TGG Podcast #34: Mariela Nisotaki - Norwich’s recruitment pioneer
Written by Simon Austin — January 3, 2022
MARIELA NISOTAKI is the Head of Emerging Talent at Norwich City - and the only female scout on the circuit in the UK.
In Episode #34 of the TGG Podcast, Mariela told us what her job involves, how she balances data with live eyes and why Norwich are an ambitious club doing things their own way.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.
1. What's your role?
Mariela Nisotaki: My role is Head of Emerging Talent. I am leading the scouting of players who are 17 to 21-years-old, who are either ready for the first team or who need one, two years to get there. This is domestically and internationally.
It’s a new role but we’re actually always working on that anyway. Everyone knows Norwich and the history of the young players and emerging markets. It’s something we always want to invest in.
2. How did you get to this position?
I’m from Greece originally and knew from a very young age that I wanted to do something with sport. Like a lot of people involved in football, I started playing Football Manager when I was quite young.
My dad was like, ‘Why do you know all of this, it’s not important.’ Now we laugh about that!
I went to the University of Athens and studied sport science and physical education. In the fourth year you had to get a specialisation, so I decided to do football, and started coaching a little bit, in Academies.
Then I went to Cardiff Met and did an analysis Masters for a year. When I was there I had an internship with the women’s team at the University and also with Hockey Wales.
Swansea was my first role in professional football, and I did a bit of scouting, a bit of analysis for them. It was a new project, which involved analysis for scouting, with Ryan Needs, Garry Monk and Pep Clotet. They wanted to use their own KPIs to evaluate players.
This project stopped after Garry left and I left too, after a season, at the end of my contract. I went back to Greece for four months, as Head Performance Analyst with Atromitos in Athens, which was good experience for me, travelling and sitting on the bench for matches.
Then I had the offer from Norwich, to start in the scouting department, which is what I had wanted to do from the beginning. I’ve now been here for five years and have taken on different roles. I started as a Technical Scout when Alex Neil was manager and Donald Barron and Sam Pope were working in the technical scouting department.
My core responsibilities were scouting, using data, co-ordinating with the scouts, all to make sure we didn’t miss anything, as well as helping to identify targets, creating video files, dossiers, doing research in the background.
With a lot of reports coming in, it’s easy for things to be missed in the routine of a football club. After one-and-a-half years I was asked to head that department, working again with Lee Dunn, who was Head of Recruitment Analysis and is now our Head of Recruitment.
It was similar to my previous role but with a bit more responsibility. I started doing a bit more scouting, travelling a lot abroad, in Holland and Belgium and South America. And we are here today with my new role from August.
3. Emiliano Buendia and giving context to data
Every transfer is teamwork. Emi was scoring quite high in our data, in our KPIs, playing for a not very big club in the Second Division in Spain.
Emi was creating a lot of chances. Maybe his assists or goal contributions weren’t very high, but if you saw his chances created compared to the quality of the team, it was very high.
A lot of people say, ‘The data might lie, we don’t have the whole picture,’ and I understand that, but at the end of the day data is facts and the most important thing is how we use it to answer questions.
If we ask the wrong questions then we get the wrong answers. It’s very important to try to get the context. When somebody is in a team that is maybe not playing very well, the actual data might not look very good, but you have to get the context, the team style, to get a better picture.
That’s what we did with Emi, looking beyond the quality of the team and at the individual qualities. Playing in a better team with a different style we thought he could really improve.
Fair play to Kieran (Scott) and Stuart (Webber), they jumped into it quickly and decided to sign the player. We live in a world where no-one can really miss a player, because with one button you can see a player in Chile, you don’t have to travel.
So it’s everything about the decision and timing and being brave to do it.
4. Having a clear game model
If these pillars are not on the same page then it’s difficult for a transfer to really work. You need a clear game model and it’s a lot easier when that comes from the top and is clear for everyone.
Everyone looks for potential and skill - technical, tactical and physical - but the most important thing is to look for a player who is right for your team.
If we go together and watch a game we will probably spot the best player, this is not difficult. Spotting the right player for your team is most important.
5. Scouting at a live match
When you are watching a game there is a lot of information for your mind to process. It’s not the same as watching Champions League with a beer with your friends. You have to be focused. There are a lot of things going on.
When you have to watch two, three games in a row this can become tiring, which is why technology, data, can come in, because we are going to miss things, for sure.
