Football clubs play a risky game with 'guru thinking' in search of an edge

Every time Claudio Ranieri bumped into Steve Walsh at Leicester City's training ground during his first few days at the club last summer, he heard the same word. The Italian was still trying to find his bearings at that stage; Walsh, though, was all business. "Whenever I saw him," the Italian remembered, "he kept saying: 'Kante, Claudio, Kante.'"

Ranieri, of course, eventually granted Leicester's head of recruitment his wish. He agreed to pay £5.6 million to Caen for a player who had shone only in the French second division and, until that point, had been deemed too much of an unknown quantity by all of those Premier League sides (Swansea, Sunderland, West Ham) who had watched him.

It was a masterstroke, the transfer that (with due deference paid to Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and, of course, Ranieri himself) was the catalyst for everything. Within a year, Leicester were champions of England for the first time in their history. After three decades of near misses, Ranieri had finally landed a title.

Meanwhile, Kante -- told as a teenager that he was too small to amount to anything -- was superb for France at Euro 2016 and would immediately join Chelsea for £32 million, six times the fee Leicester had paid, after that tournament.

Walsh, a former PE teacher who doubled up as his club's unassuming assistant manager, was being hailed as the man who had cracked the transfer market. With good reason, too: Kante was not his only success. He had spotted Mahrez, too, paying Le Havre £400,000, and Vardy while he was playing for Fleetwood Town. He had brought in Marc Albrighton on a free transfer from Aston Villa, reinvigorating the winger's career, and did the deal that would see Robert Huth paired with Wes Morgan.

No wonder that Walsh himself was in demand. Two members of the backroom team he had helped assemble -- technical scouts Ben Wrigglesworth and Rob Mackenzie -- had already been poached, the former joining Arsenal and the latter moving to Tottenham.

Last week, Walsh joined them. Farhad Moshiri, Everton's new majority shareholder, had identified the need for an overhaul of the club's antiquated off-pitch structure almost as soon as he arrived on Merseyside in February. He wanted a more modern approach centered on a technical director. He turned down the persistent overtures of Damien Comolli, who once occupied the same role at Liverpool and Tottenham. He tried to coax Monchi, Sevilla's transfer guru, to England. And then he set his sights on Walsh, offering him the chance to spend the largest budget in the club's history. He accepted. His job now is to revitalise Everton as he transformed Leicester.

It is, without doubt, something of a coup, as Richard Jolly noted on ESPN FC this week. It is a sign not just of Everton's intent, stripping the champions of a coveted asset, but also their intelligence.

There is just one note of caution. Football in general, and English football in particular, is in thrall to the cult of the individual. It is uniquely susceptible to guru thinking. The erroneous belief that problems are always best solved by signing more players, or sacking the manager, applies both on and off the field.

Walsh is not the first person to be hailed as the man who has cracked the transfer market. Among others, there was Graham Carr, for example, the chief scout at Newcastle who brought Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse to the club. Tottenham believed Franco Baldini's extensive contacts across Europe would enable them to reach players other clubs couldn't. Liverpool believed Comolli's scientific approach would reduce risk from new signings. Chelsea and Tottenham both found themselves in thrall to Frank Arnesen.

All, invariably, were described as gurus. They were heralded as almost a guarantee that the days of expensive mistakes were over. They were a cheat code, a crib sheet, a master to whom the fortunes of a club could be safely entrusted, someone who had either an inherent wisdom (Carr) or an acquired knowledge which meant they alone could see clearly amid the chaos.

In every single case, their reputation has fallen almost as fast as it rose. The magic never seems to last; after a while, the hits seem to dry up.

Cabaye made Carr's name, but that success did not inoculate him from error, as the likes of Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux (and many others) would attest. Arnesen failed upward for some time before Hamburg finally brought an end to the pattern. Comolli, self-proclaimed best friend of Billy Beane, has been out of work since leaving Liverpool, while Baldini was punished for failing to spend Spurs' Gareth Bale windfall wisely.

It is possible to spot the flaws even in Walsh's case. He made his reputation as the man who spotted Kante and Mahrez, and fine purchases they were, too. But it would be just as accurate to suggest that Everton have handed their future to the man who spent £11 million on Andrej Kramaric, or who brought in Yohan Benalouane and Gokhan Inler. The profit of his successes far outweigh the cost of his failures but it should not be ignored that he has, like everyone else, had failures.

That does not mean Walsh is a charlatan, or bad at his job, just as Carr is not bad at his and Baldini, Comolli and Arnesen are not devoid of talent or ability or knowledge, either. But what it does mean is that the transfer market is not something one person can master on their own. They can make a difference, of course, but no individual is enough.

Of all the transfer market gurus out there, few have quite as good a record as Monchi, though even he had a bit of a disappointing spell in the middle of his time in Sevilla. It is worth considering his opinion, which is that what matters most of all is the system.

Monchi has 16 scouts at his disposal in Seville, watching games from all over the world, but concentrating on certain leagues. He likes France -- "the level of competition, apart from Paris Saint-Germain, is very good" -- and prefers Belgium, for example, to Portugal and to South America. His scouts know what they are looking for. They know whose opinions they trust most among their own networks of contacts. They do their due diligence. They work as a unit.

One signing is not enough on its own to turn an also-ran into a contender. The right manager, the right teammates, the right environment all have to be in place. Even at Leicester, Kante was a catalyst: He ignited the other elements, but only did so because the other elements were not inert.

It is the same off it. What makes a difference in the transfer market -- meaning, a club getting more right than they get wrong -- is the system that team has in place. Walsh isn't arriving at Everton with a list of players nobody else is able to access. He has his judgment, of course, but to use it properly he needs a framework behind him: the right people in the right places watching the right games in the right way.

Walsh had that at Leicester, which is why they could sign Kante after Mackenzie left. It may take some time for it to develop at Everton, and, sadly, there is no guarantee that it will at all. Scouting is a team game. There is no such thing as a guru.