Aston Villa are fast becoming one of the more forward-thinking football clubs in England as they restructure their football operations to forge a brighter future with player recruitment at the forefront.
After securing Premier League survival at the London Stadium, Villa have parted ways with, and replaced Jesús García Pitarch, the club’s Sporting Director with the jury still out for most of the 13 players he helped recruit last season.
An outlay of £140m was the price Villa paid to clinch top-flight survival, but with only a point separating an immediate return to the Championship, club officials are keen to avoid replicating the problems of last summer and focus on effective recruitment.
Johan Lange was the first appointment Villa made in a bid to restructure recruitment and youth player identification strategies. The Dane, formerly of FC Copenhagen enjoyed great success in building a culture at the Danish Superliga giants, recruiting top young talent from all corners of the globe and embracing new ideas to remain on top of a saturated transfer market.
Joining Lange as a Head of Recruitment, former Leicester City and Tottenham talent spotter Rob Mackenzie will bolster Villa’s ranks behind the scenes. Newly appointed Assistant Head Coach, Craig Shakespeare has also been headhunted to add some more familiarity around Bodymoor Heath.
Highly-rated Mackenzie is joining from Belgian club OH Leuven after CEO Christian Purslow carried out a thorough review of their recruitment department and the club see his appointment crucial to improving their business in the transfer market.
Mackenzie’s biggest achievement to date in football was to help assemble Leicester’s 2016 Premier League winning side that included instrumental signings Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté. He worked as the club’s head of technical scouting from 2011 to 2015.
After an impressive four years in Leicester, Mackenzie has held roles as head of player identification at Tottenham Hotspur before returning to the East Midlands as director of recruitment at Derby County.
More recently, Mackenzie headed Leicester City’s sister club and Belgian side OL Leuven’s recruitment team by introducing a modern, data-driven approach which helped them win promotion to the Belgian Premier League last season.
Mackenzie also has a background in analytics and at Villa are keen to strengthen that aspect of their approach to scouting and profiling players.
Unearthing the next wave of Premier League stars is no easy job, and there’s no given strategy nor database that can predict the potential of players like Kanté or Heung-Min Son, two of the stars Mackenzie identified with the potential to break into the ‘elite’ players bracket.
Mackenzie was also integral to luring Southampton’s former centre-half Toby Alderweireld away from St Mary’s with no shortages of offers from around Europe.
Exploring every corner of Europe
Whilst haggling and dealing with agents was one side to his role at Tottenham and Leicester, picking and choosing players from these shores, like Alderweireld is considerably safer than scoping the content for hidden gems, capable of stepping up to the next level.
Mackenzie described the process of identifying talent from outside of England to Sky Sports.
“The current make-up of a squad has to be considered before introducing a player unfamiliar with the existing culture,” he said.
“When I arrived at Derby County from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer, one of the first conversations that I had with Nigel Pearson was about the make-up and composition of the Derby squad at that time. As a squad that was predominantly domestic-based, he was very open to the prospect of recruiting a couple of foreign players to supplement the British core that we already had.
“I think effective recruitment is all about finding the right balance and complementing what you already have while also being able to bring some additional qualities to the group.
“I think that British core actually contributed to us feeling that we could bring in some foreign players at that time – Anthony Knockaert, Marcin Wasilewski and Riyad Mahrez for example – as they could provide us with qualities that we were perhaps lacking.”
Villa lost 13 players from their 2018-19 Championship squad that gained promotion back to the Premier League. Six players left with contracts coming to end and another seven left on loan or permanent deals back to the division they’d helped Villa escape from.
Eleven new players were drafted in to help Villa survive by the skin of their teeth and this summer. Rather than overseeing another rebuilding job, Villa’s chefs have handed Smith a £100m war chest to add ‘four to five’ quality players to the group.
When Mackenzie advised Leicester to sign Kanté and Mahrez back in 2015, he’d scoured the depths of French football and tailored his spotting to that of Leicester’s requirements. Mapping was a key tool for his team.
“I think that within recruitment you are constantly trying to minimise the risk associated with anyone that you bring into your club,” Mackenzie said.
“If you are able to identify clubs that have similar values and beliefs to your own and who play in a similar style to the way that you do then there may be a greater chance of a successful transition.
“A hard working and honest Caen side who themselves had experienced promotion to the French top flight in 2013/14 and who survived in their debut season, finishing 13th, probably represented a good fit for a Leicester side who won promotion in the same year as Caen and who finished 14th on their return to the Premier League.”
Recruiting players with experience of Villa’s brand of football
Comparing and contrasting club values and beliefs even before systems, formations and tactics, for Mackenzie is an effective method for successful scouting.
“At Tottenham, it was Bayer Leverkusen who were seen as a side adopting a similar style of play. Roger Schmidt’s commitment to a pressing game is well documented and that made the decision to bring in Heung-Min Son more straightforward than it might have been.
“From a very basic attacking output perspective, in both of Son’s two seasons at Bayer Leverkusen he scored 10+ goals but also importantly he only missed four match-day squads out of a possible 94. This suggested that he had successfully adapted to the new demands that had been placed upon him there.
“Given Roger Schmidt’s style of play it felt a good fit and Son’s statistical data was also stable across a three-year period when compared to other targets. His versatility was also important given the type of squad that we were trying to assemble at Tottenham.
