Scouting Opponents and Players in Belgium

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Luc Sanders was a professional goalkeeper for Club Brugge, Oostende, and KAA Gent in the Belgian top division. During that time he won the Belgian league championship and cup. He played for the Belgium National Team, and participated in UEFA Euro 1972. In 1976 his team drew 1-1 with Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool in the UEFA Cup Final first leg, before narrowly losing the away leg 3-2. Luc has since been a professional assistant coach and more recently scouted for Club Brugge and (currently) KAA Gent.

How do you scout opponents and players?

The last few months I have been concentrating more on game scouting. The head coach asks me to watch the next opponent and make a report using SoccerLab I write a little comment for each player – how they attack and defend, how they score, how they take set pieces, then I make notes on interesting actions within the game. Then I go in to the office on the Tuesday to chat with the coach about what I saw at the Sunday game. He will ask me a few questions. For league games scouting isn’t that important though since we are so familiar with them all – it is more when we play European games in Russia, Spain or Norway – then you have to go 2-3 times to see the team and write a big report. Normally we try to see opponents play once at home and once away. Do they play more defensively away and take more risks at home? It is important to know that.

I am also involved with player scouting – especially for goalkeepers as I used to play that position. We will look at potential goalkeepers for the first team, second team and U21 team. They send me to watch players and give a first impression, then they might invite him for a trial. If he is playing in another country in Europe I might go to see him a few times. We use a scouting company to provide all of the information (also SoccerLab) so you can find after the weekend all of the games in Europe with their details and lineups. You can go to one player and give good and bad comments and a final conclusion.

How long have you been doing it for?

I started scouting a long time ago, and had a break to be an assistant coach in Major League Soccer. When I came back to Belgium I did it first for a Norwegian coach – more in a paperwork role – looking for special things rather than general information. In our league here everyone knows every team so only when a new player is added or similar situation would they be interested. If they bring something new at a set piece I would include it too. Sometimes the general tactics and formation are important too (whether they play four in the back or three, five in the middle, one striker and so on).

How likely is the coach to change his plans based on what you tell him?

At the end of the day he’s the coach and he knows his players. It depends on the type of coach you have: last year there was a coach from Romania who was always looking more to the opponent to find their weak and strong points then he would put his team on the field to play in that way. I wouldn’t say they were defensive, but they were always waiting and anticipating. Now we have a new coach who is younger and a little bit more offensive – always high pressure – and he is putting his own ideas in there. Last week he was very happy because I brought some little things. The reaction to my comments are more after the game. Before the game they ask a few questions, but after the game they say your scouting last week was ok – we saw all the things you mentioned.

How many scouts are there in the club?

We started with 4 and now there are 6-7 scouts. There is the Technical Director, then the Head Scout, then 5-6 Scouts. While I am doing the game scouting at the moment, others are going to other countries to see players. These days agents are so important too: they bring in names and the scout have to look at them. According to the agents they are all fantastic players, so we have to see if that is correct! We have another program called InstatScout where we can find all games all over the world. If we don’t know a player – say they are from South America or Asia – you can find the player and see pre-scouting reports on there. There will be information about passing, tackles, heading, technical skills and so on.

Are you looking at finding good players in general, or are you tasked to find players for a specific position that your team needs?

We have a meeting with the Technical Director and the CEO of the club (the one who makes the financial decisions) where they discuss the upcoming transfer window. Currently we have the best striker in Belgium so there is a chance we are going to lose him in the summer. If that happens we need to be prepared to find 2-4 names to replace him. We will get profiles for the player by position – are they tall, fast, technical and so on – and then all of the scouts go out to a couple of games to look for a fit. This evening I am going to watch the top team play the 7th team but they are better than their position suggests so it will be a difficult game for them. Next week we play that top team so I am going to watch for that purpose too.

Do you also consider player personality as a factor in your reports?

Yes, very much so. We talk about how some players can be taken out of balance by talking to them. Players react in different ways and some will become nervous when they are talked to. Others stay cool, regardless of referee decisions or fans and these are important special things for the coach to know about. Always on my last page these are the kinds of things I will mention. If there is a way to influence the player’s game then it is important – not just because of a dribble, move or body position but maybe just talking. Some react on nothing! When you play at home the referees tend to favor you more, so if you can talk and push players a bit to make it hard for the visitors it is important to know how they will react.

