Why Football’s Talent ID Needs More Than a Calendar and a Ruler
Posted by Dean Holden at March 31st, 2015
by Sean Ingle, 29 March 2015
Can sharing data about the physical development of players help clubs develop homegrown talent more effectively? Photograph: Lo Cole for the Guardian
A few days ago James Bunce, the head of sport science at the Premier League, asked this simple question to a roomful of coaches: what chance does an under-nine who joins a Premier League club’s academy have of graduating to its first team? No one was left shocked by the answer: just 0.5% – or one in 200. Or when Bunce admitted that “as an industry, football still doesn’t know a lot about what it takes to become a top player”.
Of course it doesn’t. Bringing through young players remains a bit like pin the tail on the donkey: clubs know what they are searching for, but success remains dizzying and often elusive. Intriguingly, though, Bunce believes that box-fresh Premier League projects, based on sports science and data, could help clubs better identify and nurture young talent – and get more players making the grade.
Your default position is probably scepticism. English football has a habit of talking the talk about player development – usually just after the national team is knocked out of a major tournament – and then the subject goes for a long walk. However Bunce has form: until last year he was at Southampton, a poster club for developing talent in professional football.
And he has been busy. In recent months, the Premier League has equipped 29 top-flight and Championship academies with a performance management application which allows them to input training, physical, injury and scouting data. Meanwhile it has also trained coaches to measure young players’ physical attributes better.
How will all this help? One problem is that academies are still too easily swayed by relative age effects. Scouts can’t help being impressed by the biggest and fastest players born at the start of the academic year, even though they know that such advantages will dissipate by adulthood. The numbers are striking: 45% of those in Premier Leagues academies were born in September, October or November while just 10% were born between June and August.
Now, though, clubs are able to compare their young players to standardised physical benchmarks based on data from these 29 clubs. So a coach in one academy might think that a 13-year-old born in July is weaker than everyone else in his age group – leading them to downgrade or dismiss his chances – but when they check the database they might find that if they account for age, height, weight and maturity, the player should be given more time to develop.
An injury surveillance programme has also been established, with Dr Colin Fuller, who has done a similar job for World Rugby brought in. As Bunce put it to the IE Sports Analytics Innovation Summit: “We know in football that 100% of our academy players will get injured at some point. But there has never been a national injury audit. We don’t know what injuries they get, how often they get them, their recurrence or whether there are traits within tournament football.”
Better coach education, fewer injuries: both can only be good for player development. And it is only the start. The Premier League is considering introducing psychological profiling of academy players and, most importantly, bringing in technical benchmarking so clubs can have a greater understanding of the skill levels young players should be striving to reach.
It is too early to say whether it will work. But chatting to Alek Gross, the head of sports science at Southampton, it was easy to be persuaded. He reckons the Premier League plan is “an excellent idea and the ability to benchmark our data across the 29 clubs will allow us to improve player development.”
Is there also a lesson for other clubs in the Southampton way? Gross says that while people often ask him to reveal the Saints’ secret there really isn’t one: “But culture is key and education is key,” he says. “And from bottom up, everyone is involved. And while we test and use data, we also don’t forget we are coaching people not a spreadsheet.”
But a few points stand out. First, that when Southampton are judging young players they try to separate physical attributes from technical skill. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was, according to Bunce, a very late maturer – “when he was in the club’s under-15, squad biologically he was probably a 13-year-old,” yet the club found ways to ensure he physically and technically improved.
They also particularly understand how puberty can effect performance. If someone is undergoing a growth spurt they may reduce training volume, or provide enhanced individual technical work to re-learn skills that may have temporarily been reduced after a period of rapid growth.
There is another thing. “Even sport scientists are encouraged to use our expertise in areas such as scouting and recruitment, rather than being a standalone department where our knowledge isn’t shared,” says Gross. “The rest of the coaching staff are open to information and education which creates that culture for improvement.”
It made for an interesting discussion, especially in a week when the FA chairman Greg Dyke proposed that the number of homegrown players in each club be increased from eight to 12 – and Harry Kane scored on his England debut. Of course every supporter wants their own Kane, developed by their club’s academy, breaking out into full bloom. But it just might be that ensuring best practice at every academy – rather than calling for populist tweaks to legislation – is a better way of going about it.
Category: athleticism, coaching culture, communication, education, evaluation, growth & development, injury, interview, late bloomers, leadership, learning, LTAD, metrics / measures, philosophy, planning / periodization, relative age effect, research, scouting, skill acquisition, sport psychology, statistics, survey, talent, talent ID, talent selection