Euro 2022 stadiums full and a big hole: scouting
SHEFFIELD, England — Vicky Jepson hasn’t found driving so bad. He’s spent much of July on the road, racking up somewhere north of a thousand miles in just a couple of weeks.
His trajectory looks so random at first glance that it looks like he’s trying to shake his tail: London to Manchester, down to Brighton seafront, north again to the remarkable market town of Leigh – then back to the south coast before striding back to Leigh.
Still, a lot of thought has gone into every mile. Each stop has allowed Jepson, with the help of the Tottenham Hotspur Women’s manager, to take part in one more game at Euro 2022: at one point she had nine matches in just 15 days.
They were not chosen at random. Jepson went to a few games to see how the best teams in Europe played, paying particular attention to how they built up their play from defence. He went to others to see specific players.
However, what has often caught his eye is not so much how they play, but who they are. “It’s only when you see the players in person that you get a sense of what they’re like as people,” he said. “You see how they react in certain situations. How do they recover from scoring? Do they stay focused after going forward?
Spurs, like almost every club in the English Women’s Super League, could not afford to miss the opportunity to see all the best players in Europe in one place. And it’s not just Jepson who has been out and about: the Tottenham manager, goalkeeping coach and analyst has spent as much time on England’s motorways as he has. Almost all of its rivals have done the same.
For all of them, the information gathered will prove invaluable. Euro 2022 has allowed them to refine scouting reports on players they’ve been monitoring for some time, and keep an eye on anyone they may have previously overlooked.
“Having this in our backyard has been a great opportunity,” Jepson said. “There are things you just don’t see on screen.”
During the first few weeks of the tournament, as Jepson and his colleagues traveled the country, Euro 2022 seemed to break a different record every day.
England’s opening night win at Old Trafford attracted the largest crowd in the tournament’s history. The Netherlands’ win against Switzerland last weekend saw the highest ever attendance for a non-host game. Midway through the group stage, Euro 2022 has already attracted more fans than any previous competition. Every day seemed to be another piece of evidence of the breakneck speed and extent of the rise of women’s football in Europe in general and in England in particular.
This booming popularity is reflected in the growth of the continent’s various domestic leagues, and in particular the investment made by the WSL. The highest paid player in the world, Sam Kerr, plays in England. So does Pernille Harder, the most expensive signing in women’s history. A third of the Sweden squad hoping to deny the hosts a place in Tuesday night’s final are already playing in England, as is Holland’s top striker and one of Norway’s best playmakers.
However, the investment in players has not always been equal behind the scenes. The reason Jepson has racked up so many miles this month is simple. Like most teams in the WSL, Tottenham have access to digital recruiting platform Wyscout, as well as data feeds of potential targets provided by InStat and Statsbomb. It lacks one dedicated Girl Scout.
This applies to most teams in the WSL and across Europe. In interviews with nearly a dozen women’s soccer executives, agents, managers and coaches — most of whom did not want to be identified for fear of being criticized by their employers — only a handful of teams acknowledged hiring recruiting specialists. among them Chelsea and Manchester City in England and German champion Wolfsburg.
For everyone else, the system is outdated, as one executive at a leading WSL club put it.
Coaches look at the games they get, often using international breaks to check on players who are considered to be of interest. Others rely heavily on performance data and video footage, though trawling through it is often the preserve of a single overworked employee. However, many take the fastest shortcut available: agents.
“We get cold letters from clubs quite regularly,” said one agent whose firm represents many players at Euro 2022. “It’s never a scout. It’s always directly from the manager or the technical director. They ask if we have players who can work for them. Even as an agent, you know it can’t be the best way to build a team.
Chelsea had been aware of Australian forward Kerr for 18 months before he finally agreed to move to London. There was little reason to scrutinize his performances on the pitch: Kerr’s prowess with the national team as well as domestic football in Australia and the US spoke for itself.
Chelsea didn’t know if he would easily fit in with the rest of the team. It remedied this not only by inviting Kerr to visit its base in Cobham, the laid-back, moneyed banking district that rings London three times, but by talking to his former coaches, former team-mates and former opponents.
Once satisfied, Chelsea offered Kerr a contract that was exceptional in two ways. This made her arguably the highest paid female player in the world. Perhaps it also tied him to Chelsea for the better part of three seasons.
Chelsea generally tries to think long-term: the club does not offer short-term, one-season contracts to potential recruits, and its managers are wary of even signing players to two-year contracts. Kerr has been such a good fit that he has already signed a contract extension through 2024.
Many of its rivals do not have this privilege. The vast majority of contracts, even in elite women’s soccer, don’t last more than a few seasons. This is partly due to the players themselves. “You want to have the freedom to move quickly,” said one former player. “If you have a good season at a smaller team, you have to be able to leave if a bigger club comes to you, because that might be your only chance of a payday.”
But shorter deals also protect clubs who too often don’t know what they’re buying. Chelsea Kerr’s due diligence is standard in the men’s game, but remains extremely rare and out of reach for most teams in women’s soccer. Most must instead use players who haven’t had a chance to explore in depth. As one agent put it, “They’re going to make shorter offers on a lot of contracts and then see what sticks.”
Not always many players do, which means that most teams in Europe’s top leagues lose and acquire a handful of players each year. Last year, for example, eight of the WSL’s 12 clubs signed and sold six or more players, changing half of their teams in one summer.
“There’s a lot of confusion, which is why you see teams rise and fall so quickly,” the agent said. “You can roll the dice and one year you will be lucky. But most of the time it doesn’t, so you have to start over.
This means that most WSL teams start from scratch every year; it also means that only a privileged few can build anything lasting. Chelsea, for example, added just two players to their squad last summer and went on to win both the WSL title and the Women’s FA Cup.
It’s also why Jepson has been plowing up and down the country this month, bumping into countless friends, peers and rivals from other WSL teams. As a result, the “observer” seats booked by UEFA at every game are packed with representatives from clubs in England, Germany and even the NWSL, all earnestly scribbling notes in their notebooks.
For all of them, the long hours on the road have been worth it. The tournament has allowed them to pick and drop potential targets, find out what they can get, and make sure their budget goes as far as possible. “Every trip has had a purpose,” Jepson said. “You learn a lot more about a player when you see him in the flesh.”