Whether it’s the Georgian Premier League or an under-17 youth tournament in rural Brazil, Mickael Marques has his finger on the pulse. In a wide-ranging interview, spanning the potential pitfalls encountered by young footballers in the digital age, why direct wingers may be a thing of the past, and everything in-between, Get French Football News sat down with the apprentice scout to get his low-down on the state of the modern game.
First of all, thanks for joining us today. Like most people around the world, I imagine your work has been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 situation. How has the pandemic affected the way scouts work?
On a personal level, as my work isn’t performed in a professional capacity, I’ve never needed to go to the grounds and watch games live in order to conduct my research, it’s always been done via video. That said, whether you’re an amateur or a professional, I think the current restrictions have forced us all to work digitally. Maybe in 3 or 4 months, when the situation has improved a little, we’ll be able to get back into the stadiums and work accordingly. So, for the time being, the only way to evaluate players and follow their progress is to do so online.
Has there been a rise in scouts using social network platforms like Instagram, Twitter and YouTube?
I’m not personally on Instagram, so I don’t know if there are many pages on there. Twitter seems to be the main source of content, however, with most pages specialising in different themes. Whether that is specific leagues, or content produced uniquely in certain languages, there is a variety of different content. Some pages are more data focused, some dedicated to videos, some specialising principally in written assessments of players. There really is something for every type of football fan.
Have players themselves sought out new ways of getting scouted? i.e video montages on these same platforms?
It’s true that these platforms allow you to showcase your talents or get noticed, even. If you can get yourself noticed and talked about, it’s going to help, but it’s not necessarily the case that you will find yourself a club by having a good video montage of skills on YouTube, for example. Scouts, or the scouting network in general, can’t work solely based on videos of players doing skills or drills in manicured, pre-prepared situations. It has to be done by watching them in real-game situations, how they cope over the duration of the 90 minutes. That said, self-promotion is an important facet for some young players – the ability to get a few likes or a bit of notoriety on these sites is something they may look for nowadays and can potentially prove beneficial further down the line.
Could you say there is a power struggle, at times, between scouts finding players, and players trying to get scouted?
I wouldn’t say so, no. Sometimes in my case, when I’m contacted by players, it’s more of a collaborative discussion around performance analysis, whether there are certain facets of their game that I have seen that I think can be improved. I don’t think there is a sense of competition between the two, more a recognition that both groups can help each other.
Is there any truth in the idea that some footballers are more interested in being stars on social media than fully-fledged professional footballers?
It’s a little difficult to say at the moment. While it’s true that this generation of footballers have been immersed in the social media age, where marketing and self-promotion goes along way, I think it’s potentially too early to say. I believe we’re still at the dawn of social media’s influence on the footballing sphere. Maybe this new generation coming through will exhibit different characteristics, whereby marketing and other factors play a part in a player’s success as opposed to pure footballing ability. In any case, when a footballer does break through, it’s because, above all, they’re a fantastic professional and not because they’re a star on social media platforms. Well at least I hope not, it will be a sad day if we get to that point.
I was thinking of the case of Hachim Mastour or more recently, Xavi Simons, where these players are almost stars at a very young age before even reaching the first team.
Yeah of course, there are some young players that can do incredible things with the ball at their feet, but this isn’t going to guarantee them success in the professional game. To be a real success, you have to demonstrate more than just great technique – whether that’s your mentality, your professionalism or the people you have around you. It goes without saying that there are a lot of important facets that dictate whether a player will have a long and successful career. I think that’s the trouble with these platforms at times, it’s quite easy to garner attention if you have clips of you taking the ball past 3 or 4 players and scoring with ease, but there needs to be a balance between being able to do the spectacular and mastering the fundamentals.
Do you think the rise in video games (FIFA career mode/PES/Football Manager) has had an influence on the increased interest in youth football and youth prospects in particular?
