An exclusive look into youth scouting at Manchester United
‘The greatest hobby in the world.’ Dutchman Rene Moonen (61) has been happily active in youth football scouting for over 20 years. Serving HFC Haarlem, Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, and the Dutch football federation KNVB, he is now more than five years active as an academy youth scout for Manchester United. For the English giants, he focuses entirely on the Dutch market. Who scores an ‘A+’ in his scouting book has an excellent shot for a professional career in England. “It gives a kick to spot new talent—every single time. Especially if you beat other scouts in the process.”
As a 15-year-old goalkeeper, he almost ended up in England himself. After stopping five penalties for the first team of his boyhood club, Ripperda, during a tournament final in Amsterdam, Norwich City tried to tempt him into a transfer. “But my father wouldn’t hear anything of it. ‘Are you out of your mind,’ he said. Of course, it would have been a nice move, but I never blamed my dad for not letting me go. It was another time. Whereas nowadays players go abroad at the age of sixteen, back then that was just unthinkable.”
Ultimately, a cruciate ligament injury forced Moonen to give up on his professional dream when he was only 22 years old. However, when his sons started playing football at HFC DCO in Haarlem, he got the itch again and began working as a youth coach at the club. After just one year, he was scouted by HFC Haarlem, where he got in charge of the U-15 team. The now-defunct professional club asked him soon after joining to also set up the scouting. Within a year, talents started to arrive in droves.
When HFC Haarlem and Ajax established a partnership, Moonen decided to focus entirely on his scouting job. “We had to organize the scouting in such a way that we could also deliver players to Ajax. That went so well that Ajax asked me to come and work for them full-time as Coordinator Youth Scouting. Now, I grew up with that club, and it’s in my heart, so there was no need for me to think long and hard about that”, says the protagonist, who eventually had to leave after an internal power struggle within the Amsterdam club, the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ of Johan Cruyff.
After leaving Ajax, Moonen found himself without a job. But despite that, he kept scouting—first for himself, later on an expenses basis for AZ Alkmaar and the KNVB. With good reason: “If you don’t scout for one year, you’ll get too much behind and miss out on new talent.”
Via a London headhunting agency, he eventually landed on the radar of Manchester United. “An absolute dream club, where not everyone is simply asked to join. I must admit that I cheered a bit internally when I heard they wanted to bring me in. That’s how I ended up in England after all”, Moonen laughs.
‘As a scout you look deeper into the total package of a player’
As a youth scout for Manchester United, Moonen has been mapping the up-and-coming football talents in the Netherlands for the last five years. He focuses mainly on the youngsters of the Dutch professional football clubs, from the U-13 to the U-18.
A deliberate choice, he reveals: “In this period, players are in full development and get one or more growth spurts. How they deal with that tells a lot about their character. Moreover, I want to see players for at least four seasons before giving the green light for a transfer. The decision is too important to make based on just a few matches. The step to England is a culture shock for a young player, so you must think about it carefully. A good youth scout also takes the human aspect of a deal into account. After all, we are talking about kids here, not objects.”
During the week, Moonen is present at practice and cup matches. On the weekend, at several league games. This way, he sees between 350 and 400 youth matches a season, intending to see all teams – from the U-13 to the U-18 – of all Dutch professional teams at least once.
“That’s the only way to get a better understanding of the talent that’s out there,” explains the top scout about his way of working. “Every season, I start with generally watching games, but once I’ve seen a player that stands out, I will check him out about eight more times that football year. If it’s a player who proves interesting, then I want to see him at least ten more times in action in the following seasons. So by the time I give my blessing, I will have watched him at least 35 times. By that time, you will know if he plays well and how he is composed physically and mentally. You will notice, for example, how he deals with turnovers, how he reacts to fouls, decisions of the referee, and so on.”
But what exactly is he looking for when it comes to identifying talent? Moonen laughs and explains that there is no simple answer to that question. After all, it differs per position. “You will always look at common characteristics such as mobility, ball control, physicality, and so on. But per position, there are other, specific aspects that you need to take into account. For example, when scouting a goalkeeper, I will look at his reflexes. The taller someone is, the more difficult that is. As a scout, you look at the total package of a player.”
Objective data in youth scouting
In his work, Moonen relies blindly on his judgment and does not use objective data to support his conclusions. He acknowledges the value of such data but only as an additional tool in the scouting process. “Scouting is and remains a matter of feeling. It is so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to catch. Moreover, data is only interesting if it is relevant to my work. The number of ball touches is interesting, but what matters is what a player does with it. And that is what I can evaluate perfectly from the touchline. Objective data for me is not more than a helpful tool; my findings remain leading.”
