Derby scout explains how clubs use stats to identify and analyse defenders

In Depth

Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United are among the Premier League teams to have spent big sums of money on defenders this summer – but how exactly do clubs identify defensive reinforcements amid the barrage of data available?

Thanks to websites such as WhoScored, Transfermarkt and Squawka, it is not only scouts and analysts who have a ream of stats available at their fingertips but also your average fan and, God forbid, journalists.

As a result, no matter how obscure the player your club has just been linked with, websites and social media are awash with nuggets of information on any potential transfer target – and that’s without mentioning the fabled YouTube highlight packages.

But though statistical analysis and comparison articles are now everywhere, the stats available to the public are rudimentary compared to the much more detailed, paid-for, data available to the clubs themselves.

So, we’ve decided to ask those within the game what metrics, if any, are actually used to help clubs identify potential signings and monitor the performances of their existing players.

We have already spoken to Stoke City’s goalkeeping coach Andy Quy about the difficulty of using stats to assess goalkeepers, and now thanks to Derby County’s chief scout Joe McClaren, we have been provided with an insight into how clubs identify potential defensive signings.

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READ: Stoke’s GK coach explains difficulty of using stats to assess goalkeepers

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It is, of course, common knowledge that it is much more difficult to judge a defender using stats than it is an attacker, with coverage often focusing on the quantity of involvements as opposed to the quality or indeed the necessity.

“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,” Paolo Maldini, one of the greatest defenders of all time at both centre-back and left-back, once said.

The AC Milan icon’s sentiment was more recently echoed by Xabi Alonso, who suggested: “Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition.”

Despite this, plenty of articles judge defenders in terms of the number of tackles, interceptions and clearances they make, often presenting these figures devoid of any context.

A prime example at the weekend came in Sky’s post-match coverage of Leeds United’s 3-2 win at Bolton Wanderers, in which presenter Scott Minto highlighted the fact that the Whites’ on-loan Everton centre-back Matthew Pennington “made 21 clearances, 13 more than anyone else”.

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It sounds impressive, but does it actually mean anything? Is it good? Is it bad? You could easily argue either way, so how do clubs go about analysing defenders, and how do they decide on targets to pursue in the transfer market?

“Even without the use of stats, scouting defenders is one of the most difficult positions for several reasons and this also translates into judging by statistics,” says McClaren.

“I don’t think they should be discounted, but there should be an err of caution, particularly around the number of actions, as in number of aerial duels or number of clearances or number of clean sheets. For many reasons, taken out of context these can be misleading.

“Teams that are lower down the league should be defending more and therefore bring higher numbers. Team style can also affect – a team pressing high up the pitch may force a higher number of longer balls onto their defence, which could bring up the number of aerial duels.

“Opposite to that, a team that sits back will invite more passes for the opposition and maybe produce higher tackling or interception numbers.

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READ: English clubs are tackling less than ever – but is that a good thing?

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“A simple way around it is to look closer at percentage stats – percentage of successful headed duels, unsuccessful clearances, successful tackles and interceptions etc.

“Comparing the amount of successful actions against the overall number of actions creates a score more comparable to defenders from other teams.”

Derby have signed two defenders this summer in Liverpool right-back Andre Wisdom and Hull City centre-back Curtis Davies, with both players starting the 1-1 draw at Sunderland in the opening game of the Championship season.

Stats do inform the Rams’ transfer policy, but they used as part of a wider identification process in which more importance is placed on the live scouting of players.

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READ: Milan 93-94, Juve 01-02 & the defences which defined the golden age of Serie A

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As McClaren explains, the process is divided into three sections: flagging up, ground work and backing up.

“The flagging up stage will include live scouting, video scouting, stats and external tip offs. Ground work will then involve live repeated scouting and video check ups, before then starting to find out contract and character background information.

“Finally in the back up stage we want to do final checks and help cement the reasons why this player is on our final list. This will feature further background references, stats, video compilations and importantly coach manager viewings.

“In the flagging stage we will have a set of statistics that match our player profiles for each position in line with how the manager wants to play. We can also adjust these player profiles depending on what our team is missing.

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“We’ll use these to highlight players abroad and in our own league that we can then pursue on video or live.

“Then in the back up stage we will use them to compare statistics with both others in the target list and our own players for the same position.

“By doing this we can back up what we have seen in the scouting, help the manager in his conclusions and give some objective information to show the board.”

Scouting overseas

With pressure on football managers only continuing to increase at the same rate patience decreases – a reality McClaren knows only too well having seen the ups and down at close quarters with his own father, Steve – clubs can ill-afford to get their recruitment wrong.

This summer a number of Championship clubs seem to have taken second-tier spending to another level as Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all splashed eight-figure sums on recruits.

As domestic signings from the Premier League often cost a premium, clubs continue to turn to the continental market, which in itself provokes a slight change of approach.

“Scouting across Europe also brings its issues in the level of player the defender plays alongside and the level of attacking players they play against,” McClaren says.

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READ: The story of the blogger who met Pep and got work with Bielsa & Sampaoli

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“There also different styles of leagues, with most in Holland and Scandinavia bringing attack through possession and others like Germany and France bringing much more physicality in attacks.

“To help counteract this in terms of stats we can weight the statistics to produce higher scores to the defenders that are playing in leagues more relative to the Championship.

“Looking back over previous seasons can help us backing up our reason for signing or dismissing a player. If we can start to see trends that cover more than 100 games you have to respect the stats conclusion a lot more.

“However, again, across seasons the player could have been playing better or worse with different team-mates, involved in different styles of play or different level of leagues, so we have to dissect the numbers and ask whether we can fully trust them.

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READ: How Xbox controllers are helping football clubs analyse their players

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“Ultimately, judging a player for us throws up many off the ball actions which aren’t covered by the stats.

“You want to see the player to show he’s calm under pressure, you want to see how they react after an adverse situation. Do they frustrate team-mates or do they bring the team together? Do they track back and do they work hard?

“Signs of being a team player, of leadership and of good attitude are very important to us especially in the 46-game Championship season. For this I’d say we have used live scouting, video scouting and character references to find out more than stats.

“Finding trends is good, but when looking in isolation you have to go in with an inquisitive mind. At the end of the day we welcome stats and deal with them on a daily basis, but knowing when and how to use them is very important.”

By Rob Conlon

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