“There are a whole host of things that are taken into account when evaluating if a player is suitable for the remit that you are recruiting against. You are constantly trying to build a picture of who the player actually is.”
It’ll be interesting to see which clubs Mackenzie looks towards to profile the correct players for Smith, his particular playing philosophy and Aston Villa as a club in general. Is the identified performer at the right level? Does he have the correct requisite skill and preferred personality traits?
Scouting the correct player can involve numerous metrics. When Villa’s chiefs assembled the first squad to compete in a top-flight campaign for three years, profiling the correct personalities would’ve been crucial to effective recruitment, according to Mackenzie.
“From a scouting and recruitment perspective, whether you are evaluating a player from home or abroad, there is significant risk associated with it as there is a human being behind the performances and numbers and when signing a player you are initiating a significant change in their lives that they have to respond to.
“There are no guarantees, of course. But by taking everything into account when buying from abroad, whether it’s the style of play with which a player is familiar or the substance of his character, the risks can be minimised.”
“I recall looking at a player who, among other things, scored 27 goals and provided eight assists in 40 games during his last season prior to a transfer. Since moving, however, he has followed that up with only seven goals and seven assists in 56 games at his new club.
“Is it that the player has suddenly become poor? Or is it more likely that he is experiencing a totally different challenge in his life? A new country, a new competition, higher expectations among better players and the pressure of a big transfer – maybe he’s struggling to adjust?”
Anticipating spikes in a player potential
Anticipating spikes in a player’s potential can be very tricky considering the abundance in external influences that can skew the observations of a player from simply watching them compete in competitive and non-competitive games.
Mackenzie is no stranger to becoming more of a psychologist rather than a football scout on occasions.
“Players are typically highlighted as a result of a scout having seen them play well live or through the various processes that are now implemented within clubs’ training grounds.
“As part of trying to build the most comprehensive understanding of a player that you can, it is typical for clubs to try and get a feel for a player’s character and personality traits. Sometimes it can be a change in a player’s personal circumstances that might actually contribute to a spike in their performance or give you the impression that one might be about to happen.
“Similarly, if a player finds themselves at a crossroads in their career, a change in mind-set and a genuine appreciation of what is at stake may also initiate a change in momentum and generate a spike in performance.”
Mackenzie has identified some of the Premier League’s best talents from their days in lower league European football, and whilst his informed observations on a player is critical, scouting away from the crowd is often the way to go.
Some players are late bloomers, their potential may not be recognised until the latter stages of their career and some have rediscovered their promise in different environments to where they have previously stalled.
“A recent example of this is Serge Gnabry,” Mackenzie started.
“As a 21-year-old who had experienced injuries in recent seasons, a failed loan spell at West Brom and as a player who had only played just over 1,000 competitive minutes in his career up until this summer, he was a player with whom a spike probably looked pretty unlikely.
“With only a year left to go on his contract at Arsenal, however, and the regular faith put in him by the DFB having been shown once more with his involvement in the Olympics this summer, when I started to do some research and ask some trusted contacts in Germany I was getting really positive feedback.
“I was told that during the Olympics his focus and willingness to learn had improved; almost to the point that they were trying to translate ‘the penny might have dropped with him’ into English!”
Recruiting experienced heads
This coming season, Villa intends to recruit more Premier League experience to a squad that had only shared a handful of top-flight appearances between them at the start of the last campaign.
Identifying a profile of a player already known to the league Villa operates in requires fewer resources and time to draw up conclusions of his possible effectiveness in Villa’s squad. But judging performance spikes in older players can be very tricky.
“The robustness of a player’s profile is hugely important,” Mckenzie believes.
“Playing regularly is indicative of many things. It doesn’t merely suggest that they avoid injury but also that they do what the coach demands and approach their work properly.
“Napoli’s Jose Callejon is a nice example. At the age of 29, he has played over 3,000 minutes in each of his previous three seasons despite playing for two very different managers and coupled with that he has also scored six or more every year since 2010.
“These are the types of things that become particularly important as players get older and their risk of injury increases. Miroslav Klose is someone whose record shows that he could be relied upon – he played at least 30 games for club and country for 16 consecutive seasons. That impresses scouts.”
It’s no secret Villa are moving with the times, and overhauling their recruitment staff with proven track-records is a nod to exciting times, with modern, forward-thinking strategies in place to recruit and identify the correct profile of player for Aston Villa.
Mackenzie has also worked as a technical scout. He knows how numbers work, what they mean and how a player’s performance level can relate to potential.
“Data is neutral, reliable and it allows you to assess a significant number of players in a time-efficient manner.
“It provides a platform for you to identify players and benchmark expected performance levels. It also allows you to compare similar profiles, help establish what else is available in the market and therefore work out who the most valuable players are to your club.”
Mackenzie has prior dealings with Villa’s newly appointed Sporting Director Johan Lange, who at Copenhagen welcomed his new recruitment partner to the FCK training facility on a couple of occasions before being courted as Villa’s new Head of Recruitment.
Lange and Mackenzie will form a relationship critical to the success of Villa in transfer windows upcoming, in the years Villa will not only attempt to re-establish their top-flight status but also compete around the upper echelons of English football once more.