Maybe this is just an excuse to post this story on Kolo Toure’s trial at Arsenal, which is great. But there is a lesson here about the shifty nature of talent, and a big problem with the idea that the Data Will Set Us Free when it comes to identifying future stars.
Please watch first before reading, but in case you don’t want to, essentially Ray Parlour says Toure played a game as a trialist and subsequently tackled Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and then ARSENE WENGER, the manager. Parlour finishes the story with the inevitable conclusion: Wenger, with an ice pack on his swollen ankle, signs Toure because of his ‘desire.’
Now, even keeping in mind this story could be apocryphal, you might be inclined to say something stupid here like, “See? Even stuffy economist Wenger knows the importance of passion in the game!” But obviously Wenger didn’t sign Toure just because he tackled everyone like a maniac. He already had something of a career at ASEC Mimosas (best team name ever), and likely played pretty well. Moreover he was cheap at £150,000 and was a full international so could secure a work permit. Wenger didn’t have much to lose.
But even with the low cost to Arsenal should Toure have failed, the element of desire indicated something vital: a commitment to improve. Any manager, particularly one of Wenger’s experience, wouldn’t sign a player without the expectation of growth and improvement.
There are probably several good reasons to be skeptical about the power of data in transforming the player recruitment process, but I think the chief trap is to view numbers as essential characteristics of a player, without looking into which qualities can be improved upon, or are inflated or deflated by their teammates, and which are, well, in-born.
Keep in mind, we haven’t even scratched the surface of decent predictive metrics for non-strikers, and I’m willing to bet nothing of the sort existed in 2002 when Toure, the centreback, was first signed. All Wenger had to go on was this little trial and a subjective impression which could have turned out later to be dead wrong, though Wenger certainly didn’t overpay.
Yet Wenger certainly didn’t sign Toure as a finished product either, but a hope—based on previous experience—that his personal qualities would translate to success. And indeed, Toure played on the Invincibles side that won the 2003-04 Premier League.
This is why recruitment will go beyond a single set of elements. Decent stats might point to underlying, essential qualities that exist in players regardless of team, qualities that are a clear sign of talent. But that is merely a layer…there is also the prospect of improvement, and part of that requires a certain disposition from the player, great first team coaches, and the knowledge that it might not work out but that’s okay, because you paid the right price.