And why wouldn’t they? Astonishingly, Football Manager has an international network of 1,300 scouts who are on the ground watching games across the globe, as well as direct interaction with clubs from which they can garner further useful background data on players that scouts might not have access to.
At present, the FM scouting network covers around 2,200 clubs in 51 countries, and so there is no doubt that the information that goes into compiling assessments of players in Football Manager is extensive and backed up by a broad range of experience in seeing players at all levels and in all types of competitions and leagues.
Furthermore, the data that FM provides is so valuable because individual clubs, even the biggest names, don’t have the network, time or resources to match the extensive coverage of the world game that FM is able to achieve — even a club with the resources and pull of Manchester City only has a network of about 40 scouts across the world.
For clubs trying to steal a march on the opposition by finding a bargain basement, unknown player plying their trade in South America or Africa, or lesser-known leagues like MLS or the A-League, getting the right data can expedite the process, as any associated physical scouting then has a starting point — you know who you want to look at in advance, rather than simply turning up somewhere, watching a few random matches and trying to find the right player in this way.
Football Manager has also had a profound impact on the way we watch football, and the type of football we watch as well. The fact that it is so comprehensive in its coverage of the games has resulted in the creation of an entire sub-culture of ‘hipster’ football fans who pride themselves on knowing as much about the leading scorer in the Belgian second division as they do about the Premier League.
For punters it can be a very useful tool too, especially those who like to have a bet on player transfers and where they will end up. At the same time, many leading bookmaker, such as those featured on the top lists on sites like Playright.co.uk are also reported to have taken into consideration statistics from Football Manager when determining the odds for transfer specials on young players.
There is also the argument that FM has increased spectator engagement in international fixtures and major tournaments, as devotees have the chance to watch in the flesh the players they have followed on FM for some time. Such levels of engagement, where players who were hitherto unknown actually create expectation amongst fans, has meant that football has moved beyond narrow parochialism and has become more international than ever before.
It’s therefore difficult to argue against the proposition that FM has had a profound and far-reaching effect on the game, for clubs, players, the media and supporters alike. However, it is in the area of player recruitment that the data FM offers is being most widely used, and this has to some degree split the football world.
For sceptics who don’t believe that analytics is a useful tool in the recruitment process, the argument runs along the lines that facts and figures don’t tell the whole story — you need to see players in the flesh. What this ignores, however, is that fact that the scouting and player data used in Football Manager is as rooted in reality as any other method of assessing player potential.
A player’s passing accuracy, for instance, is based on their performance and reflects how they perform in a match — it is not a simulation or a projection, but rather a detailed reflection of what they do on the pitch. And while no-one would suggest signing a player based purely on the analytics, what this data does is to help clubs narrow down their searches to potential targets who fill the needs of their particular squad requirements.
Critics will also point to those players who the data suggests should have been able to make it with a particular club or in a certain league, but who ultimately fail to live up to expectations. At the same time, however, it has to be remembered that ‘real-life’ scouting has a similar catalog of failures behind it as well. No amount of statistical data can mitigate for the fact that football is played by human beings who may not fulfill their potential for any number of reasons. A player whose data profile suggests should be a world beater but ends up plugging away in the lower leagues does not invalidate the use of analytics across the board.
However, even the most ardent adherents of the use of analytics as a tool to aid recruitment will acknowledge that the way data is presented, who has access to it and, crucially, the degree to which everyone is on board with it, will ultimately determine how successful a statistical model of recruitment turns out to be.
Fulham is perhaps one of the best high-profile examples of where analytics have been used as a primary recruiting tool but where the results have been mixed at best.
In early 2016, Fulham vice-chairman Tony Khan brought American data analyst Craig Kline to the Championship club to become the director of statistical recruitment. Kline’s relationship with manager Slavisa Jokanovic, reportedly not good from the outset, appeared to break down entirely at the end of the 2016 transfer window when Kline apparently vetoed bringing in a number of the Serbian manager’s potential targets, most notably Andreas Pereira on loan from Manchester United.
It was reported that Kline’s system of statistical analysis (his own, not that used by FM) was the final yardstick as to whether the club went ahead with recruiting a player, and this his views were given more weight and credence than those of Jokanovic or Fulham’s network of scouts.
After some fairly public spats, in which Jokanovic was openly critical of Kline and the club in the media, the relationship broke down in October 2017, when Kline abruptly left Fulham after a reported bust-up at the club’s Motspur Park training ground.
However, while critics of analytics were quick to seize on the Fulham fiasco as a sign that statistical recruitment was a failure, it needs to be remembered that Jokanovic was not hostile to analytics per se — rather, he questioned the prominence the club gave to this one aspect of the recruitment process and that stats were being used as the final arbiter as to whether a player was worth signing or not. (Nevertheless, since Kline’s departure it should be noted that Jokanovic has once more assumed a more central role in player recruitment, and most observers would agree Fulham had an outstanding January transfer window in 2018 which has seen them consolidate a place in the play-offs.)
Ultimately, in an information age where we have more data than ever available to us and accessing that data has never been quicker or simpler, it makes sense for every avenue to be explored when it comes to finding new players. And with transfer fees continuing to skyrocket to outlandish proportions, every club is looking for ways of finding that player who can make a difference but who everyone else has overlooked, meaning that he is both attainable and affordable. Using Football Manager’s analytics is unquestionably one-way clubs can get this edge.
Anyone in the football industry who thinks that Football Manager has no role in their player recruitment process, or that the information and data it provides on players isn’t useful in the ‘real world’, is clearly is going to be left behind. That bargain buy who helps a club in a promotion race, or saves them from the drop, might be right in front of their eyes, and missing the opportunity could be incredibly costly. With the riches on offer in football today, where the rewards for success are so huge, no-one who has the best interests of a football club at heart can afford to take that risk.