You were a goalkeeper as a player. What abilities separate goalkeepers at the professional level from the lower levels?

The goalkeeper is a special position. You are always on your own back there. You can help them improve their skills but they need to come with a high level of technical ability. They have to be quick to the ground, quick back up, good at jumping, good with hands and these days competent with both feet too. If the ball is played back they need to be able to play it with left and right feet. One of our goalkeepers was playing very well in his first few games but is struggling now a little bit, so we had a little talk with the head coach and felt that his ability on the ball was not as great. When I played they could pass it back so it wasn’t as important to have good feet, but now they have to play like a sweeper and be ready to be part of the defensive unit. You have to be able to play it back or play it long if you are under pressure.

The tactical elements of positioning on corners and other moments is something you have to learn in the game. You can help them after the game or during the week with video sessions to talk about that. We even put our practices on video so you can bring in the goalkeeper and talk about what you have seen. Maybe they have to be further out, or back in certain situations and you can show them. You can do it for field players too – generally for tactical things – but the majority of the goalkeeping position is technique.

You’ve coached in the MLS. How would you compare the technical level and tactical understanding of players over here to what you see in Belgium?

Four weeks ago we had a left back from Missouri State training with us and he did ok, but it is difficult when they are only here for a week in the winter. He is 21 which is old for the European model. We look more for 17-18 year olds so we can sign them when they are 18. I used to coach the U21 team for Brugge and when we looked at players we needed to bring them in for a month so they could learn the players around them. His technical ability, speed and strength we can see right away, but we need to know how they play within the team and how they use their skills in the game.

3-4 years ago I was in the US for camps and the big advantage that I saw was the strength, speed and good sportsmanship. Players from Africa are always technically strong on the field but they tend to have problems off the field. With an American you never have problems off the field. Sasha Kljestan who was at Anderlecht was an example for everyone in Belgium. His work rate and motivation were excellent. Maybe for Anderlecht his technical skills were not so strong but he was a big part of the team and scored goals. In any team you need a mix of good technical players and others with other strengths. I was at the game two weeks ago when he left to play for New York Red Bulls. They had a ceremony in the center of the field and they gave him a present because the fans were crazy about him. Clint Dempsey is another example. There are plenty of technical players here already, but from those guys we can get the drive and hard work that the team needs.

I think of US as being strong for goalkeepers and defenders because they have physical strength, a good sports mentality and they stay focused. In Belgium maybe Eden Hazard is similar and we have good defensive players, but for forwards we tend to go more for African players.

Are Belgium’s current Golden Generation of players a coincidence or the result of something that has been put in place at the youth level?

We had another good team in the ‘90’s who played in the 1994 World Cup. The only difference is that now they are all playing in the top league – back then they were all playing in Belgium. Our league is an interesting league for a young player to start in for 2-3 years. Tonight I will see several scouts from England at the game. The success of our national team has made our league attractive to the top leagues to find new players. The key is how you use the talent though, and that comes from good coaches. Agents are important too – first you need talent but then you need a good agent. I think that is different in the US where the league is stricter on money. In Belgium it is a different story! Agents can be set for life with one good player so it is an attractive job to have.

The success has come from the teams though, not the Federation. They each have an academy which has grown in importance in the club because they realize that an academy player can up in England and pay for the program. Their scouts will be at our youth games in the academy because the country is so popular right now. The UEFA rules say a player has to be 18 to sign a contract. If you bring one before that age you have to bring the parents and pay for them too.

What was it like playing against Cryuff, Beckenbauer and Eusabio? Who was the best striker you faced?

It’s different for the goalkeeper if your opponent is one of these big name field players. It was always a challenge to be against them. At that time the difference between the teams across Europe was not as great as it is now. Ajax were one of the top teams so playing them was something fantastic. Playing a Spanish team was ok – obviously Real Madrid and Barcelona were good but the difference was huge. I played against Chelsea in the European Cup Quarter Final at home and we won 2-0 but that’s just not possible now for Belgian teams because of the money. The TV money in the Premiership is unbelievable now.

I don’t think any of those famous ones you mentioned scored against me, but maybe they gave an opportunity for someone else to score! There was a Hatian player on a Swiss team who was particularly good. He wasn’t a big name like the others but I remember him. I think he played in the US later on too. Peter Osgood of Chelsea was a very difficult striker to play against because he was so tall and at that time they were crossing the ball into the area a lot.

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