According to Moonen, innovative talent development platforms such as JOGO that – through data – provide a good overview of a youth player’s technical, tactical, mental, and physical abilities could still help scouts in several ways. Not just as an additional talent pool to fish from but also to bolster their evaluations. “I could add data to scouting reports to support my findings. Every interesting player ends up having a report describing his technical, tactical (offensive and defensive tactics), physical and mental capacities—all points where objective data can strengthen my narrative.”
Player database of thousands of youth footballers
All the information that Moonen collects during his job ends up in his own database. Since his time at HFC Haarlem, the scout kept updating an Excel file with all the talents in the Netherlands. Over ten thousand youth footballers are herein neatly arranged by season. Behind every player’s name, age, date of birth, current club, and preferred foot (left, right, or two-footed) are visible. Moonen’s ratings (A+, A, B, or C), including those of previous seasons, wrap it all up.
“A ‘C’ is a bit tricky. It can swing to a ‘B’ or to a grade that is unfit for professional football. A player is suitable for a pro career with a ‘B’-score, but he will never be a nailed-down starter. A score of ‘A’ is a future first-team player, and ‘A+’ is world-class”, explains Moonen, who also keeps track of an Excel file with all the youth football tournaments in the world so that he and his colleagues never miss a scouting moment.
The transfer was quite the talk of the town: how could it happen that a boy from NAC Breda ends up at Manchester United? That’s the thrill I get from my work and the result of knowing all the players out there.”
Every player that Moonen scouts also ends up in Manchester United’s player database. “In there, I only put Dutch talents who stand out. If it’s an absolute must-have, I can even flag them in the system. Then my bosses can ask me for additional scouting reports on him and decide to follow up by sending people over to see him perform live. Therefore I’m not particularly eager to talk about players I scouted because it’s always a team effort. Several people have to give their opinion before a player is brought in at all.”
Moonen gives as an example Björn Hardley of NAC Breda, who left for Manchester United in mid-2019. “He had not attracted the attention of any other club yet. Understandable, given that very few scouts come to see NAC Breda. The advantage of my work method is that I go everywhere and therefore was able to see him in action. Right away, my mouth fell wide open: ‘Wow, this is a special kid.'”
“Then I started to follow him more intensively, even together with a fellow Manchester United scout from the Netherlands,” continues Moonen passionately. “He was also immediately blown away, after which four more people from United saw him in action in different matches. In the end, everyone was enthusiastic and now he plays for us. The transfer was quite the talk of the town: how could it happen that a boy from NAC Breda ends up at Manchester United? That’s the thrill I get from my work and the result of knowing all the players out there.”
Hardley was one of the last Dutch talents to move to Manchester United at the age of 16. Thanks to Brexit, it’s no longer possible for English clubs to bring in foreign players under 18. It doesn’t make Moonen’s job any easier. “All the regulations require a very creative way of working,” he laughs. “There are currently two things we can do: find out if we can start a partnership with a Dutch club so that we can house a talent there for two years, or wait until he is eighteen and in the meantime contact his family and present a nice plan for the future.”
Establishing a confidential relationship with a talent and his parents is anyway an essential part of a scout’s job, Moonen states. “That way, you can get more done. Besides, you learn firsthand how a player is composed mentally. Building a bond is not easy, but often it’s enough to say hello to people and show your face regularly. People then start to recognize you and often come up to you by themselves: ‘I’ve seen you so often, I’d like to know who you are’. And quickly you start talking to each other. It’s a simple matter of opening up to people.”
‘It all starts with having fun’
In conclusion, Moonen has one more tip for amateur clubs to develop their players better: to invest more in the youngest age groups. “Many clubs put their best trainers on the U-19, but they should be on the U-7 or U-8. Those are the ages at which young footballers pick up a lot, are formed, and get better. That’s where the emphasis in youth development should be”, says Moonen. “Besides, if you’re not in your club’s first team at the age of 18 or 19, you’re not going to reach the top anyway. It’s different at a professional level, but if you don’t play in the first team of your amateur club at that age, something hasn’t gone right.”
According to Manchester United’s top scout, the main focus in youth development should always be on having fun. “Fun is the basis of everything, also in the development of a youth footballer. If you do something you enjoy, you automatically do it more often and improve on the go. Without fun, you’ll not deliver, learn and get better. Especially at an early age, it’s all about having fun.”
Moonen can relate because if anyone enjoys what he’s doing, it’s him. “I get paid to do my hobby. They give me money to watch the most beautiful game in the world; what more can one ask for?”