There’s a story going around Twitter today that Manchester United don’t have any full-time scouts. There’s an argument that when you’re buying the elite players, scouting might be less important because it’s much easier to identify the best in the world.1 As an example, the rumor mill is talking about a triple-swoop for Neymar, Ronaldo, and Bale. I know this is just some combination of clickbait, boredom, and wishful thinking, but a team wouldn’t need to spend any money to know that those three would be better than the players United has at those positions. Also, when you have virtually unlimited transfer funds, you can afford to make mistakes. Manchester City spend a ridiculous amount of money on Raheem Sterling over the summer and then benched him for the first half of their biggest game of the season against Arsenal last weekend. Bad transfer choices hurt a lot less when you can sell for a loss and overpay for the next big player.
Here’s the problem with that: margins at the top of the table are incredibly narrow, and players who can improve top teams/not hurt top teams are few and far between. One of my first blogs here was questioning the Nicolas Otamendi signing at Manchester City, and as far as I can tell I was about the only one who didn’t like it at the time. But in a close season like this one, buying the wrong central defender (I liked John Stones, who they probably could have bought for the same price they paid for Otamendi) would be the difference between 1st and 2nd place. People criticize Wenger’s transfer strategy (or non-transfer strategy), but his one move this summer turned out to be a good one while one of City’s major transfers was on the bench this weekend, and another looked as if he’d never held a defensive line before. Sterling and Otamendi are world-class players, but they looked like missed opportunities against Arsenal this weekend.
The gaps at the top of the game get more and more narrow, and more and more difficult to cross. The gap between the top 6 in the Premier League and the top 4 is small, but incredibly difficult to break (and takes a disastrous season from Chelsea for one new team to get in, likely for one season). Then the gap between the top 4 in England and the top 4 in Europe is similarly small, but much more difficult to break into, and the gap between #2 and #1 in Europe is even more difficult to crack.2 Finding players who can bridge these gaps is incredibly difficult, and only teams that make all the right moves can attempt to break into a new class of teams. One or two bad decisions are the difference between Champions League and traveling a couple thousand miles to Eastern Europe on a Thursday night. Scouts (and analytics) are more valuable than ever when the margins are this thin.
Preview: tomorrow I’m going to write up “Why Small Clubs Need Scouts (Analysts) The Most” because they probably need scouts equally but for very different reasons that I think are worth talking about.
- This argument was made sarcastically in my timeline today, but I can picture it being made seriously ↩
- Bayern Munich is virtually unbeatable in Germany and won the 2014 UCL title, but Barcelona was head and shoulders above them in their 2015 UCL semi-final. Bayern was likely head and shoulders above everyone else in Europe that season, etc… ↩