Football's age of personality scouting: why ability is only half of it these days

Football clubs are paying more and more attention to a potential signing’s off-field traits before splashing out, explains Sam Rowe

Date: May 2011.

Location: Udine, north-east Italy.

Target: Alexis Sanchez.

15:00 – Last player to exit the training ground, subject leaves in a sports car (white Audi R8). Shares joke with staff member, appears in good spirits.

15:20 – After a few minutes at home, subject emerges with two dogs (both Labrador, white/blond) and jogs through town. Still dressed in training gear.

16:30 – Plays tennis with friend. Wins with competent – if relaxed – performance (note: serve needs practice).

 

A photo posted by Alexis Sanchez (@alexis_officia1) on

17:50 – Visits restaurant in city centre with girlfriend. Orders langoustines followed by pasta salad (no dressing). Drinks mineral water.

19:25 – Finishes with espresso (no dessert). Pays bill in cash. Signs autograph and poses for picture with fan upon exit.

20:15 – Subject plays the piano at home (melody unknown).

21:30 – Blinds are drawn, lights off. Subject believed to be asleep. Will remain until midnight to be certain.

In-depth dossier

With clubs routinely shelling out the type of sums on a player that could prop up a small nation’s economy, an individual’s personality is quickly becoming every bit as important as technical skill

If the above sounds like espionage – the sort of intrusive surveillance carried out by a private investigator or tabloid newspaper to land a pampered, well-heeled footballer in trouble – don’t be misled. It isn’t. Instead, such notes are a fictionalised, though only slightly, version of Manchester City (now Liverpool) scout Barry Hunter’s reconnaissance mission to Italy in 2011, ahead of the club’s proposed transfer of Alexis Sanchez.

The genuine investigation (which really did log the Chilean attacker’s tennis and piano skills) formed part of an extensive, 56-page dossier on the then-Udinese winger, conducted with permission of the club and – to a lesser extent – player. But, as you will no doubt be aware, such snooping proved futile, with Sanchez joining Barcelona later that summer (then Arsenal in 2014). And yet, though unsuccessful, this is merely one example of the lengths top clubs now go to in order to get their man.

Alexis Sanchez

At Udinese, Sanchez’s personal life was thoroughly analysed

These days, on-pitch ability is but one piece of an ever-expanding puzzle. With football clubs routinely shelling out the type of sums on a player that could prop up a small nation’s economy, an individual’s personality is quickly becoming every bit as important as technical skill, with everything from mental toughness to the company they keep dissected carefully before a bid is made, let alone contract offered. Watching a player at an away fixture and reporting back to the manager is one thing, but what of his activities on a balmy summer’s night in the Algarve? And what’s his agent like? Are we sure his model girlfriend won’t prove too much a distraction during the season’s run-in?

Welcome to the age of personality scouting. Footballers with secrets to hide need not apply.

The bigger picture

I used to go to the pub from two in the afternoon to nine or 10 at night when I was 16, because the young pros brought me and I just thought that’s what you did

- Paul McVeigh

“I used to go to the pub from two in the afternoon to nine or 10 at night when I was 16, because the young pros brought me and I just thought that’s what you did,” recalls former Norwich and Spurs midfielder, Paul McVeigh. “I got out of it very quickly, as I realised it wasn’t good for me, but you’d never see a player do that now – it just wouldn’t happen.” 

He might’ve only hung up his boots in 2010, after four clubs, 20 Northern Ireland caps and 16 years of service, but the modern football landscape is almost unrecognisable to McVeigh, with player recruitment becoming markedly more holistic.

“Before, it was just a case of phoning up a manager, saying ‘What's he like?’ and he’d give you a personality assessment,” he explains. “Now it’s probably more about looking into a player’s background, what they get up to at the weekend, what they did at school, what their family life is like and what they’re into. I think that’s more available now through social media and other ways of finding out this information.” 

McVeigh

McVeigh's boozy afternoons were the norm back then

These are almost scouts turned secret agents.

“I suppose if you’re putting £40 or 50m into an asset,” McVeigh shrugs, “you’re going to want to do your homework.”

Rather than venture down the tried-and-trusted routes of punditry or coaching, the belief that mentality – not ability – holds the key to a footballer’s potential, led McVeigh to launch sports psychology company, ThinkPRO. 

You can’t tell me the reason Germany beat Brazil 7-1 is purely because they were better technically. If you have players crying during the national anthem beforehand, they are not in the right frame of mind to go and win

- Paul McVeigh

Indeed, with the cash swilling around the game sometimes affording apprentices swimming pools and expensive watches before first-team bows – not to mention the British media’s tendency to decree a homegrown talent as the messiah after their first well-timed volley – athleticism nor skill alone necessarily translates to on-field success. For every Wayne Rooney there is a Ravel Morrison, whereas the likes of Michael Owen, Jack Wilshere and (more recently) Raheem Sterling would all attest to feeling the weight of the nation’s hopes while still teenagers.

According to McVeigh, the collateral damage of such pressure is often damning, regardless of a player’s talent. “Just go back to the World Cup in 2014,” he says. “You can’t tell me the reason Germany beat Brazil 7-1 is purely because they were better technically. If you have players crying during the national anthem beforehand, they are not in the right frame of mind to go and win. Brazil were all over the place, whereas the German players were focused, calm and composed. They knew exactly what they needed to do.”