We have got a very good structure of scouting and data at Sevilla: Monchi
Engineers, mathematicians and statisticians contribute to choosing players, says one of football’s best sporting directors
A football game can generate 8 million data points so you need to know what is important for you, said Monchi. For that, the Sevilla sporting director—and one of football’s most sought after names—said he works with a team of nine who are engineers, statisticians or mathematicians. Big Data, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence are now welded to elite football and speaking through a translator, Monchi said: “If you don’t take data into account, it is not a good thing.”
Twelve full-time scouts in Monchi’s team watch games in Austria, France, Belgium, Brazil, Portugal, Croatia, among other countries. “My team sees around 60 games a month. I see around 15 because I have other functions,” he said.
That, in brief, is how the team that has won a record six Europa League titles choose their personnel. Sevilla have been unbeaten in Spain in their last 10 games and are fourth in La Liga on 48 points from 23 games, two behind third-placed Barcelona whom they host on Saturday. “Our morale is high but they have a player called Messi,” said Monchi ahead of the La Liga tie. Sevilla beat Barcelona 2-0 in the first-leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and the teams will again meet midweek in the return-leg.
Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, or Monchi, has an expressive face but to answer the question on the importance of scouting and data, he used his hands a lot. “The first information comes from the scouting system who are [sic] watching a lot of games but we get a series of filters,” he said, taking palms close to his mouth and holding one below the other to indicate layers.
“We reduce the numbers to 20-25 players per position. Then we give this list to the data department for an objective opinion of the players. We also sit with the coach to seek the profile of the player he is looking for,” he said, in a Zoom call on Friday. The pandemic meant scouting “happened on computer screens.” “But though we worked differently, we still did good,” he said.
Selection happens when instinct meets data—subjective information of the scouts is backed by numbers and matches that the coach wants—he said. Who would he want to buy now? “How much money have I got, a lot,” he asked. Then it would be Pedri (Barcelona) and Ferran Torres (Manchester City), he said.
The system of signing players at Sevilla has been fine-tuned by Monchi over almost two decades in this role. With a shrug—Monchi’s dark suit contrasts the white walls and a white tactics board where the lines are drawn in black—he said he wasn’t worthy of being someone who would leave a legacy. “But I am very proud, together with my colleagues, to be able to create a structure for sports management in the data department. I think we have got a very good structure of scouting and data at Sevilla.” Among his former colleagues is Victor Orta who is now at Leeds United. Among the many people he learnt from is Luis Aragones, the former Spain and Sevilla coach.
Monchi’s first project at Sevilla was to rebuild a team demoted from La Liga in 2000. He had been a Sevilla player, studied law and business administration but, according to an interview in The Athletic, had no idea about the job role of a sporting director. Ten trophies including Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup since are proof that he hasn’t learned too badly on the job. The secret sauce? “Can’t give you a specific answer but I think it is a series of good things we have done. Our main virtue is that we all row in the same direction. It seems simple but it doesn’t always happen like that.”
Football has seen a massive shift from when managers would take the call on buying players. Monchi did not say whether the sports director’s job is the most important in a club—though he has in the past held himself and not the coach responsible for a poor season—but accepted that it is one that has the “most responsibility.”
“This person has to manage the budget. The sports director’s position in the football world is increasingly gaining importance and there is a lot more training; leagues are really concerned about training professional people in sports management,” he said, right hand sweeping across the screen.
But like players, some sporting directors don’t travel well. “It is true because the sports director really needs to know the philosophy of the club, its idiosyncrasies, the fans, the media. Those are additional factors that help them work better,” he said.
Monchi lasted less than two years at Roma where he had joined in 2017 after working wonders at Sevilla and generating an estimated profit of 200m euros. Selling Mo Salah to Liverpool and Antonio Rudiger to Chelsea meant Roma’s books and form were inversely proportional.
To Sevilla he returned in 2019 and with new coach Julen Lopetegui began another rebuilding project; one that had the club selling 24 players and buying 15 including Lucas Ocampos, Luuk de Jong. Youssef En-Nesyri joined in January 2020. A transformation process, he said.
A return to the Champions League, winning the Europa League— “maybe other teams don’t give it that importance but it is in our mentality to win the Europa League”—and a good run for two successive La Liga seasons ensued. It has generated interest in En-Nesyri, among others. “I have never been worried about selling players,” he said.
Though he didn’t initially want to talk about anyone in particular, Monchi did, after some prodding, pick the arrival of Dani Alves at Sevilla as a fond memory. “He fulfilled all the steps; unknown player, successful and sold for a high amount.”
Even for a team whose motto is that they never surrender, Monchi said overturning a 2-3 deficit away to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League round of 16 would be difficult. Winning La Liga this term too is not something Sevilla are looking at now, he said. What they are focusing on is closing the gap with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. “But to do that, we need to be in the Champions League regularly. More income means a more competitive squad.” Being among the Spanish elite is the first step to being among the best in Europe, he said.
And bad news for all those who are thinking of poaching Monchi—the list of those who have considered him has names such as Manchester United, Barcelona, PSG, Arsenal, Real Madrid. He is going nowhere. “I have their (Sevilla’s) trust and independence. And I am a Sevilla supporter. I like where I am at the moment.”