Non-Trivial Scouting Cues

I share some non-trivial scouting cues I've acquired over the past two years. Most, I learned from conversations and immersion. Few, I stumbled upon. Others, I inferred from adjacent domains – and have found them applicable here.

A nighttime soccer match in progress at Rock Chalk Park with KU's Women Soccer Team in blue and the opposition in white.
Photo by Joel Adejola / Rock Chalk Park, Kansas

What does (football) scouting mean to me?

It depends. Recently, perhaps driven by my other interests, it's felt like prospecting a startup: assessing market opportunities, backgrounds on founders, considering historical precedent in certain industry, and much more.

Other times, it feels like being a coach's trusted eyes: training your intuition to feel the game vicariously through them then finding players who can make this imagination – or something better – a reality.

Across my next few articles, I will share some non-trivial scouting cues I've acquired over the past two years. Most of these, I learned from conversations and immersion. Few, I stumbled upon. Others, I inferred from adjacent domains – and have found them applicable here.

Final points. Why am I calling these non-trivial?

  • The pointers are aren't unique to specific players, or teams. They are, in my opinion, universal.
  • They might be applicable to other domains, like startups, or other parts of sports processes.
  • I've tested a few of them, with reasonable success.
  • The ones I haven't tested, I've taken notes from trusted folks (coaches, pros., and earnest enthusiasts) who have.
  • This blog is an archive.

On what authority do I call them non-trivial? Let's find out.

1 .

The coach might not always be right, but they have more data points than you do. Leverage that.

At any point in the calendar year, coaches wield the most information about the(ir) players on the pitch. They train with them every week. They receive feedback from the medical team, the video team, the other coaching staff, the players themselves, the opposition analysts, and the club's executives.

Everyone else, even some of these aforementioned parties, has just press conference, club statements, and the 90 minutes we see some players on the pitch. However tempting it might be to draw irretrievable conclusions, remember that you are under-equipped.

What can you do about it?

Reverse-engineering, which we've previously spoken about, allows us to mitigate this gap up and acquire insight needed for big questions.

Here's a step-by-step process about how this might manifest:

  • Accept and assess what lineup or setup the coach puts out.
  • Attempt to deduce the game intention – the manager's 'ideal game.' This is often decipherable in the first 5-10 minutes of either half, before the whim of the game gets in the way.
  • By the end of the game, compare your inferred game-intention with how the game actually panned out.
  • Consolidate step 2 with the manager’s post-match comments
  • Update your logs and carry any deductions forward.

TEST – from when Manchester United manager, Erik Ten Hag was seemingly adamant about having a left footer on the left:

Trying to decipher the coach's end-game

VALIDATION – from Erik a couple days later

Success. Kinda.

Archive from November 8th, 2023


It's a great sign if a player's training performances are regularly commended.

Following from the last point, it is a great indicator if a player training performance is a standout quality or compliment. Why? One reason, which we just discussed, is that there's a larger sample of training for the coach to observe than there are games. This sample is essentially ten times the match day 90 mins, every week! Coaches can and do weigh this in their squad selections.

Another reason is that pro minutes are scarce. The stakes are high, so managers pick players they trust. Training well builds trust. Hence, being commended about your application in training is one of the biggest thumbs up. If asked coaches to weight the factors determining who gets opportunities, I suspect that training would rank highly.

How do we catch this?

There are a few ways we can infer this. A coach might mention it during an interview and/or one of their teammates might corroborate. Here is an example of how this might manifest [Pep on Nathan Ake]:

[Nathan] always trains well and is loved by the team. This type of person, when I can give them minutes, I am really pleased for them.

We will discuss it in the next point, but appreciate that Pep notes that Nathan is adored by the team.

Training performance also greatly informs which young, largely untested, players get opportunities.

Ten Hag on Kambwala's training performance

Regardless, you can now see why all the bulbs in my head light up when I hear that any player 'always trains well.' What a compliment that is!

Archive from December 31st, 2023


Players also have more data points than the average-Joe(l). Check out which players they eulogize.

Generally, top players recognize and gravitate towards other great players. In the Real Madrid segment of David Beckham's recent documentary, the interviewed Galacticos all remark about how they each made individual assessments (first, from training) about new recruits – whether they were up to par. Then, they would reconcile their feedback with other top players in the team.

The reason is simple.

Good players want to understand each other — to establish a partnership, to make each other look better, to show off.

Arsenal's manager Mikel Arteta's has some shrewd comments on this phenomenon:

"There is something that you have to earn when you're in a team – that is the trust of your teammates. And I had two things. One, the players on the bench whispering, 'Bring Ethan in,' which is a great thing to hear. The other [thing], when your teammates want to give you the ball all the time.'

Arteta on Nwaneri:

The standout point word is Trust. The ball is a jewel. The sport demands that players trust others with this precious rubber sphere. Good teams are nurtured by trust.

In a similar manner, trust essentializes any scouting process. Because scouts don't grant athletes the ability. Coaches don't control their legs either. Whatever manifests on the pitch is grounded in trust and belief.

Archive from December 31, 2023


A player being deployed in an unconventional role is a sign of trust. This can be a sweet indicator for scouts!

Whenever you notice a winger or centre-back who’s trusted by their manager on either side, you can automatically infer some portion of their functional base [1].

This trust, distinct from mere performance metrics, reveals a player's adaptability and capability beyond their current role. While we can infer it ourselves by observation, the mere deployment alone is often a sufficient indicator.

Hence, when a nominal left winger like Rashford is selected to play as a right wing during an injury crisis, we can conclude that he's earned the coach's trust to perform in said position. Remember, coaches put out teams they suppose can win the game.

Here's where it gets dicey. Performance

Any struggles or performance dip should not be seen as a reflection of our displaced athlete's inability. Instead, it should be appreciated as a testament to his broad skill set and the trust the manager has in his overall ability.

This aspect of trust is fundamental in scouting and player development as it hints at a player's capacity to learn and excel in new roles, offering value where there none obvious.

Effective scouting, therefore, involves more than observing a player’s performance in their current position; it requires:

  • an analysis of whether there is a baseline skill set that could be successfully translated into other roles.
  • asking whether the player can project their skills onto another role,
  • considering what additional skills they need to develop to excel in said role.

This essence here is disentangling performance from ability. Again, a drop in performance in a forced position rarely indicates lack of skill. The mere deployment of a player in obscure roles is typically a green flag.

This conceptualization of trust is quantifiable and can be measured by various indicators such as the amount of playing time a player receives, their appearances on the bench, starts in matches, whether they are subbed on when their team is losing, mentions in press conferences, and – if you are crazy like I am – through sentiment analysis of comments made by teammates and coaches.

[1] 'functional base,' as used here, culled from @nonewthing

Archive from November 26, 2023

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Who is the writer?

Joel A. Adejola is an undergraduate at the University of Kansas (KU), where he studies Engineering and Philosophy.