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Data & Analytics: How Sunderland can improve their fortunes through efficient player recruitment

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Tim Keech is from MRKT Insights, a company who provide data science, technical scouting, and recruitment services to football clubs. Here is their proposal for how they believe Sunderland AFC can improve their success rate in recruiting talented players.

MrktInsights

MRKT Insights LLP provides data science, technical scouting, and recruitment services to football clubs. We are often asked for examples of the type of report we produce for football clubs by way of introducing our services. The report below is an example of a full report, with only a few minor changes and redactions, that we recently produced, speculatively, for Sunderland AFC. Enjoy!


Recommendation Process


Club playing style

Sunderland AFC do not have a current identifiable style of play associated with them.

This is not unusual, managers, particularly below the Premier League, have to try to get the most of the players they have available to them.

However, a general aim of what we’d like the team to play like should always be in the mind of the club when planning recruitment both of coaching staff and players.

With clients, we like to spend time discussing the style of football they wish to move towards playing in the long term. Understanding this is key to the success of the recruitment process.

Our suggestion would be that Sunderland commit to developing a style of play likely to be effective, not just in League One, but all the way into the upper half of the Premier League

For the purposes of this document, we will recommend a move towards playing a front-foot style of football at a high tempo. A quick and mobile strike force, serviced by short passes from a high-pressing, tenacious midfield, with service into the box provided by attacking fullbacks.

Having a defined style does not mean the manager is restricted to a specific formation. It is more about ensuring that the players targeted have certain key attributes, in both playing style and character, to ensure the highest chance of success.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Positional requirements

Our research involved reading tactical analysis of Sunderland AFC, watching recent performances, and analysing performance data from the past two seasons.

We believe that there is a lack of pace, physicality, and creativity throughout the side. Adding these attributes, even if restricted to a few key positions, would have a positive effect on the rest of the team with more space to operate in and better pass choices available.


Budget and ambition for next 5 years

Sunderland AFC have suffered very poor results in the last few seasons but have now stabilised in League One. However, the potential of the club is large with a passionate fan base and excellent facilities.

The average points required to win automatic promotion from League One has been 91 (range 86-96) in the last 3 years. There is very little room for a promotion-chasing team to drop points. Sunderland have to find a way of gaining promotion, but this has to be done in a financially sustainable way. This means adopting a player trading model of adding significant value to high potential young players.

The reality of the league in which Sunderland AFC play, and the financial limits of the club, is that the type of player the club will be aiming to sign will be less well known and “riskier” than clubs higher up the football pyramid.

There are 3 key advantages Sunderland AFC could give themselves over rival clubs:

  1. Data-informed scouting and recruitment
  2. Club network and squad management
  3. Reputational development
Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Data-informed scouting and recruitment

The less well known a player is, the more information you will need to properly assess the risk of signing them. The best way of measuring a player’s impact is by looking at their data from the games they have played in. However, you need to know which data is relevant and which isn’t. You also need to know what data doesn’t measure and have proper processes in place to assess player suitability.

How we can help: We are an entire data analytics, scouting, and recruitment team “in a box”. For an affordable monthly fee, we provide proven data search tools covering 88 leagues, bespoke scouting reports, a database of fully scouted players, and regular contact and support for your in-house staff. We have proven experience for Swansea City, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and other major clubs (details on request and with permission of other clients) and a growing network of scouts both local (U23 football) and international.

SOCCER: JAN 08 Florida Cup Challenge - TB Rowdies v VFL Wolfsburg Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Club network

Deals, both incoming and outgoing, depend a lot on contacts in football. There is no easy way to find out which players are available or any financial information. This lack of transparency puts a lot of power into the hands of agents which adds another opaque layer over proceedings.

How we can help: We are building up a club network consisting of clubs prepared to offer transparency in buying or loaning of players. This will allow members to generate funds through player disposal, or to find potential purchases of players made available by other member clubs. We are already arranging deals through this network. Whilst in lower leagues Sunderland could benefit from exceptionally good value loans from network members in higher leagues, whilst also choosing appropriate development paths for their younger players.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reputational development, becoming specialists

The Matthew effect: “the rich become richer”

How we can help: We work with agents, development clubs and youth academies. They want a big stage for their young players to develop. We can help bring better players into the club more quickly, in turn, this will attract better players who want to play for a club on the way up. We will help turn Sunderland AFC into a club admired for their style of play and player development. By focusing on key markets, such as emerging EFL and U23 talent we can become the preferred destination for talented young players.

