Pop quiz: Which club were Concacaf's top spenders in the global transfer market in 2020, at least according to FIFA's official report on the topic?
The answer is Vancouver Whitecaps FC. And while people both inside the club and out have some questions about the global governing body’s calculation methods, it hints at the extent of the roster makeover during CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster’s first year at BC Place, as well as the club’s determination to improve their standing in the MLS Western Conference.
Now the ‘Caps have recruited one of world soccer’s most intriguing analytical minds to make that process more efficient. A year in the making, the hiring of Nikos Overheul as their new director of recruitment caps a significant buildout of VWFC’s scouting department – and a commitment, perhaps, to some of the sport’s most innovative ideas.
Just don’t box him in as “the data guy,” even if the Dutchman’s resume does feature analytics heavyweights like Opta, StatsBomb and two of Europe’s more progressive clubs in this department, English Championship side Brentford FC and Denmark’s FC Midtjylland.
“Obviously you have data, that's just numbers, that's nothing,” Overheul explained in an in-depth conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week. “Then you need data analysts, statisticians, whoever, to turn that into insights. But that is also nothing, that is meaningless if that isn't translated in some form into actual decision-making.
“I'm not a statistician, I'm not a programmer. My expertise is roughly in, okay, so you have that stuff. You have data or whatever, how do you use that? How do you help?”
Overheul has built a reputation for spotting undervalued talent and overlooked opportunities for marginal gains in some of the game’s most fiercely competitive environments. Dwelling in the space between coaches, executives and number-crunchers, he’s shown a knack for both perception and communication, equally adept at sifting through hours of video footage and translating reams of raw information into action items, from signings to set-piece routines.
“The majority of what I do is just watch players. I watch a lot of video – too much, sometimes. Like, if you’re four games deep into the Cypriot league, you wish you could just do a spreadsheet,” Overheul said with a chuckle. “The core of my job is essentially to take all the information available and sort of weigh the different sources – so, one scouting report versus the other, one specific metric versus the other, background information, financial information. The goal of our processes is to collect all of that information, and to then hopefully render a judgment based on that.”
Consider the persistent overachievement of Midtjylland, a previously modest club who have won three Danish league titles since 2015 and killed a few giants in UEFA competition. And Brentford, the small West London outfit contending in the Championship’s highest reaches despite selling off well over $100 million worth of players over the past few years. No one in England’s top two divisions has cleared more profit on the transfer market lately.
They’ve done so by using advanced data and statistics, sniffing out smart transfer deals and exploiting non-traditional opportunities for advantage, like set pieces and even throw-ins. Both are owned by Matthew Benham, an Oxford physics graduate turned professional gambler who started his own stat-crunching betting company, Smartodds, which combs through enormous quantities of information in order to pinpoint trends and gems that others miss.
Expected goals. Ball progression. Middle-third passing. Average shot distance. Even “retaining possession from throw-ins under pressure” is a valued metric – or a KPI (key performance indicator), to use the terminology of the moment. These are just a few examples of the data points that lead Benham’s clubs to zig where most others zag, inspiring even the likes of Liverpool to copycat.
The Whitecaps believe this sort of logical, but unconventional approach can add precious value to their decisions and investments.
“We are not the first club and by far not the only club that is going that route,” Schuster told MLSsoccer.com. “The point is that as I arrived here in November 2019, we had zero – zero, really, zero! – scouting and recruitment departments. We had not one employee working at that, all the work was done by the coaches, and then simultaneous to their normal work.
“It was a clear ask from the ownership to me to build a scouting and recruitment department. And so of course, if you have a [blank] paper, you do it in that way you're convinced of, and I'm totally convinced that classical scouting can work for clubs, but in my opinion, it’s not the best way to do it. Because the classical scouting costs a lot of time. If you go live and watch the games, it also costs a lot of money. And there is never a guarantee.”
Vancouver are hoping to get an advantage with this new branch of recruitment | USA Today Sports
Overheul, who's been working for the ‘Caps on a consultancy basis for the past several months as he waited on visa paperwork and the like, has long been interested in MLS’s unique aspects, even as he climbed to prominence on the European scene.
“It’s funny, a friend of mine actually reminded me of this recently, that I had said a few years ago already that I could see myself landing in MLS,” he said. “It is a league – and also because of North American sports culture – that is, I think, more welcoming for someone like me. Because for instance, my job isn't director of analytics. I'm not framed as the data guy. I am director of recruitment, which is an unusual thing, to be very explicitly hired for a non-analytics job because of the analytics background. That’s a different type of hire.”
This league’s array of salary budgets, roster rules and acquisition mechanisms can be daunting for newcomers. Vancouver face their own specific context as a Canadian club who routinely log the most travel miles in MLS, and have lately become the youngest squad in the league under coach Marc Dos Santos. They’ve failed to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for three years running, but see reasons for optimism in their form at the end of 2020 and plan to build from there, with an emphasis on selective upgrades after last year’s sweeping rebuild.
Overheul said Schuster has given him “a significant amount of freedom” in structuring his department, which is working off detailed files of positional profiles and priorities. Neither are keen to divulge too many details – “we still want also to keep a little bit of a black box,” said Schuster – but some of the general ideas are defensive organization, swift transitions, high collective work rate, a steady flow of academy-reared Homegrowns and cultivation of young talents with big upside.
“The difference between the least-spending teams and the biggest-spending teams isn't that big [in MLS]. It's still significant, but it's not as big as in, for example, the English Premier League,” said Overheul.
“Which means that, at least in theory, all teams have a chance to compete. If you join, I don’t know, the 17th[-placed] team in England, you know that you're not going to win. You’re not even going to come close. And in MLS that's different. Any team can, at least theoretically, win if they do a good job. That's interesting. The constraints also force you to be creative and to really think about things. You can't solve problems just by chucking more money at the problem.”
As skilled as he is at sifting through reams of quantitative data and gleaning actionable conclusions, Overheul is blunt about the need for methodical growth, realistic expectations and (eventually) concrete results.
“It doesn't matter if a club is data-driven or not. What matters is if they make good decisions,” he said. “Because of course, it's very possible that a club is data-driven, but it's still making bad decisions every single day. So yeah, great, you’re data-driven, but you’re bottom of the table.
“We try to get better every day. And that's really all you can do. And hopefully, over time, those slight advantages will add up to a big one, and we can get back into the playoffs, which I think is something that this team and this club really, really needs.”