How soccer scouting, budgets during coronavirus could impact transfer market

Editor's note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at the latest work behind the scenes by clubs to continue scouting.

When COVID-19 first began to impact football early in March, I looked at the likely effect on scouting and how clubs might react. At that time, although the pandemic was certainly being taken seriously, the hope seemed to be that it wouldn't be too long-lived and that operations would revert to normal at a reasonably quick pace. Two months on, we know that hasn't been the case. Although we've just seen the successful resumption of the Bundesliga and the return to training in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga -- with all three leagues scheduled to resume between now and June 20 -- matches will need to be played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future, making for a sterile and rather eerie atmosphere, as seen in Germany's "Geisterspiele" ("ghost games").

It will take even longer for general travel -- especially abroad -- to be practical, making it impossible for scouts to function normally for some time to come. Consequently, with so little live football to watch, how are scouts currently spending their time, and what impact could this have on transfers?

For the most professionally run household-name clubs of European football, it's practically out of the question to sign a player who hasn't been properly vetted in several physical meetings, something that's obviously been impossible for the past three months. Even with technology like video conferencing, you don't get the full picture, as it hasn't yet come up with an answer to one crucial side of communication: the vital importance of proximity and eye-to-eye contact in negotiations.

One chief scout at a Champions League level club told me how that's proving to be a real downside. "Not being able to meet in person with a young player, his family and entourage is a huge disadvantage. Such encounters give you so many important clues as regards to the player's personality and how keen he really is to join your club. It's also much more difficult to convince a player over a phone call or via an internet connection. All the non-verbal signals are lost.

"When I finish the video session, I rarely feel any wiser as to how the chat really went, but when you're in the same room, you can literally feel on your body which way the meeting is going."

Whatever the effect of the coronavirus situation on transfer fees, we're still going to be talking about such substantial amounts of money that clubs are not going to risk doing away with, or even scrimping on, the usual meticulous checks and balances they carry out before reaching a final decision.

It's likely that activity will be much lower and slower over the coming months, a very different scenario from what's usually happening at this time of year as seasons end, contracts expire and clubs scramble into action hoping to get ahead in their planning for a new season in August. With the conclusion of the 2019-20 European season likely to run well into July, start dates for the 2020-21 season are still up in the air in many European countries, meaning the registration periods for international transfers will also need resetting. Current thinking at the highest legislative levels -- still to be confirmed -- is for a one-off long international window, possibly from Aug. 1 or Sept. 1 until some point in the European autumn, or even running until the end of the calendar year.

While that will delay activity, clubs will still want to act sooner rather than later to prepare their squads for whenever a new season can begin. Yet even with several major leagues set to play to a conclusion, it won't be that much of a help for the scouting teams wanting to make final decisions on their targets.

"Missing out on the final rounds of the Champions League [this spring] turned out quite a disadvantage for us as watching those targets performing at that level would have given us the clearest answers," the chief scout explains.

With few live games to watch, he admits that it's getting harder by the day to come up with meaningful tasks when it comes to video-scouting activities. "For the past few weeks, our senior scouts have been studying our summer targets to the most minute levels. We typically operate with three targets in the positions that need strengthening, and it's hard to come up with new angles to analyse those particular players right now."

The chief scout also holds a view that echoes through the scouting community: The "ghost games" have left no one any the wiser. Although the reintroduction of competitive football has been generally welcomed, most people I've spoken to within the sporting departments of football clubs refer to games played with lower intensity, fewer duels and a lower physical output -- fewer meters covered and fewer high intensity sprints -- over the 90 minutes.

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Whether due to a lack of a crowd, which can often spur players on, or a lack of full fitness due to the extended break, there's a common consensus that the tail end of the seasons being played out on TV offer limited value from a scouting perspective. However, he revealed that they have been finding creative ways -- cross-department presentations and training courses -- to fill the period of inaction.

In fact, education has been a theme for this successful European side. "In terms of scouting specifically, we've had a close look at our analytics models. We've had external help to review our models and to guide us on how we can take data-driven scouting models to the next level, or vice-versa. There's still some resistance towards data and science here, but it's clear that we have to put even more emphasis on this in the months and years ahead."

With football no exception to global trends, this club has also embraced the use of video conferencing tools.

"From an internal communication aspect, it's been perfect. We've routinely held scouting meetings involving our foreign-based scouts via video conferencing, but it has previously been viewed as a bit of a nuisance and the mood has been 'let's discuss it the next time we meet.' Now everybody has taken the time to learn how to use it properly. And now by involving a broader range of people, such as members of the coaching staff and key people from the academy, we have opened up the communication lines between the departments. As a result, the knowledge from the professional part of our operations, where most of the resources are spent, is shared throughout the club."

While this particular European top club show few indications as yet that any dramatic budgetary measures are imminent, the chief scout is quick to point out that football certainly is not removed from the present demanding reality. "There have been no talks of releasing staff or implementing cost-cutting measures as of now, but it's clear that sacrifices will be made. It's only natural when you see what is going on around us. We have already understood that there will be less air travel. That is absolutely clear. Not only to save money, but also the availability of flights is likely to be reduced."

These reflections are very much backed up by an executive of one German club whom I spoke to, who told me: "It will take months before we understand the financial ramifications of the period we are going through now. What I can say already now is that cost-saving measures are inevitable, and the sporting side will have to go through the same scrutiny as other parts of the club when we are looking into where we can save."

One group of staff looking particularly vulnerable are part-time scouts, who have already been badly hit by the coronavirus outbreak. All across Europe, clubs typically engage groups of varying sizes to cover games and training sessions on an ad hoc basis. Very much the unsung heroes of talent spotting, freelancers or scouts with loose attachments to their clubs are often the first to flag up names that end up being valuable assets or generate significant transfer profit for the club. Although the occasional bonus may kick in if the talent they unearth moves up in the sporting world, their main source of income comes from their travel allowance.

The typical day rate for an international freelance scout, who might clock up 12-20 days of travel per month, would be in the region of $140-225 (€125-200), which obviously equates to a significant loss of income. And with a substantial drop in travel and flying anticipated, there's little doubt that the activities of part-time scouts are going to be seriously affected.

In addition to the frustration of impending cuts and the eventual inevitability of seeing trusted colleagues being laid off, the lack of clarity regarding transfer operations is also being widely felt. While the chief scout of the top European club was quite laid back about the prospect of spending -- "the signals we are getting from the senior management is that we should plan as normal" -- the sporting director of a smaller European (top league) club was less optimistic.

"We are simulating three different transfer strategy models now: the first is based on us getting fresh investment and TV money, the second applies if we get the TV money due and the third if we get nothing at all."

This could well be a sign of what's to come, with the division between the haves and the have-nots expected to widen drastically. The sporting director expands: "It means that we are scouting everything from players costing well into a few million euros to Bosmans [players out of contract who are free to join other clubs without a transfer fee]. We are also keeping a very close eye on players from leagues that are struggling badly and from clubs that are on the verge of going out of business and from those that already have."

Asking how his small scouting team, consisting of two full-time employees and two part-timers, are coping, he replies: "Sure, these are times of uncertainty, but at least we are keeping ourselves busy."

Yet the implications for those less well-off clubs could be far-reaching if they have to cut back on their scouting. Signing players becomes riskier, harder and agent-driven, team performance is potentially affected, and they are less likely to spot the young talents that could earn them the transfer profits that are vital to keeping many clubs afloat. Perhaps the long-resisted shift towards using technology more widely and effectively may help in the search for identifying established players, yet there's still no substitute for seeing a player live. Scouting departments won't be immune from the tough decisions clubs will have to make about their operations in the coming months.