At Euro 2022, Full Stadiums and a Big Hole: Scouting

SHEFFIELD, England — Vicky Jepson has not found the driving all that bad. She has spent much of July on the road, racking up somewhere north of a thousand miles in just a couple of weeks.

Her trajectory, at first glance, seems so haphazard that it is almost as if she has been trying to shake off a tail: London to Manchester, down to the seaside at Brighton, up north once more — to the unremarkable market town of Leigh — then back to the south coast, before retracing her steps back to Leigh.

A considerable amount of thought, though, has gone into every mile. Each stop has allowed Jepson, the assistant head coach of Tottenham Hotspur Women, to take in another game at Euro 2022: At one point, she had been to nine matches in just 15 days.

They had not been selected at random. Jepson went to some games to cast an eye over how Europe’s best teams were playing, paying especially close attention to how they built play out of defense. She went to others to watch specific players.

Often, though, her eyes have been drawn not so much to how they play but to who they are. “It’s only when you see players in person that you get a sense of what they are like as people,” she said. “You see how they react in certain situations. How do they recover from conceding a goal? Do they keep focused after going ahead?”

Spurs, like almost every club in England’s Women’s Super League, could not afford to pass up the chance to see all of Europe’s best players gathered in one place. And it is not just Jepson who has been out on the road: Tottenham’s head coach, goalkeeping coach and analyst have all spent just as much time on England’s highways as she has. Almost every one of its rivals has been doing the same.

For all of them, the information they have gleaned will prove invaluable. Euro 2022 has enabled them to flesh out scouting reports on players they have been monitoring for some time, as well as keep an eye out for anyone who might have previously escaped their notice.

“Having it in our backyard has been a golden opportunity,” Jepson said. “There are some things that you just don’t see on a screen.”

In the first couple of weeks of the tournament, as Jepson and her colleagues were crisscrossing the country, Euro 2022 seemed to be breaking a different record every day.

England’s opening night victory at Old Trafford attracted the largest crowd in the tournament’s history. The Netherlands’ win against Switzerland last weekend recorded the highest ever attendance for a game not involving a host nation. Midway through the group phase, Euro 2022 had already drawn more fans to games than any previous edition of the competition had in total. Every day, it seemed, served as further proof of the breakneck speed and scale of women’s soccer’s rise in Europe in general, and in England in particular.

That blossoming popularity is mirrored in the growth of the continent’s various domestic leagues, and the investment that has poured into the WSL, in particular. Sam Kerr, the world’s best-paid player, plays in England. So does Pernille Harder, the most expensive signing in women’s history. A third of the Swedish squad hoping to deny the host nation a place in the final on Tuesday night already plays in England, as does the top striker from the Netherlands and one of Norway’s best playmakers.

The investment in players, though, has not always been matched behind the scenes. The reason Jepson has piled up so many miles this month is simple. Like most teams in the WSL, Tottenham has access to the digital recruitment platform Wyscout, as well as the pipelines of data on potential targets supplied by the likes of InStat and Statsbomb. What it does not have is a single, dedicated women’s scout.

That is true of the vast majority of teams in the WSL, and across Europe. In interviews with almost a dozen executives, agents, managers and coaches in women’s soccer — most of whom did not want to be identified for fear of being seen as criticizing their employers — only a handful of teams were credited with employing specialist recruitment staff, among them Chelsea and Manchester City in England, and the German champion Wolfsburg.

For everyone else, the system is “antiquated,” as one executive at a leading WSL club put it.

Coaches will watch the games they can, often using international breaks to check on players deemed to be of interest. Others lean heavily on performance data and video footage, although trawling through it is often the domain of a single, overworked staff member. Many, though, still turn to the quickest shortcut available: agents.

“We get cold emails from clubs quite regularly,” said one agent whose firm represents a number of players at Euro 2022. “It’s never a scout. It’s always direct from a manager or a technical director. They ask if we have any players available who might work for them. Even as an agent, you know that can’t really be the best way to build a team.”

Chelsea had been learning about Kerr, the Australian striker, for 18 months before she finally agreed to move to London. There had been little reason to research her performances on the field: Kerr’s prowess, both for her national team and in domestic soccer in Australia and the United States, spoke for itself.

What Chelsea did not know was whether she would be an easy fit with the rest of her squad. It remedied that not only by inviting Kerr to visit its base at Cobham, in the tranquil, moneyed banker belt that rings London, three times, but by speaking to a succession of her former coaches, former teammates, former opponents.

Once it was satisfied, Chelsea offered Kerr a contract that was exceptional in two ways. It made her, reportedly, the best-paid women’s player in the world. More significantly, perhaps, it also tied her to Chelsea for the better part of three seasons.

Chelsea, in general, tries to think long-term: The club will not offer potential recruits short-term, single-season contracts, and its executives are wary even of signing players to two-year deals. Kerr has been such a good fit that she has already extended her deal through 2024.

Many of its rivals do not have that privilege. The vast majority of contracts, even in elite women’s soccer, run for no more than a couple of seasons. That is partly driven by the players themselves. “You want to have a degree of freedom to move quickly,” one former player said. “If you have a good season at a smaller team, you need to be able to leave when one of the bigger clubs comes for you, because that might be your only chance of a payday.”

But shorter deals also act as a hedge for the clubs who far too often don’t know what they are buying. The sort of due diligence Chelsea performed on Kerr is standard in the men’s game, but it remains exceedingly rare in women’s soccer, and beyond the reach of most teams. Most, instead, have to take their chances on players they haven’t had the chance to scout thoroughly. As one agent said, “They offer shorter deals to lots of signings and then see what sticks.”

Invariably, many players do not, meaning most teams in Europe’s major leagues lose and acquire fistfuls of players every year. Last year, for example, eight of the WSL’s 12 clubs signed and sold six or more players, effectively changing half their teams over the course of a single summer.

“There’s a lot of churn, which is why you see teams rise and fall so quickly,” the agent said. “You can roll the dice and get lucky one year. But most of the time, you don’t, so you have to start again.”

That means the majority of WSL teams are starting from scratch every year; it also means only the privileged few can build anything lasting. Chelsea, for example, added only two players to its squad last summer, then went on to win both the WSL title and the Women’s FA Cup.

It is also why, as Jepson has plowed up and down the country this month, she has run into countless friends, peers and rivals from other WSL teams. It is why the “observer” seats reserved by UEFA at every game have been thronged with representatives of clubs from England, Germany and even the NWSL, all of them earnestly scribbling remarks into notebooks.

For all of them, the long hours on the road have been worth it. The tournament has allowed them to select and discard potential targets, to know what they might be getting, to make sure their budgets go as far as they can. “Every trip has a purpose,” Jepson said. “You learn much more about a player when you see them in the flesh.”

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