x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Scouts' motto 'to be prepared' serves modern-day football

Arsene Wenger is famous for his knowledge of players nobody else has heard of, while Sir Alex Ferguson will have opponents scouted in great detail.

Manchester United's Nicky Butt was surprised by the speed of Juventus' Alen Boksic.
Manchester United's Nicky Butt was surprised by the speed of Juventus' Alen Boksic.

Nicky Butt shook his head and looked disgusted with himself. He felt at fault for a crucial goal, but nobody could have done anything about it.

Butt was a great runner who could keep up with the best players and not only over a short burst, but he had been left standing by Alen Boksic of Juventus in a 1996 Champions League game.

The Croatian sprinted away from Butt like an Olympic athlete against a small child. Boksic was far better than anyone else on the pitch.

Manchester United had made a good start to the season, yet this guy made us look very average. Juventus won the game - with a goal from Boksic, of course.

What surprised us was how little we knew about him. These days, most top-level managers know everything there is to know about their opponents.

Arsene Wenger is famous for his knowledge of players nobody else has heard of, while Sir Alex Ferguson will have opponents scouted in great detail.

I travelled to Bilbao for last night's game against the Basques.

They surprised a lot of people last week and were the best team I've seen at Old Trafford for years. Even though they had been watched several times by United's scouts, I don't think anyone expected them to start that game so well.

All of which shows no matter how well prepared, a team can still be caught out when faced with a different style of football and players with the talent to carry it off.

After last week's game Ferguson said that the Basques had the highest statistics in terms of the distance run by any opposition team at Old Trafford in the last 10 years.

Modern-day scouting is sophisticated and in-depth.

A club will have a scout or two dedicated to watching forthcoming opponents and he will be supplemented by his manager if he can travel to a game.

If the manager can't watch a team live - and it's always far better to watch a team live rather than on television because you see so much more - he will be briefed by his chief scout and will also watch recordings.

There are all kinds of statistical analysis provided and clubs have never been better informed about opponents.

It is a long way from how it used to be.

In the 70s and 80s teams knew next to nothing about their opponents if they were from Eastern Europe. Teams would know little until the night of the game itself when scouting information would come from watching them train the night before and there were plenty of surprises.

I'm told Dinamo Tbilisi tore the European champions Liverpool apart 3-0 in 1979.

We couldn't pretend that we knew nothing of Boksic's Juventus in 1996 because they'd just won the European Cup, but the circumstances caught us out a little.

It was at the start of the season and the Italians had sold several of the players who had just won the cup, such as their captain Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Paulo Sousa and Pietro Vierchowod.

They still had Alessandro Del Piero, Angelo Peruzzi and Didier Deschamps and they were the ones we watched out for rather than their new players - a Frenchman called Zinedine Zidane, a defender Pablo Montero and the striker Christian Vieri.

Zidane would blossom into the world's best player and that Juventus side were the best in Europe in the late 90s, but it was another new signing who left us stunned: Boksic.

He was hardly unknown, but nobody realised just how strong, quick and skilful he was, how he could run, run and run like Forest Gump. Even Eric Cantona was outshone that night.

There have been few major surprises like that in my career because it is hard to keep a good player quiet.

The word soon spreads and rare is the day when a relative unknown stands out, like Cristiano Ronaldo did for Sporting Lisbon in 2003. He was just 18 and so good that the United players urged my old boss to sign him.

The Brazilian striker Edmundo did stun us in 2000 in Rio de Janeiro's famous Maracana.

Edmundo was with Vasco da Gama and had a reputation for partying with Romario that had eclipsed that of his talent.

Maybe we thought he wouldn't be a threat and he wasn't to me because I didn't start the game, but I saw all I needed when he spun a ball around Mikel Silvestre as if it was a yo-yo on a string. He then moved around Silvestre to where the ball was waiting for him.

I sat open-mouthed as he pulled the strings to ensure the unfancied Vasco beat United easily.

Which all reminds me of one of the oldest adages in football: fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

 

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance for European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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