Recently I became self aware of how much I had developed a ‘mental game model’ and it’s subsequent impact on the way that I perceive players, and to an extent, teams. While I’d argue that I am able to still identify where/when a player is good, there’s an entirely different argument when looking to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘great’ and what goes into these thought processes. Scouting is a much deeper process than many people care to acknowledge, this isn’t just separating the player from their own team but also considering how they’d fit into new circumstances. It requires reviewing a wide variety of body types, positions, skills and mental aspects. This is where I think at times, almost everyone, finds themselves running into bias-driven stumbling blocks.
One of the ones that I see the least discussion about is the one that I’m going to talk about initially, although not everyone has this, is how your own life experiences are formative on your ability to evaluate players. To an extent also, this all applies to tactical systems as well.
To give context for anyone who doesn’t know me personally, I’m very tall, and have been my whole life. I played mostly as a striker or left winger, at times also playing defensive mid. Funny looking back on that…
This is largely why tall forwards, players like Gakpo and Nunez who are somewhat anomalies for their respective positions, pique my personal interest. Often, without even thinking, we develop these little biases towards players that we see something about ourselves in. These can be small or big traits, some for me are powerful ball striking (a love for Szoboszlai) or forwards who can’t head a ball (Gakpo) are some examples.
These tend to be small influencers, and maybe won’t impact decision-making at clubs, but I have found that they’re interesting when considering the players that we gravitate towards and this subtopic can act as a fun thought exercise.
This section acts as a bridge between the more considered aspects of tactics and technical biases, and some personal things. It might only be applicable to me, but I suspect there are a lot of people who haven’t even realized the way that their own personality influences them.
For a long time now, the bio on my private Twitter was “I like my life the way I like my football: fast and caffeinated” which, while a bit funny, is also a major piece of who I am. A lot of people would describe me as over-active, intense or hyperactive. This has also always been my favorite style of football, and although I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of them, this has still been almost a dominating ‘rule’ of what kinds of football I enjoy consuming in bulk.
A lot of people don’t have these extremities, though another one that I know is a friend of mine who is a very even-keel person that is a huge fan of possession-oriented football, where control is prioritized over the chaos. Most people probably land somewhere in the middle, meaning that your personality won’t always influence this.
Tactical ‘Beliefs’ or ‘Preferences’
One of my favorite illustrations of this entire premise is above, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp at the peak of their reign in the Premier League have both been incredibly similar, yet incredibly different. The ruling similar factor here? Success.
And yet, there are people who will bend over backwards to discredit either of them, despite them having combined for well in excess of 40 trophies won. While at times fan rivalries will also cloud insight (maybe a fifth topic in itself) these two are polarizing because they represent what people perceive as the extremities of two differing styles of play. While this argument of control vs. chaos is somewhat going out of ‘style’ in favor of a more positioning-oriented debate, this can be continued into any number of tactical conversations.
This was one of the most major influencing factors in writing this for me, particularly because so much of player scouting is tactically involved. Being able to understand biases in these areas will help make personal work more beneficial, so while I may have a tilt towards players with more ‘intensity’ to their play style, understanding this ensures introspection. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I have this mental image of “How a John Zuidema” team would play. I’m not saying it would be successful, but I’d be able to submit a UEFA Pro thesis tomorrow if you asked me.
A major part of this is also understanding the system that you’re scouting for, a majority of people who work in scouting probably don’t get the opportunity to work under their dream system. This turns the bias into a double-edged problem. After noticing an inherent bias, one must also understand how this affects their perception of play styles or players within various systems, to make more accurate reports. The second side of this is also understanding how these players will transfer to a system that you also are not a huge proponent of.
Biases in this area can do major damage to our evaluation of a player and subsequent evaluation of their fit to another side.
My favorite section to talk about because every single human being on this planet has developed these. While not everyone has this idea of a tactical model they enjoy specifically, everyone has players of similar models that they enjoy. Some very obvious examples for me fall under this “Messi category” of left-footed right wingers. Messi, Mahrez, Saka are some names that come to mind immediately.
While I’m not disputing the quality of these three players in any capacity, at times I believe we have a tendency to rate a player somewhat beyond their actual ability just due to this ‘aesthetically pleasing’ element of their play. At times, this also leads to massively underrating just how good a player can be. Wout Weghorst’s transfer to United is a great example of this. As a player he is far from a ‘sexy’ transfer, nobody is here to dispute that. But what Weghorst brings to a side is incredibly valuable. He has spent his career as one of the most consistent pressers in the Bundesliga, acts as an incredible box presence, and at least a sufficient outlet to win balls in the air. Why is it that so many people are adverse to his signing though?
I’d argue that while a large part of is the aforementioned belief that all football signings have to be some big name, it’s also because Wout Weghorst is just a player who does his job. He might not do anything that particularly wow’s fans on the pitch, but this is where the biases come into play. At times, many people will have a tilt towards the player who can take on 10 opponents at once, or score 30 yard screamers, while neglecting the players who can play a major role in a team’s overall success.
These technical biases can be a real problem when working professionally, because at times it’s hard to even realize you’re falling into the trap. “Look at this winger who created a shot by taking on two players!” can quickly become prioritized over the player who consistently slips in passes behind a defensive line or combines well with a fullback.
These biases are seen everyday, and while at times I think this concept can be seen as something purely damaging or a major problem, I think biases are a normal piece of being a human being. Understanding the way that they can influence beliefs is what matters.
In a nice dose of irony, a few of these examples are actually the opposite for me. My favorite was never the tall and somewhat lanky forward Ronaldo, it was Messi. My tactical preferences might be high intensity football, but I prefer the slow and methodical midfielders like Kroos over the speedy, pesky ones. It’s funny how so many things come together to form these ‘beliefs’ on how we like our football. One of the maybe more recently lost arts in football analysis is removing our own preconceived notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on the pitch, but being willing to appreciate, understand, or critique any kind of football.