Photo by MI News | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Squad Score

Squad Score is our methodology for rating how well constructed and sustainable a playing squad is. For the purposes of this, we have benchmarked the squad against EFL League One wages and used the FM2020 figures for salary. The scoring system gives points for how the player fits the Style, Wage cost, Contract length and player Value for money.

The lower the score for the individual player the better value for money, and fit to the system, they represent.


A financially sustainable squad should score 100 points or fewer.

By category the area of least concern is contracts. The 25 man squad have enough years on their contracts that protects their resale value. This can also be a problem if the players on long contracts are overpaid compared to their market value and therefore hard to sell.

The Style and Wages scores are a problem. There are too many players in the current squad who are not a good fit, either tactically or in terms of our perception of their ability, and there are more players in the higher range of wages than we would like.

The Squad Score is a dynamic concept. Players move, get better or worse in tactical terms and contract lengths change.

We, therefore, suggest the process is run after every transfer window and used as a benchmark for seeing how recruitment is helping.


Player Search and recommendations


The Identification Process – Player Similarity

Step 1 – Identify Positional Requirements

When using a data-based approach it is necessary to identify key metrics in which a player must excel. In the instance of a centre back it is possible to group these key metrics into groups, both stylistic and performance-based.

  • Defensive Volume – (Aerial duels per 90, defensive duels per 90, possession adjusted interceptions & tackles)
  • Defensive Performance – (Aerial duels success %, defensive duels success %)
  • Passing Style – (Forward pass ratio, passes to final third ratio, long ball ratio, progressive passes per 90)
  • Passing Performance – (Forward pass success %, passes to final third success %, long-ball success %)
  • Progressive Performance – (Progressive passes per 90, progressive runs per 90)

Step 2 – Identify Requirements For Team Style

It is essential to understand the manner in which the coach wants the team to play. In order to understand this, we analyse data and video alongside discussions with the coach in order to best understand what is required from incoming transfers to aide the coach in their playing vision.

Step 3 – Similarity Modelling

In many instances, coaches will say that they require a player in the mould of Player X, in this example, the aim is to identify a dominant defender with good on the ball quality such as Virgil Van Dijk. Using the key metrics identified earlier it is possible to identify players which demonstrate the defensive, passing and progressive performance of the player in question.

Step 4 – Similarity in the Context of a ‘Sunderland Player’

Having produced an initial long-list of players identified off the key metrics it is essential to ensure that they play in manner Sunderland wish to play. This long-list can be filtered further with the use of Passing Style and Defensive Volume to identify players currently playing in similar systems to what is expected of a Sunderland centre-back.

Step 5 – Add players from the MRKT Insights database

Not all players appear in data-searches. We have a comprehensive database of young players of high potential who do not currently appear in data reports due to a lack of first-team minutes. However, these players may well be suitable candidates and should be included as options.

Step 6 – Present players at various price bands and risk profiles

Investment (relatively expensive but of very high potential), Affordable (comfortably within budget and of good value) and Strategic (well below market value and in line with the overall player trading model of the club).

We also tend to present Domestic and Overseas options we believe would suit the club and league.


Centre Backs

Domestic Transfer

Jamie McCart of Inverness is a very talented defender, his passing and ball progression is excellent and he has exceptional statistics for one on one defending both in the air and one on one.

The main concern is the style of play of his team which is fairly direct, and McCart tends to play longer passes than we’d want in the long term. He is very similar to Michael Rose of Coventry City, and is out of contract this summer.

Overseas Option

Oumar Gonzalez is a French defender playing in Ligue 2. A data profile like this is interesting with the main attributes for a central defender showing up well. An initial video check and background research shows a player who is developing rapidly. We have watched significant amounts of footage and are sure his style would adapt well to League One. He is out of contract in 2020 and on relatively low wages.

Strategic

Japhet Tanganga of Tottenham (NOTE THIS REPORT WAS PRODUCED BEFORE HIS RECENT DEBUT) - Profile not available due to lack of senior minutes played.

However, we have extensively scouted Tangana from Tottenham and England youth appearances. He is a powerful right-sided centre back. His speed and strength would be an asset and he has played in a similar system to one we would seek to introduce. We believe he has the quality to play at Championship level but is desperate for playing time and would consider League One. He is out of contract in 2020.

Tottenham Hotspur v Middlesbrough FC - FA Cup Third Round: Replay Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Goalkeepers

Goalkeepers were traditionally hard to assess with data alone, and although the situation is improving, it is still the case that the best approach is to watch significant amounts of footage to study their contribution to the game.

We have a list of goalkeepers we already have assessed and have developed relationships with a speciality goalkeeper recruitment agency, who we have partnered with to assess goalkeepers for Bundesliga clubs.