I think the games you have mentioned can be a gateway to an interest in youth football or youth prospects. They might provide you with the opportunity of hearing of a certain player for the first time, but it’s important to remember that these are games meant for the virtual world and not necessarily representative of reality. Therefore, your judgements or opinions on a certain player should not be based on their in-game characteristics. But for me, growing up, when it was only possible to watch the big 5 leagues and where youth games and streams weren’t so readily available, games such as these did give me that first-hand experience of looking-up young players that I had seen on the game and duly following their progress as they got older. These games helped broaden my horizons in regard to leagues and championships all around the globe as opposed to just the major ones in Europe, and this is something that has obviously stayed with me.
And is this something that has played a part in what you do now?
Yeah, for me, when playing these games, I always enjoyed constructing a team made up of lesser-known players, spending hours researching them and purchasing them for small sums, as opposed to spending loads on well-known players. The more I researched these players and got to know them, that’s when I started sharing my thoughts on Twitter. I think that is something that has followed me to this day, as I thoroughly enjoy finding players from all over and studying them to see what they can offer.
The story of Memphis Depay using a data analytics firm to find his next club (Lyon) is well-known – do you know of any others in the world of youth football?
I definitely think the usage of data, performance analysis and maybe even specialist companies are going to become much more commonplace in the years to come. I think there was something recently about Kevin De Bruyne using an analytics firm to prove his worth to Man City when talks were held over prolonging his contract, and we may hear more stories of that ilk soon. I think it can be a useful tool for all invested parties, whether that be players, clubs, agents or whoever else. Nevertheless, however useful these tools may be, we still need to take into consideration the human aspect of potential transfers. Will a player suit a certain atmosphere? Will a player get along with his new teammates? It’s imperative we bear in mind factors that data programmes may not be able to deduce. But to echo my previous thoughts, I’m sure it will be used more and more by clubs, players and agents in the coming years.
Are there any particular clubs producing top-tier talents at the moment? Any specific reasons why? Rennes have been pretty successful in bringing through players recently. Camavinga / Truffert / Maouassa / Rutter / Soppy, PSG equally in the mid-to-late 2010’s – Rabiot / Coman / Kimpembe / Nkunku.
I would say Lyon, not just because they are my club, but objectively speaking too. In terms of its academy, it’s up there with the best domestically, in France, and even Europe. I think, like for most clubs, a successful academy is born from the fruits of its investment. This investment can be used to develop the club’s infrastructure or develop the coaches and educators within the club. Along with its academy, a club’s scouting network is equally as important. I believe these two aspects should work in unison and consequently serve as the pillars of any club.
This season, Toulouse have encapsulated that principle. We have seen the emergence of a few young players this season, which has been welcome, given their recent struggles. They’ve managed to find that right balance of youngsters who know the club and experienced heads from abroad. It’s always useful to have home-grown players in the first team as it breeds a sense of identity.
For a lot of clubs, heavy investment into the academy is the most sustainable model for success. It’s vital that these clubs remember the investment they have made in their youth players. A lot of players end up leaving prematurely due to the need for game time. Take Amine Gouiri for example, formed at Lyon, been there for ages, but due to a lack of action, he left for Nice and has now taken off. Obviously, this is not the case for all young players that leave their formative club early on in their careers.
When clubs start spending €15m-20m on players from elsewhere on a whim, this directly affects the value of those they have formed themselves. The further down the pecking order they go, the less they’re worth. In order to sell players, especially young ones at the start of their career, they need to have had the time to generate a sell-on value.
This is why some clubs who are more inclined to spend money flippantly on players encounter issues. A perfect balance has to be struck between the scouting departments and the academy so that one doesn’t directly impact the other or the club doesn’t become too dependent on one or the other.
We speak a lot about DNA of a club in England, whereby a certain style of play is embedded from the youth teams to the first team. Do you think this is important?
