Artificial intelligence may be about to change soccer players’ scouting

It’s a Scout’s worst nightmare, traveling half a day to see a football player recommended to them, only to find that the player is way below the required standard. But soon, artificial intelligence could save scouts the trip.

Starting this season, several clubs including Chelsea, Nottingham Forest and Olympiacos will start using a mobile application called AiSCOUT to help them find new players.

The app provides scouts with data on soccer players’ athletic, cognitive, and technical skills so they can refine their searches. Players upload videos of themselves performing exercises set by the club. These drills are done by the club’s own players, so it has a yardstick to judge the scouted players.

AiSCOUT’s COO and head of sports science, Richard Felton, says Chelsea were often sent match footage in the past, but the footage was basically useless without knowing what level the player was talking about. By benchmarking against players already at Chelsea, the club can know if the players in the app are worth a closer look.

He says professionals are signed for millions of pounds based on so much data, but that data is not collected until the player has already become a professional. This app helps scouts provide data on amateur players so they can find anyone who missed the current system.

The exercises on the app can range from fast dribbling to cognitive tests that measure concentration or reaction time. All a player needs to complete them is a smartphone, a soccer ball, something to use as a set of pins and a space to perform the drills. Felton says the app has been tested on a wide range of mobile phones and can compensate for a variety of surfaces, from smooth artificial grass to dribbling around rocks and jumpers on a sandy field.

Clubs using the app can determine exactly what attributes they are looking for, Chelsea, for example, focusing on strength and pace at this early stage of the scouting process. Players who don’t have those qualities will never become a Chelsea player, but maybe their other qualities would suit them at another club.

In addition to acting as a pre-screening tool, it can also help scouts find players they may have missed.

The first tests of the app unearthed a player named Ben Greenwood who then invited Chelsea to a one-day trial period. He ended up spending ten weeks with Chelsea and is currently in Bournemouth, where he has played in the first team and capped for Ireland at youth level.

Greenwood lived just a few miles from Chelsea’s training ground but had never been watched by Chelsea or any other professional club before using the app.

With all the talented youngsters at Chelsea, they probably don’t need much help finding new players. The real way AI can change scouting is by helping teams without the same scouting resources.

Small international teams, such as the Caribbean Islands participating in CONCACAF, have many people around the world who are eligible to play for them, but do not have the scouting resources to find those players. Even people like Chile have just been discovered Blackburn Rovers striker Ben Brereton Diaz after fans reportedly learned of his Chilean heritage through the Football Manager video game.

Such national teams could use this app to find potential new players to invite to training camps. All over the world, there are millions of talented youngsters who don’t play organized football but could have all the attributes to make it into the game. If artificial intelligence can tap into these places scouts would never look at alone, who knows what talent it might find.

A cliché that can be seen in many football movies is that a player leaves an important event to rush to a game for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be seen by a Manchester United scout. If AI becomes widespread in scouting, that player would already be on the club’s radar and just be invited to a trial period.

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