October 24, 2021

‘Haaland knew even if he played badly, he’d play again’ – How Red Bull became the scouting kings of Europe

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A host of the continent’s top talents came through either Leipzig or Salzburg, and now those who made it happen are building their own projects

Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane, Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Naby Keita… the list of talents to come through the Red Bull system goes on and on.

Whether a player makes their mark at RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls or Red Bull Bragantino, what makes the system so unique is that every club has the same clear vision for their players.

Other clubs are being forced to play catch-up when it comes to talent identification and scouting, and it is no surprise that a host of former staff members from the Red Bull group are now working at other top clubs.

From AC Milan to Chelsea, Monaco to Southampton, Red Bull’s fingerprints in terms of both scouting and coaching can be found almost anywhere, and the same can be said of Eredivisie outfit Vitesse.

Johannes Spors, once the chief scout at Leipzig, is now the sporting director for the Dutch club, and has brought across a number of his former colleagues to work alongside him in Arnhem.

Spors, like so many coaches and sporting directors around Europe, takes his inspiration from Ralf Rangnick – the man dubbed the ‘godfather’ of modern German football.

Rangnick made his name as both the manager and sporting director at Red Bull, and Spors is now aiming to put what he learned under the 62-year-old into action himself.

“Ralf is very clear in his playing style, along with the coaches he developed,” Spors tells Goal. “That’s how his style spreads, when you see how many coaches in Germany and around Europe have worked with him.

“There’s also people like myself who have different roles, and all these people are convinced of that playing style. It is a massive development and it is important for football. In the end, football is always a battle of ideas, the important thing is that this is just one idea.

“Ralf’s really big strength is club building. He took me to Red Bull [after working together at Hoffenheim] and because of him I went there. We went from the second division to the Champions League. We scouted and recruited all the players together including Timo Werner, Upamecano and Naby Keita.

“I learned a lot from him from very intense work. He is always in the driving seat and he wants a lot from everybody, but you can always trust that he is doing even more himself.

“It is always to put the philosophy first. This is very important and a big difference from Red Bull to other clubs. It is a key factor to a successful club: to try and innovate in every department each season.”

Spors moved into his Vitesse role after signing both Werner and Upamecano for Leipzig – two players the Bundesliga title challengers have since sold for a combined €95 million (£84.5m/$111m) to Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively. Those signings followed a prolonged scouting period before the club’s vision was laid out to the player.

Similar processes take place at Salzburg, the club that persuaded a teenage Haaland to join from Molde in 2019 ahead of his emergence as the top young striker in world football.

“Timo Werner was one of the players we scouted, he had just been relegated to the second division with Stuttgart,” Spors continues. “Again, why did we decide to go for him? Because there was a clear strategy.

“There was a clear profile for his position in terms of where he fit in. It is one of the qualities of good scouting: to see the potential and to have an environment that’s ready to let a player grow.

“When you sign young players, clubs in Germany can often be for the beginning of a career. That’s the same at Vitesse. I tell my players when we sign them here at Vitesse, I say in four years we don’t want to have you here. I want you to make the next step, and I will drive you there.

“The key for a young player is playing time. A young player needs playing time that’s high enough for his development, but not too high, so that’s why Haaland is a very good example.

“I am sure he had the chance to go to a big English club directly, but you need the basis of your career between 17-20 to have matches at a high level, but not too high. That’s exactly what Haaland had at Salzburg.

“He knew he would play and if he played badly, he knew he would play again.

“I still remember when Upamecano came to Leipzig, the first two matches he was substituted at half-time or before half-time. He played against [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang and got a yellow card, made a second foul and [Ralph] Hasenhuttl had to substitute him.

“He didn’t kill him for making a mistake or nearly making a mistake. He brought him back again right away, and then you see development. It is important you see the right level of playing time, that’s important.”

Now at Vitesse, Spors finds himself lower on the football food chain, but with more responsibility.

Although famous in the UK for their multiple loans of Chelsea players, Vitesse are much more than that.

They want to grow through sustained European qualification, though they understand that closing the gap to far wealthier sides such as Ajax is a challenge.

“Vitesse offered me a very good, logical first step as a sporting director because it is an innovative environment again,” Spors adds. “They were looking for a sporting director to implement a clear vision and strategy at the club, so I felt there is enough room for me to influence the club.

“After my background, this is where I come from: to put playing style and philosophy first. This is what I learned from Ralf Rangnick in that time.

“This is an innovative club that wants to develop young players and as a whole organisation. Europe is the goal. Europa League or Conference League, not Champions League, if we are honest with ourselves.

“When it comes to winning the league, honestly, it is not realistic. The budget difference between us and Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord and even AZ Alkmaar is so massive. But we want to work to close the gap.

“Of course, you see this season, we are in the cup final and we are always in this competition to win it. In the league, we would have to work very hard to close that gap.”