Arsenal fans of a more recent vintage may not remember Danny Karbassiyoon. He was a rarity - an American kid, raised in Roanoake, VA, he signed a contract with Arsenal in 2003, and started his first game the following year, a League Cup match against Manchester City in which he scored his first Arsenal goal.
He didn't see a lot of the pitch in his two seasons at Arsenal - including a six month loan at Ipswich. After being released by Arsenal, he spent an injury-hit season at Burnley, after which he ended his senior career at 22. After his retirement, he became a scout for Arsenal, a job he has held to this day.
He has just published a book about his experiences as both player and scout, called The Arsenal Yankee, and following the book's publication, Danny recently did a book signing and Q&A in the DC area. Afterwards, our own beardyblue, who was at the reading, spoke with Danny's PR people, and through them Danny graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us about his career, his scouting experience, and about youth development in general.
TSF: First, a playing question. You were once told two days before a match that you'd be playing at left back instead of your usual striker. What is it about strikers that makes for a good left back?
DK: The modern game now caters to attack-minded full backs so much that transitioning from a role up front into a wider defensive position isn't that crazy of a change. When I moved to England as a striker, I found it difficult playing with my back to goal and holding off the bigger/stronger center halves that I was forced to deal with. At left-back, if I was aware and got into position at the right time, I rarely had to deal with situations with my back to the pitch.
I quite enjoyed being able to always open up and see everything in front of me. Defensively it was a bit difficult learning spacing, positioning, timing of approach and so on, but from an attacking point of view, I loved getting forward and joining in the attack.
TSF: What made you think scouting was the direction you'd go post-playing, and not coaching?
DK: After I finished playing, my right knee was in quite a bad state and I couldn't walk or stand for all that long. Coaching frustrated me because I always wanted to be the type of coach that could demonstrate and properly show players - especially young players - the technique I wanted to emphasize. Scouting let me still be involved but in a completely different way.
I've done a bit of coaching in the States with Arsenal's efforts there, but I'm still limited with what I can do from a physical standpoint and don't have this limitation when it comes to scouting. On top of that, when Steve Rowley called after I was done playing, it was to offer me a job in the scouting department, so that made things a bit easier!
TSF: What was it like to go on your first scouting trip?
DK: It was definitely an interesting experience. I'd gone to London for several weeks for training and scouting education and went to Miami/Fort Lauderdale from there to watch Jamaica/Switzerland on my own. Both Johan [Djourou] and Phil [Senderos] were still at Arsenal then, and I was given the task to monitor them on international duty. I was obviously quite proud walking into the stadium that day on my own for the first time as a scout, but I wanted to make sure my reports on them were as good as possible.
After focusing only on them for 90 minutes, I put my notes together and wrote two reports back at the hotel. Steve Rowley called me the next day and asked about another player. Because I'd been so hyper-focused on Phil and Johan, I hadn't really paid too much attention to anyone else. I quickly learned my lesson and made sure to improve on that the next game.
TSF: How much of what you look for is instinct? How much is measurable?
DK: I think it is a combination of the two. We look for technically gifted and intelligent players that are able to perform at a certain physical standard. If everything was measurable, it would take the difficulty out of scouting players. Seeing a player in one environment and anticipating whether or not that skillset and ability will translate to the Premier League and Arsenal specifically is what makes the job difficult.
TSF: You credit your familial melting pot of cultures for your open-mindedness and adventurousness, traits you say are key for playing overseas. How do you judge those traits in players you scout?
DK: We do a lot of homework on players before signing them. You can often judge a player's character by watching them in different situations against varying degrees of difficulty in the opposition. Seeing how they react to these situations helps paint a picture. Of course we also get in touch with agents and coaches to see what their life is like away from the pitch to help paint an even better picture of what they'll be like if and when they arrive in England.
TSF: How much of your scouting is just watching games in order to see if you can find someone vs. watching a particular player?
DK: When I first started and had a much smaller contact base, it was a lot of watching games. That can still be the case at bigger tournaments where the competition across the board is very good, but I rely heavily on my network now. You can waste a lot of time if you are aimlessly watching games without a clear target.
TSF: When you're watching games vs. watching a particular player, what are you looking to find? What jumps out at you?
DK: As mentioned above - technical ability and intelligence often stick out the most. If a player is physically gifted but clearly lacks the other two, then the decision can be an easy one. If a player ticks the first two boxes then he's off to a very good start, and I'll watch further.
The first two are so important for two reasons. If a player isn't good enough technically, the play will break down on him when he comes over. If he isn't intelligent enough, he'll be easy to mark and likely will see very little of the ball and won't be able to make an impact.
TSF: From your experience developing in the U.S. system and observing several others through your scouting, what would you say are the keys to youth player development?
DK: I think technical training, though it is improving in the States drastically, is vitally important if players expect to make it at the highest level. Players that are confident on the ball and composed technically worry less about their first touch and what comes next and are able to retain possession in pressured situations, have more time on the ball, and make better decisions as a result of it.
Combine that with football intelligence and you have players that are able to move the ball where they want to (preferably away from pressure), weight passes that are meaningful and have a high rate of completion, and ultimately just play a better brand of the game.
TSF: Are you given latitude on what teams/players to scout, or are you given pretty exact directions on who you should be looking at?
DK: Sometimes I'm given specific players to go watch. Most of the time the scout dictates where he goes in his region.
The Short Fuse would like to thank beardyblue for putting this together, Danny for taking the time to answer our questions, and Glenn Gray at Buffalo Brand Invigoration Group for putting us in touch with Danny. Go to www.thearsenalyankee.com to read more about - and buy - Danny's book.