until recently, has been described almost exclusively through stock phrases such as, ‘they see pictures well’. However, the days of relying on old adages to inform transfer strategies seem numbered.
“I know there are clubs that use these numbers as part of their scouting process”, says Jordet. “I would never say, ‘as long as you can record players’ scanning frequencies, then you know everything there is to know about their perception’. That’s definitely not the case, but I would say that if you’re investing many millions of pounds in a player, why not have some concrete numbers on one part of something that is important for their skill?
“Why not have that as one part of the equation or one piece of more objective knowledge that you can put on the table and becomes a part of that decision-making?”
Jordet’s findings are striking. After analysing more than 250 elite players, his team’s studies have shown that scanning has a small, but positive, impact on performance, with more frequent scanning leading to a higher probability of completing a pass.
To demonstrate the link, Xavi has the highest scanning frequency (0.83, which equates to roughly eight scans in the 10 seconds prior to the former Barcelona midfielder receiving the ball) of any player Jordet has monitored.
Similarly, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were the most frequent ‘scanners’ in the Premier League during 2005. Jordet, though, is at pains to point out that clubs shouldn’t rely on scanning data alone to inform their transfer policy.
“You can’t go blind with these numbers because there are so many exceptions to them,” he stresses.
“Our numbers show average scores and while there are clear probabilities with respect to performance and clear robust findings, there are not massive differences in terms of performance.
“I’ve heard about clubs and people in the game who have used this research over the past 10 to 12 years, but they’re using it a little bit naively and not with enough perspective or knowledge in the way they interpret this data.
“In those cases, you can very easily interpret the data incorrectly. So, for example, one mistake that people can make is to assume that just because a player is scanning a lot, then he or she is a good scouting target.”
Jordet’s assertion that “there is an explosive interest in this field in football” seems to be backed by the willingness of clubs – at all levels of the game – to trial psychology-based monitoring of players.
In late 2018, former Chelsea sports scientist Malcom Harkness and his father Tim (the current Head of Sports Science and Psychology at Stamford Bridge), set up a ‘psychological coding’ project. Recording ‘actions’ – such as a shot, pass or tackle – taken by both Chelsea’s first team and the opposition during matches, Harkness would use a simple criterion to determine to what extent the ‘action’ displayed confidence, motivation or focus.
For example, a shot from outside the area which hit the target would be classed as a ‘confidence action’ and rewarded with a point. Likewise, a successfully completed through ball would see the player making the pass given a point for focus, while an attacking run made by a full back would be seen as a demonstration of motivation.
“Before he left, [Eden] Hazard broke the charts every time. In every game he played, he made everyone else look like they’d done nothing for the whole game,” says the younger of the two Harknesses.
Hazard’s confidence, focus and motivation were hardly questioned during a sparkling 2018/19 season, which he crowned by scoring two goals in a Europa League final win against Arsenal. But Harkness, who would spend up to five hours coding a single game, uncovered some more nuanced results.
“There would always be little things that you weren’t expecting, like a player who just by watching the game, you think didn’t play so well, but made a lot of confident actions,” says Harkness.
“Callum [Hudson-Odoi] would come off the bench and be very effective. He would come in with a lot of confidence, drive the intensity of the game and give confidence to the other players.
“With N’Golo Kante, we’d see a lot of focus actions, such as anticipating and intercepting a pass. It looked as though he was just in the right place at the right time, but he was concentrating so hard.”
While the programme was focused on assessing Chelsea’s first team, Harkness also evaluated opposition players. There is no suggestion the results of the project, which was paused in late-2020, influenced transfer activity. However, with the initiative receiving support, according to Harkness, from senior club officials including Petr Cech, it’s easy to see how the statistics – which flagged Adama Traore as a leading exponent of ‘confidence actions’ – could be used to inform scouting.
Away from the pitch, clubs are turning to social-media monitoring to analyse the behaviour of potential signings.
“It’s a great source of information which helps us understand people,” says Wycombe Wanderers assistant manager Richard Dobson.
“We’ve turned players down based on their social media accounts. We look at that (a social media profile) and go, do you know what, that person doesn’t represent the values we have at Wycombe Wanderers.
“People are sometimes a little bit too quick in giving too much away [online], so what you see sometimes is the worst version of them when they’re not with you. So, they come in, they meet you with their agent and they say the right things because they want to come to your club and then you look on their social media and you realise what they’re like when they’re sat at home thinking no-one’s judging them.”
Dobson’s assertion that new signings have “been stalked like you wouldn’t believe over the last month before they are bought into the club”, while undoubtedly well-meaning, also raises an interesting question: should clubs be carrying out such assiduous monitoring of a transfer target’s social media accounts?
While football’s recruitment practices are understandably unorthodox, The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) advises employers to “avoid using information that’s on someone’s social media profile to decide whether you interview or hire them… you might be breaking the law, particularly if they did not agree to you using the information in this way or you looked at some applicants’ social media profiles, but not others.”
Nevertheless, with the game’s idiosyncrasies in mind, it’s difficult to argue with the reason for Dobson’s attention to detail: understanding a potential recruit’s mentality is crucial to developing or sustaining a positive club culture.
“There’s no way in the world that we are going to jeopardise the culture that we’ve built here by bringing in the wrong person or a bad egg or anybody that might cause us any distress,” he says.
“To walk through the door in the first-place players have done well and now we just want them to be themselves fully. We want them to contribute to it. They’re not here to join the ride, they’re here to contribute. They’re here to leave a legacy and to make this club a better place when they leave, whether it’s at the end of this season or whether it’s in 10 seasons’ time.”