During the match I take notes on my phone, because my handwriting is not very clear to read. It’s good to write the report as soon as possible after the game, so it is still fresh - especially in a tournament when there are a lot of games in a small period of time.
When we write our report after the games, it is only words. Video and data come in different parts of the process.
We have an emerging talent scout and we work together, but also all the scouts we have for the first team are scouting emerging talent as well, so I am always in communication with them.
We are not a big department in terms of the numbers, which is good, it means communication is easier, but I am working very closely with Lee (Dunn).
We have to get al the information and start this process, but when it comes to actual recruitment Stuart (Webber) takes care of that.
6. Impact of Brexit
Europe is the biggest market for us still, although it is more difficult to recruit players from the second divisions of Spain, Germany. You have to adapt and find your opportunities elsewhere.
We probably haven’t seen the results yet, but it will change a lot of things. We want to see it as an opportunity. It will close some markets more but open up other opportunities, for example South America.
Sometimes you might be able to appeal when a player is under 21. We have to be open-minded and also creative with what we are doing, that is part of the role as well.
It’s definitely not like before though, where everybody was allowed to come (from Europe). If the players are playing in their national teams, if they have senior minutes (they might still be able to sign).
It was something we saw coming and were preparing for. That’s the reason we have already started the process of scouting North America, South America, although Europe is still a big market for us, with the top five leagues.
7. Being a female (and Greek) role model
Andrea Orts and Helena Costa are the only two scouts I have met in the stadiums. Helena works for Eintracht Frankfurt and Andrea for Espanayol. I hope there are more, at least office-based.
I don’t think a lot about it (being a woman in scouting) or let it influence my job. If I can motivate or inspire other women, then great. We just have to be confident and work hard.
Education is the most important thing and has to start from a very young age, to encourage more women to come into the game.
If you can distinguish yourself on something, if you are different, then people tend to remember you. You can turn what seems like a weakness into an opportunity into a strength.
When I started (in scouting and analysis), it wasn’t very common in Greece and I didn’t have a lot of people to ask. If I can help someone to find what he or she wants to do and follow that then that’s great for me.
That’s why I and a colleague set up a coaching course in Greece three years ago, to try and pass some experience back to the country.
I have spoken to a few women who really want to get involved and I’m really happy for that. I believe it will change soon.
8. Data v human eyes
There is no real debate - you need to have the balance between the two. I can’t see data being a threat to scouts. If you are intelligent enough and open-minded enough, you will see the data as something that can support your work and help you make better decisions.
I don’t think you can completely eliminate the human factor though. Data and video and technology can help you to become more efficient, which is important, because there is not a lot of time in football.
But you need decision-making and that has to come from a human. The way data is used also has to come from a human. Scouting includes a lot of networking, establishing connections, finding information.
We use data in the process and are lucky we’re really well backed up, because Stuart believes in that. We use data at the start of the process, especially in the second-tier leagues, to flag players to start watching.
We are trying to be efficient, this is probably the best word. Your technical skills are the base and you need to have a level, but after that there are other factors that play a very important role.
Building personal relationships is one of the most important skills you can have in life in general. We have seen a big shift and need to really be on top of that and use any tech we have available, because at the end of the day that makes us better.
9. Do Norwich lack ambition?
I don’t think this is the right thing to say, that the club lacks ambition. The club is very ambitious. We want to improve, but we are trying to do it our way, which is perhaps not the common way, it is a different way.
We are a self-funding club and are trying to do it with young players. Sometimes that comes with some mistakes, for sure, but we aim to become an established Premier League club and everyone here works for this target.
I joined in January 2017 and after three months a lot of things changed, with Stuart Webber coming in as Sporting Director. It was very good for me to see this transformation, the difference, the culture change, the environment change, the philosophy was very clear.
It’s a positive environment to work in and a very good learning process. I’m very lucky to be working here and appreciate every opportunity I have to learn. Not just about scouting, but all the aspects from very experienced people around you. I am just trying to make the most of it and learn.
I am quite ambitious. At the moment I am really very happy and lucky to be in an environment I am learning every day. I am very lucky I got opportunities here and that my role has progressed, getting different responsibilities and experiences which will help me a lot in the future. I am very passionate about what I am doing. I really like leadership roles.
It’s a really good club, it motivates you, you get opportunities, as happened with me. You just have to work hard and continue improving and learning. Everything else takes care of itself.