Having been involved in AFC Bournemouth’s scouting department for over 10 years, Andy Howe is better placed than most to track the development of recruitment in football.
Howe has been in love with the game all his life and, since joining the Cherries in 2012, he’s seen his role change dramatically. Starting out as a voluntary coach, the 27-year-old quickly moved into the club’s recruitment department. At the time, that was a team of just two people, but it’s since grown exponentially to the point where Howe now oversees the entire domestic scouting department.
“I’d say the industry has evolved so much even in the period of time that I’ve been in the job,” Howe told Squawka. “When I first joined, we were needing to move everything onto an online database, because before everything was printed out and put into filing cabinets.
“And now everything is online. Data and stats have evolved and progressed so much. I’d say even in the last five years, it’s really, really kicked on.”
The explosion of data in football has allowed the scouting process to become far more detailed but although it seems like things have advanced at a rapid pace, the transition within the game has been “seamless”, according to Howe.
“When it comes to player presentations, you’re seeing a lot more data added, and that data is always tailored to that player’s position,” he continued. “Before, it was very much purely scouting with the eye, but now it’s a healthy 50-50 mix.
“It’s been a drastic change, but it’s also been a seamless transition. The best way to describe it is that it’s naturally evolved year upon year.”
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Even in today’s data-driven world, there remain blind spots. One of them is in youth scouting, where there is still a relatively low amount of information to call upon without seeing a player in person. But with adversity comes skill and when Bournemouth assigned Howe and his team with finding the club’s future No.1, they had to do things the old-fashioned way. As it turns out, they were to unearth a future £30m Arsenal goalkeeper and potential England international: Aaron Ramsdale.
On a planned trip to the north of England in March 2016, Howe and his team made sure to take in every club, including Sheffield United U-18 and U-21 games. It was there that Ramsdale caught the eye.
“Aaron played and made three unbelievable saves,” Howe recalled. “We had him on the list of goalkeepers within that age category but we hadn’t seen him before and after that first viewing, I was instantly drawn to wanting to see more of him. He ticked the attributes technically and he had the confidence to play out from the back, which was key.
“He was a decent size, and even though he still needed to fill out, which comes with age, he still had a good presence about him. He made big saves at pivotal points in the match and showed good concentration, especially in an under-21s game.”
Although Howe’s report on Ramsdale was solid, the lack of available data in his age group meant more live scouting was needed, while Bournemouth were yet to see how the goalkeeper would react to making high-profile errors.
Most saves made in the Premier League during the 2019/20 and 2020/21 season:
◉ Aaron Ramsdale (276)
◎ Nick Pope (238)
Most shots on target faced in that time:
◉ Aaron Ramsdale (397)
◎ Vicente Guaita (326)
He was kept *very* busy. 😳 pic.twitter.com/UVDJ2nvs87
— Squawka (@Squawka) August 20, 2021
“The week after, we went to watch an under-18s game. Again, Ramsdale put in the same type of performance with big saves at key times and displayed excellent communication, and he had a good presence,” Howe said, with Ramsdale’s performance all the more impressive considering members of the England setup were in attendance to watch him.
“I love to see when things go right for a player but I also want to see how they deal when things go wrong. I think one of the biggest things, especially with the younger goalkeepers, is seeing if they’re resilient or not. If a goalkeeper makes a mistake, you need to see how they can overcome that. Can they make a mistake then just carry on as normal?
“That actually happened to Aaron in this second game. He made a mistake and it didn’t affect him at all and this gave me an insight into his character — so if he can overcome it once, he can do it again.
“Sheffield United played Bolton (Ramsdale’s former club) in the FA Cup and they lost 3-2 on the day, but this game was a great opportunity to see him in a first-team setting, in the FA Cup, against his former team, in a high pressured game. It didn’t phase him one bit.”
This was enough to convince Howe and Bournemouth to move and Ramsdale was signed in January 2017 for a fee in the region of £800,000. A couple of testing loan spells at Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon later and the youngster was an established Premier League No.1. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although meeting a manager’s explicit needs is a key part of scouting, it’s also important Howe’s team stay ahead of the curve, predicting how their team might evolve over time and what sort of player a change in style could require.