It can certainly facilitate an easier transition to the first team. If the style of play is the same between the youth-teams and the first team, certain things will come naturally. They will know what is expected of them in both the offensive and defensive phase, which positions to take up etc. The caveat being that one pre-defined way of playing can be quite restrictive. This will force you to rely on one style of player and inhibit players with certain profiles.
But at the end of the day, clubs that adopt this strategy must know what they’re looking to get out of it and have the utmost confidence in their ability to do so.
We’ve heard a lot about the explosion of talent coming through from the Parisian suburbs. Are there any other notable areas of France that are producing large numbers of talent?
I’m not a specialist in terms of domestic talent, but along with the Ile-de-France, the region around Lyon is pretty well-stocked. You can see, even in the French national team, the sheer volume of players that come from Paris and its surrounding areas.
How do you explain certain countries producing specific types of talent? English/French wide attackers (Sterling, Rashford, Sancho, Grealish, Coman, Dembélé, Martial, Mbappé) left-sided centre-backs in the case of the French (Kimpembe/Laporte/Lenglet/Umtiti/Zagadou) Right backs in England (Walker, Trent, James, Wan-Bissaka, Lamptey, Aarons)?
You could argue it stems from certain initiatives put forward by the individual federations which invariably filters down to the clubs. Maybe there is a dearth of prospects in certain positions or players of a certain profile are needed. Clubs are then encouraged to find and develop talent that can plug the gap. That said, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to each position. You can have players that play the same position that have different profiles. Look at Jules Koundé, for example, he’s not the tallest, but he has other characteristics that make him a top-level central defender. Ultimately, it’s down to the coaches to harness a player’s ability and help mould them to become the best they can be.
Have there been any changes in what clubs are now looking for from players? Any specific/special characteristics? Are clubs focusing on physical capacities or concentrating on tactical awareness?
It depends on each club I suppose, but generally speaking, players that are versatile and able adapt to different scenarios. Players that can interchange between different positions within a game or even within a certain phase of play. This is what’s great about watching youth football – you see little tactical quirks and ideas developing that eventually occur in the professional game. I remember explicitly watching Fluminense U17 and the attacking trio had this incredible flexibility about them, it was like a perpetual rotation among them that allowed each of them to play wide, through the middle and come from deep. These players that are tactically proficient and able to perform different roles adapt quicker to both the needs of their coach and tactical tweaks made by the opposition.
Do you think we will see players hitting the first team a little later than we have seen in recent years? More around the ages of 19/20/21 as opposed to 17/18/19? Owing to the pandemic and the disruptions to seasons, fixtures and game-time?
While it’s true that the pandemic has really affected youth football and the development of certain players has been halted dramatically, I think the corresponding economic effects may eventually force the hand of certain clubs to integrate their youth prospects even earlier than we have seen in recent years. Clubs may have to start selling their star players, and as result, will be inclined to promote from within. In any case, the clubs have to ensure these young players are ready to make the set-up and not just throw them in due to a lack of alternatives.
Now, to talk a little about yourself, what does a typical day look like for Micky ElScout?
I try and watch as many games as possible – whether that’s in the morning or late at night. The time of day obviously dictates which leagues I will watch too. I’ll try and make a plan and stick to it as much as possible. In the morning, it might be a game from the Far East, in the afternoon games in Europe and then at night, it might be a game from North, South, or Central America. I’ll make sure to check the line-ups too, as sometimes I will plan to watch a game just to follow a certain player. Thanks to these different streams and broadcasters, I can take a little journey round the globe.
Do you always know what you’re looking for when watching games? Have you got a checklist?
It depends whether I’m watching a game with a player I know or not. In general, I try and watch the game as it is, for sure there are times when I will focus on certain aspects of a player’s game – maybe what they do off the ball for example. It’s important to take into account the context of the whole game, how did they perform overall, how did they react to certain situations, how did they do both with and without the ball.
And how long does it take for you to formulate a concrete opinion on a player?
