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Interview: MRKT Insights co-founder Ram Srinivas talks data, recruitment and Sunderland’s issues

With Sunderland’s recruitment team currently unmanned, we contacted Ram Srinivas, co-founder of MRKT Insights, to discuss the current situation and where the club could go from here.

Back in January we published an article from data consultancy firm MRKT Insights about how a club like Sunderland could benefit from the services of a data science, technical scouting, and recruitment company.

In the wake of the departures of both Tony Coton and Richard Hill last month, we contacted Ram Srinivas, co-founder of MRKT Insights, to discuss the opportunities Sunderland can explore with what is effectively a blank slate in terms of recruitment strategy.

RR: Hi Ram, for anyone unsure who MRKT Insights are and what the company offers, could you give us an explanation of the company’s services?

RS: MRKT Insights is a football data consultancy that was founded just over a year ago. We are not a data company, in the sense we do not provide data such as the likes of StatsBomb but we help clubs gain the best possible insights from datasets available to them, or in public. We offer tools and bespoke services to assist clubs with a number of things, ranging from recruitment to long-term planning and performance analysis.

RR: The last couple of months on Wearside have been tumultuous, to say the least. Continued fan unrest led to a tense meeting between club officials and fan group representatives, and in the aftermath Sunderland’s recruitment team were let go as the owner, Stewart Donald, also stepped down as chairman. What do you make of the situation?

RS: Well, regardless of one’s footballing allegiances (or lack thereof), it’s never pleasant to see such tumultuous times at a club. It must be especially tough for the fans, who were at Premier League grounds only just over three years ago. However, perhaps it is also an opportunity to re-look at processes within the club, which might turn out for the better in the long run – that’s where we might be of help!

RR: We published a brilliant article your team put together about Sunderland back in January. Circumstances have changed since then, but where do you think Sunderland have gone wrong in their approach to recruitment?

RS: There’d been a rapid turnover of managers over the years as it were and therefore the type of players that were brought in were susceptible to large variation between managerial spells. Not only does this pose the risk of financial burdens upon an event like relegation (N’Dong, Rodwell, Djilobodji, so on) but there’s also no consistency.

Relegation to the Championship was ideally the time to recruit smartly, build assets like Maja and spend the subsequent earnings from them on lower-risk, higher-reward players. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be and despite giving Jack Ross (more) time (than usual) in League One, the recruitment remained focused on more experienced heads with little financial upside – there is obviously a need to have EFL experience in a side needing to bounce back to the Championship but planning for a possible outcome of staying in the same league is just as important.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: You could make the argument that right now Sunderland have a blank slate when it comes to recruitment strategy.

We know there’s EFL regulations lingering on the horizon with a £2.5 million wage cap for League One along with squad size limitations and a minimum amount of academy graduates in squad, but what do Sunderland need to focus on in order to grow and find success?

RS: I think it calls for getting creative with recruitment, now more than ever. There’s a lot of talent in the EFL that could fill the Sunderland squad with assets who could improve over time, whilst performing to a good level in League One.

The use of the Academy is also now more important than ever, and while Denver Hume is an established first-team player now, one wonders what might’ve been if someone like Bali Mumba was offered more opportunities over the last 1.5 years.

Sunderland still has the allure of a big club and using that to drive towards a slightly younger squad with fresh blood and most importantly, a long-term plan, is the need of the hour. That isn’t to say they should become another Brentford or the amped-up Brentford, Barnsley. Even a signing like Aiden O’Brien at 26 could prove to be astute if not a transformative purchase.

RR: Short-termism has arguably hindered the club’s development over the last few years, how do Sunderland become a club focused on the long-term?

RS: For me, it starts with establishing at least a ballpark of the kind of football they’d like to see at the club and then followed up by what is of utmost importance – recruitment.

A situation should ideally be avoided where if things go awry with manager A, manager B comes in and demands another overhaul with large turnover and a different squad makeup, stylistically speaking. For the club to operate with a central model, so to speak, could be beneficial. This also involves giving an appointed manager time to help the squad develop.

RR: Where does data and analytics come into the equation?

RS: Data helps flag up players that fit the template of the kind of personnel the club wishes to recruit and help carry the squad forth. Calling data objective is fallacious (which is another discussion altogether) but it does tell a more consistent story about players over the impression made via a few matches watched, or word of mouth via contacts. It not only helps cast the net wider for players but also allows more informed decisions to be made when evaluating potential transfer targets, both in terms of how they’re performing as well as how well they might fit the desired style of play at Sunderland.

Sunderland v Newcastle U21: Checkatrade Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Looking at Sunderland’s current squad, who are the key players and is there something that could be done to perhaps improve the performance of some fringe players? For example, Will Grigg.

RS: It’s difficult for me to say how exactly to get the best out of Will Grigg, given he doesn’t particularly suit Parkinson’s system. Ideally he’d be loaned somewhere for six months to recoup value and/or confidence when he scores goals, because he will, somewhere.

Gooch, O’Nien, Hume, Maguire and Wright is a good enough core to build the squad around with the likes of Embleton, Kimpioka (if he re-signs) and Diamond looking to prove themselves – hopefully they will have the opportunities to.

RR: Sunderland’s academy has been the topic of much discussion among fans as many young talents have been sold to clubs higher up the food chain.

The head of the club’s academy was recently let go affording the club another chance to rebuild. Should Sunderland focus more on developing their Academy products, especially considering EFL regulations might demand this?

RS: Absolutely. There’s no reason not to, given Sunderland have precedent for quality players coming out of the academy. It’s likely that bringing through a talented youngster could save the club fees/wages that would’ve otherwise gone into a fringe player. In addition, developing youngsters has the benefit of greater returns if and when they’re sold - which would avoid situations like Mumba’s.

Another factor not to be underestimated is if players in the academy system are aware that the pathway exists to the first-team, they might be less likely to leave. Minutes are so important in a player’s development trajectory, what’s in it for a 16-17 year old who isn’t going to get a chance at Sunderland a couple of years down the line, when they could probably just play for the U23s at a Premier League club instead?

RR: Anything else you’d like to add, Ram?

RS: I haven’t mentioned foreign leagues, although I do think it’s very important to tap into foreign markets, because I’m unsure of what changes in rules Brexit will bring. Assuming all non-UK players are treated as foreign, work permit rules are relaxed and there’s a regular foreign player quota for squads – then I’d confidently say that looking into leagues like 3. Liga (Germany), Austrian Bundesliga/2. Liga (Austria) and Scandinavia could give a club their money’s worth.

For now, I think the EFL itself could be exploited a lot better than it is, along with even a league like the Scottish Championship, see: Michael Rose, Kevin Nisbet, Lawrence Shankland, and Daniel Harvie - the left-back that MK Dons just brought in.

Partick Thistle v Dundee United - Ladbrokes Championship Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group via Getty Images

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