“We as a recruitment team will always know what the manager likes now. But our job as a recruitment team and a scouting team is to know what he might need in the future, because scouting teams may be here for the present, but their sole purpose is for the future” said Howe, whose uncle Eddie Howe took Bournemouth from League Two all the way to the Premier League (via a mini break with Burnley). “That’s our role, to plan for the future, so we have to always think ahead of what the manager might want.
“For example, we may have never had a robust defensive midfielder but, in two years’ time, we might suddenly want that type. So we will constantly be studying and writing reports on everybody that’s out there within a certain age and we’ll be profiling them on what types of players they are, strengths, weaknesses and the areas that are coachable.
“We will always be cross-referencing the data and there are times where we might go to the manager with a player that’s not normally his type. We’ll ask him to take a look because he could add something to the team, then it’s obviously up to the manager to make that final decision.”
Whether looking into the future or the present, a goalscoring striker will always be a valuable commodity in football. In 2014, Bournemouth made one of the most important signings in club history, bringing Callum Wilson — the man who scored 20 Championship goals to fire them into the Premier League and fetched a huge profit when he was sold to Newcastle last year — from Coventry City.
Callum Wilson has scored 20 Championship goals for Bournemouth this season, all of them from inside the box. pic.twitter.com/ov7fZuD9QH
— Squawka (@Squawka) April 27, 2015
Although the process of bringing Wilson to the south coast happened relatively early during football’s data explosion, the amount of information still helped streamline the process in comparison to signing Ramsdale.
“With Callum’s transfer, it was at the early stage in terms of the breakout of data,” said Howe. “We weren’t fortunate to see his loan spells at Kettering and Tamworth but we did in the 2013/14 season with Steven Pressley as manager at Coventry, who were fantastic that year. We had the resources available data-wise, with them being in League One at the time.
“They were playing in Northampton because of the issues with the Ricoh Arena, so all their games were on a Sunday, which made it perfect. We could watch a game on a Saturday, then watch Coventry on a Sunday.
“There aren’t many quick No.9s around that are obtainable, so when you find one with pace, movement and finishing ability, you’re instantly drawn to them. We could slightly cheat with Callum because Coventry had a No.9.5 type player in Leon Clarke. We played the same way, playing into the No.9.5 with the striker spinning off. It was almost like watching a Bournemouth team playing in Coventry colours.
“Callum just ticked all the boxes in terms of age, pace and finishing. But he also fitted the profile in being a great character, being highly driven and being a good motivator around the group.”
Wilson ticked all the physical boxes and seemed to pass the eye test. But unlike with Ramsdale, Howe and his team were then able to call upon a wealth of data to see how his style translated to Coventry’s system, which would ultimately help decide whether or not he’d be a good fit at Bournemouth.
“Using data, we were able to bring up his running stats, sprint speed, distance covered, shots on target and so on,” Howe explains. “We then went into finer detail in some other areas to analyse where those shots were from, how did they come about etc.
“We made sure to back up those findings from the stats via attaching video footage to each particular stat to make sure it displayed a true transparent picture.
“Callum was at the early stage in terms of data, but we were still able to use the available data to compare him to our own players, to help project how he would perform if we brought him into our system. It was a smooth transition and we were able to utilise his strengths fantastically that year.”
“Footballers are not a commodity… they’re human beings”
Football is a sport that never stands still. While it may seem like scouts now have an almost infinite amount of data and footage they can call upon, there’s always room for improvement.
A mental health ambassador for Dorset Mind, Howe is keenly aware and mindful of the psychological rigours of the game not just in terms of dealing with the immense pressure football brings, but also how players can respond in certain in-game situations. It is in this area where he believes the next big advances will be made.
“In the scouting world, I believe the future is exploring the advantages of psychometric profiling and going into greater depths to fully understand each player’s individual motivators, thought processes, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses,” Howe predicts. “At this stage, it’s in its infancy in our industry but this is an avenue that needs to be explored.
“It’s not a one size fits all approach. I always remember that footballers are not a commodity. They’re human beings, and I try to really get a good insight into their personalities. It’s all about understanding who that person is, how we can maximise their success within the club — how they’d fit into the group, what qualities they’d bring, what they can add to the culture and how they’d enhance the dynamics of the team.
“There are greater questions that need to be asked, and then I’m sure there will be some data and science minds out there trying to find different ways to get into the industry, to open doors and build connections between the two worlds.”