5 or 6 matches I would say – there are a lot of different facets of a player’s game to analyse and not just the tangibles too. Home and away games, games in certain conditions weather-wise, games against stronger opponents, games in which their team is likely to dominate.
We’ve seen that you pay a lot of attention to lesser-known leagues, are there any specific reasons for this?
It’s mainly for professional reasons, I suppose. If I were to work with a club, it wouldn’t be for Manchester United or Manchester City, for example, who already have such an established network of scouts, it would likely be for a club who would need to use these lesser-known markets. It’s such a subjective thing though, there are certain leagues that I like to watch, that may not appeal to others. In the same way, there are certain teams I like to watch. Personally, I love watching Dinamo Tbilisi because they rely heavily on their academy. They have a young central midfielder called Luka Gagnidze that has really impressed me. That’s why I watch these games from far-flung leagues, as you never know when you might stumble across a player that really captures your attention.
And what do you do when you find these players?
Firstly, I keep a written trace of what I have found. Sometimes, I might be contacted by agents that are looking for players that fit a certain profile, and this background work will enable me to advise them in the best way possible. Often, I just do it for my own enjoyment too. It makes me happy when I discover unknown players, and a few years down the line, they start finding success. Take Terem Moffi, for example, I first spotted him in 2019 while playing in Lithuania, and now, when I mention his name, you know who he is. Moises Caicedo too (who signed for Brighton in February). It’s nice to get a head-start on the wider football community and see what happens with these players as their careers progress.
You must have good eye, as we’ve seen a report from a few years back on Gabriel Martinelli….
To talk a little bit about Gabriel Martinelli, I discovered him during a local youth tournament in Brazil and he subsequently joined first team at Ituano. You could see immediately that he had something about him. I wish I could have made some calls to the Lyon board to get him to sign – he was that good! That’s all thanks to a decent streaming site. Nowadays, there is such a proliferation of good quality streaming sites where you can watch games from different leagues, even youth games, in good quality. It’s great that these clubs and federations seem to be intent on showcasing their young talent through the broadcasting of games on streaming sites and other platforms. It often means that it’s easier to watch youth games in Mexico, Russia, Ukraine or wherever else than it is to watch a game in France. It’s just a case of knowing where and when to look. The more you watch and the more you search – the easier it becomes.
The diffusion of such matches is in the clubs’ best interest, right? If we take the case of Gabriel Martinelli, for example. His subsequent transfer earned his formative club a decent sum of money….
Yeah, it all ties together. Putting a light on young talent through the broadcasting of these games can increase their value, take the case of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo for example, moving on to Real Madrid for extortionate sums of money. Not just that, but for the benefit of the fans too. In my case, I want to know what the future generation of my club looks like, I want to see which young players I should be keeping my eye on. It allows fans an insight into the development of the academy and, through engagement, enhances the bond between the club and its supporters.
Have you noticed any current positional gaps? Is there a dearth of prospects in certain positions?
I don’t know whether it’s just me, but I think there are fewer and fewer old-fashioned wingers that hug the touchline and bomb forward. A lot of players that play on the flanks are now inverted wingers that look to cut inside. Arguably, this is due to the advancement in the role of full backs that now play as de-facto wingers.
So, after Gabriel Martinelli and Moises Caicedo, can you name-drop any other players that you think have a big future?
It’s always difficult to predict, and it’s also hard to gauge who is and isn’t already well-known, but there are a few players in South America that I would recommend keeping an eye on: Yerson Mosquera, Piero Hincapie, Alan Velasco, David Ayala.
Finally, in your opinion, are there any nations in the midst of cultivating a golden generation of players?
USA. I think the infiltration of young American players in European academies has pushed the national team to another level. As the national team becomes more competitive, the interest among Americans increases. I think it’s a win-win situation for the game at a domestic level too, as the standard of the national team will likely influence the standard of the MLS too.
By Alex Clementson