When Schalke 04 signed Guido Burgstaller from FC Nürnberg, it was a sign of relief. A big club looked beyond the clubs of its kind and found a ripe player at the height of his career, or nearing it and they found him in a second division side. Schalke have done so on many occasions. This might be down to their well-coveted relationship with Nürnberg, but it’s also a case of brilliant scouting. And scouting, the art of those hungry for knowledge, is the way forward.
We’ve seen Bayern Munich handpick players for years. We’ve seen players in other European leagues who have been ‘bound for’ one of the majestic super clubs in Europe. This is as much a question of appeal as it is of money. For while money is alluring, the appeal of Real Madrid, PSG, Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern Munich is often impossible to compete with.
Most leagues have one of these teams. Sweden has Malmö FF, a club with financial funds, but with an ever-growing appeal that trumps all other. Switzerland has FC Basel, a club with diverse funds, but with great appeal and record. Belgium has Anderlecht, Denmark has FC Copenhagen, Norway has Rosenborg and Scotland has Celtic. These are the clubs that will always be the first choice of domestic transfers, clubs that can direct national trends and that tend to win more titles than they give up. There are only one or two countries in Europe with more than one team like this: Italy. Because while Juventus do have the majority of the funds, Milan and Inter both have the appeal of multi-champions. This is mainly down to the turbulent and shifting history of Italian football, a history full of deceit, betrayal and successful dynasties.
So how do the teams behind this cope? How do teams behind manage to grow as companies and as clubs? If these appealing clubs are always first choice for talents and stars, how can the clubs behind even survive? The answer has become clearer and clearer throughout the last few years. It’s not simple, the art of those hungry for knowledge, but it’s worth the time and money. Scouting has become key for all football clubs behind the ‘Galacticos’ or Rekordmeisters and its importance grows every week.
Liverpool have found the way. Mohamed Salah was signed from AS Roma, Sadio Mané from Southampton and Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. These are clubs that have been nowhere near their respective domestic dominators and the acquisition of these players does therefore crave a fair share of scouting. For when you are a club behind the top, it’s very important to get the right players. Otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of useless runners on high salaries. Liverpool´s front three proves that it’s possible to acquire quality from lesser known clubs (In relation to Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich).
Hoffenheim is another club with some rigorous scouting. They’ve grown in the last two years and have become a regular in the tremendous race for Europe, but they’ve also experienced what it’s like to be in the sun for too long. They lost their two main performers to Bayern, the dominators of Germany, and have recently lost Sandro Wagner as well. To replace these, they’ve looked at their scouting network and found replacements. Florian Grillitsch was brought in from Werder Bremen to replace Sebastian Rudy, which he has done tremendously well.
A few players were brought in to cover at centre back and all these are examples of rigorous scouting. Justin Hoogma was signed from Heracles Almelo. He was a lesser known alternative to Matthijs De Ligt or even Rick van Drongelen. While he hasn’t yet featured in the Bundesliga, expect him to develop into a great centre back in a few years’ time. Scouting tends to be long term as often as its short term. As a more acute replacement, Håvard Nordtveit was signed from West Ham. The former Arsenal and Borussia Mönchengladbach defender had a tough time at the London Stadium and was brought in for a cheap sum. Nordtveit’s obvious strengths lie in defence and while the signing has been questioned, his attributes makes him a very capable replacement for Niklas Süle. He also possesses the ability to fill in at defensive midfield if Grillitsch or Dennis Geiger needs a rest. This is the way of those in the shadow. Spend some time in the sun, get burnt, recover and then get out into the sun again. Every time a club sells their players to a domestic dominator, their economic abilities improve. It’s the way of those in the shadow and it’s clever.
Eintracht Frankfurt is another. While we’ve already published a piece discussing Eintracht’s brilliant scouting, it’s worth recapping. When Kevin Trapp was sold to PSG, most wondered who this Finnish-Slovakian chap from Bröndby was. Lukas Hradecky? Most fans had never heard his name before. Would Eintracht focus on newly acquired Heinz Lindner perhaps? Was Hradecky the second-choice goalkeeper? Many questions were raised after Trapp’s departure and Lukas’ arrival, but most critical voices were abruptly silenced when he saved Eintracht from relegation in the spring of 2016.
The whole relegation play-off spectacle was a monument of Eintracht’s decent scouting. Mijat Gacinovic, arguable the player of the play-off, was signed for almost nothing from Serbian side Vojvodina in 2015. He was a kid with unknown and uncharted ability, signed for almost nothing from an obscure league in the East. Gacinovic has since enlightened us all. His speed with the ball at his feet, his vision and technical prowess has propelled him into the hearts of many and it all began when Eintracht signed an unknown Serbian in 2015. An example of scouting expertise, more than anything else.
Schalke signed Amine Harit, Mönchengladbach signed Mickael Cuisance, RasenballSport Leipzig signed Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté. Clubs behind the absolute top, signing players of lesser quality, but with obvious potential.
These are clear cases of an increased influx of players with lower ability, cases where clubs have focused on their own future rather than their now. This has historically payed off as well. Clubs who do this tend to reach a commendable economic stature, based upon signing players cheap to develop and sell them for a hefty fee. For the clubs behind the economical dominators, this is and will continue to be the way forward. It makes it possible for clubs to earn huge sums of money on an annual basis, money that can be reinvested in their own facilities or their own academy. Schalke 04 have done this for some time now and have become experts at developing young talents into real superstars, or at least superstars-to-be. This must be seen as a direct product of a scouting focus, which is encouraging for other clubs.
While Schalke is a clear example of how young players can be developed, Frankfurt have become a perfect example of how older players can be developed into better and more attractive players. The scouting network of Frankfurt selects players that have the raw ability, no matter of their age. Then it’s down to the coaches and the manager to mould these players into better versions of themselves, something Eintracht obviously have done very well. One could even say that this is one of the main reasons to Eintracht’s rise.
German clubs in general have become good at this. Bayern’s dominance combined with the 50+1 rule makes it difficult for clubs to sign top players. Therefore, the players behind the top have been covered by scouts and subsequently even signed. While some argue that this is a sign of German clubs’ fall from grace, many think it’s a healthy sign of clubs realising their own financial limits, thus stopping at a normal level. Furthermore, this tactic won’t in any way harm German football. Quite on the opposite. This tactic will heavily improve the German club structures and will result in more financially stable clubs, clubs that might just be able to take the next step. More stable clubs will provide an enhanced platform for development, which in return will make clubs even more competitive. To develop as a club, you sometimes need to take a step back and realise your own being. No doubt fans are thrilled to see German clubs choosing this path, for it sows the seeds of a blissful future.
By Axel Falk.