Midfield

Investment

Connor Ronan is an interesting prospect, he has competed in the English 3rd level and spent 2 years on loan in Slovakia. His data is very consistent with very high levels of ball progression and creative passing. At 21 years of age he has played significant minutes and we feel would make a very exciting addition to the midfield.

Scott Fraser is arguably the best creative passer in League One, and available for free, he is another obvious signing for any League One club as there are doubts over his defensive work-rate that may see Championship clubs less likely to sign him.

Ebou Adams from Forest Green Rovers is a good all-round midfielder, physically capable of playing in a fast, pressing midfield. He breaks lines with ball carrying.

Maxime D’Arpino is a long term favourite of MRKT Insights. He plays for Orleans in Ligue 2 but the team will almost certainly be relegated. He is a really good central midfielder, capable of excellent quick vertical passes and has a high defensive work-rate. He will likely be available and affordable with weekly wages of around £3-5k a week.

Strategic

Nathangelo Markelo of Everton (21 years old) is a very good example of a stagnating prospect, currently with a 2020 expiration date on his contract. He can play central defence or central midfield and has been capable of playing open age football for a few seasons. He could compete well in a League One midfield with an assured touch, good range of passing, and a desire to start playing regularly.

Everton U21 v Fleetwood Town - Leasing.com: Second Round Photo by Emma Simpson - Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

Attackers

Investment

Nigel Robertha of Levski Sofia left the Netherlands to play in Bulgaria and has established himself as a powerful goal-scoring, wide attacker. His ability to cut in from wide positions and shoot would be a very effective weapon.

Jordan Clark of Accrington Stanley (26 years old).

Squad development cannot be entirely made up of new players to the league and it is important that undervalued domestic talent like Jordan Clark is included too. A very capable attacker at this level, on a 2020 contract end with current wages of £1k a week he could be a very good option for a few seasons.

Jordan Maguire-Drew of Leyton Orient (22 years old) has excellent data, low wages and only 1 year left on his contract. His crossing ability and dead-ball skills also add significantly to the attacking mix.

Strategic

Morgan Guilavogui of Toulon (21 years old).

Guilavogui is a hugely talented, but very raw, wide attacker. He is very fast, an exceptional dribbler but needs a lot of work on positional play. With a 2020 contract and current wages of <£500 a week he could potentially be a bargain.


Strikers

Strikers cost a lot of money within English leagues, we recommend searching further afield for goalscorers, backed with experienced EFL players to help them adapt.

Investment

Mohamed Bayo of Dunkerque (21 years old). Bayo is a powerful striker, his aerial ability is great, standing out in the French 3rd division which is a robust league. His pace combined with his height means defences struggle to play a high line against him, but are also afraid of allowing him too close to goal. He is relatively low paid <£1k a week, and will be interested in a move this summer.

Two players we are excited about who could be long term all-round options are Dawid Kocyla (Belchaow and Poland youth international, 17) and David Strelec (Solvan Bratislava and Slovakia U21, 18). Both are worthy of serious consideration before top 5 league teams move in.


Selling Players

At MRKT Insights we do not see recruitment as being solely about bringing players into a club. Finding solutions for unwanted players is half the job, and often where we can add additional value.

We have created a tiered club network. Clubs like Swansea (and other partners we cannot yet disclose) sit at the top of the structure. They effectively alert our members to available youth and fringe players for either loan or transfer.

This has 3 main advantages:

  1. The player gets to play first-team football by moving to a club where they will be used.
  2. The borrowing club gets to properly assess the player before they move to their club to ensure the move has a greater chance of working
  3. The selling or loaning club get to assess the buying/borrowing club to make sure the move is right for the player and saves money by getting wages of unused players off the wage bill.

We have partner clubs in the United States (Tampa Bay Rowdies) and the League of Ireland and are already arranging mutually beneficial moves.

Even moving one fringe player on loan for a year can pay for the entire cost of MRKT Insights tier one membership.

For clubs that have a very large squad and a large pool of developing players we believe we could add significant value to the club by providing a large customer base for their players.

Sunderland v Leicester City U21: Leasing.com Cup Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Conclusion

We hope this sample report demonstrates our methodology well. As mentioned at the start of the report we like to work as closely as possible with the club to get as much information as we can to make our recommendations perfect for your philosophy and risk appetite. The names chosen have been so to demonstrate the depth of league coverage we offer, we would of course always also recommend domestic signings and the promotion of youth players.

MRKT Insights are committed to growing our base of knowledge and capacity for scouting and have additional consultant scouts ready to employ as our business grows.

We can also provide advanced data analytics if you subscribe to data providers such as Opta or Statsbomb with a range of reports already written and ready to deploy.