Francis Cagigao: Data vs Live Scouting, Kieran Tierney, Lionel Messi and Gabriel Martinelli

I had the pleasure of speaking to Francis Cagigao, from how his life has changed after his mutual agreement to depart from Arsenal on the 1st September after serving as International Head of Recruitment, as well as dipping into the fascinating tales of scouting Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique in the Barcelona Academy and to hear his thoughts on the immediate future of scouting, given the current climate where there are so many travel restrictions and his thoughts on the use of data analytics in comparison to live scouting.

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Francis began his playing career with The Gunners. Born in Paddington, he spent four years with the club at youth level, winning the FA Youth Cup under the management of Pat Rice along the way. He moved on from Arsenal to join Barcelona B which started a professional career where he had short spells in Spain and in England before his career unfortunately ended at the expense of an ankle injury at the age of just 29 whilst at Club Lemos. 

Before the aforementioned injury, he was already coaching the Youth and Academy Teams for Club Lemos as well as playing. In doing so, Francis was rewarded with the role of First Team Manager and Technical Director of the club.  

Whilst on a week-long work experience as part of his UEFA A Coaching Badge, Francis was given the opportunity to return to North London: 

“I’d always kept in touch with people like Pat Rice and Don Howe. I was working with the Under 16’s for a week and after one of the sessions I was asked to take a meeting with Pat Rice, Arsene Wenger and Steve Rowley (then Chief Scout of the club). They told me that they were setting up a new global scouting department, and if I would like to become one of the first members. 

“I told them that I’d be delighted to be able to do it, but I had a contract in place and that I wanted to be a coach. There was an agreement in place between Club Lemos and Arsenal that I could be a part-time scout for Arsenal in Spain and Portugal, whilst I was a manager in the Spanish 3rd Division. 

Francis continued to do this for a few years before Arsenal came calling with the option of a full-time contract. I don’t believe for a minute that he would’ve imagined working in a role which he said “fell upon him by accident” to span over almost two and a half decades”.

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After discussing working under the “fantastic” Arsene Wenger and Steve Rowley, we went on to talk about the methods of scouting when joining up with the club full time. I asked what the usage of video scouting was in comparison to now, where we have a vast range of technology at our disposal to watch and analyse football:

“Video scouting has always existed, of course now we have more technology and platforms, but video scouting has always been there. Back in the day we would use VHS Recorders, we had a huge volume of games on VHS which formatted to DVD’s and from then it went to the internet” 

“You could say that a lot of the time we used it (video analysis) to save us time and money. Through that we would watch clips of players or whole games to decide where to travel. Apart from watching games live, you would also watch about 10-12 games per week on video. I’ve been doing that for the last 24 years”. 

With the evolution of data analysis nowadays, do you think that clubs leaning more heavily on this solely as a scouting method when signing players is less reliable than flying out to judge a player first-hand?

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“There’s two parts to this. Every resource that you can tailor to the specific needs to your club is important, as long as you get your percentages right. There are a lot of players who won’t come up on data, some not even on video scouting. I’ve got a lot of players I’ve scouted who have gone on to become top players or have made the club millions in transfers. To this day, some of these players would’ve been practically impossible to sign based on the use of video, online scouting or data alone. 

“There’s never been an argument for me on whether it’s Scouting vs Data, both things are needed.  

“I’ve worked with data scientists and statistic programs. I’ve also looked a lot into different data systems, there are the good and the bad. I think the important thing is who’s interpreting the information, who’s watching the game and what their knowledge is. Do they have a proven track record of recommending top level players? Do they have a proven track record of projecting the pathway of a young player?

“If you can have the experienced trained eye with a proven track record, who also can work with modern day technology and resources, then I think you’ve got the perfect fit. But again, it comes down to every club’s culture, tradition, policy and how they tailor things to suit their needs”. 

Do you think that in this current climate, data analysis is something which clubs can rely on, as there are so many travel restrictions worldwide which denies the ability to live scout?: 

“I think what we have to look at with this problem that we are facing just now as a society, is that it’s not an eternal problem, hopefully. We’re talking about something that’s disrupted all our lives for 9-12, possibly 18 months. If you’re looking at long term remedies to solve short term problems, you’re probably making an error of judgement. 

“When you’re looking at young top development players, it’s very much a long-term method. A short-term fix would be those top players who are already in the market, those who have had 7-9 seasons at the top level.

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“These next top superstars are in development or youth level at the moment. I’ll give you an example, we signed Gabi Martinelli from the fourth division in Brazil. There was hardly any data and not an extensive amount of video footage on him. So very much so, live scouting was needed, my presence was needed. Also, to find out about his character, to find out what he is like under pressure, to find out what type of background he is from and what he is like is a person, will he adapt, will he not adapt?  

“All of these things are not things you will find in numbers. You need to go out there and do your work, you need interaction. Yes, numbers are necessary, and they are very helpful. You need to still interpret them, and you need technical people to interpret them and make them valid for your club. It’s a great resource, but we must never lose the essence of football.

“Saying we don’t want scouts with a trained eye who have been coaches, players, people who are qualified and have a talent for the game, to say they’re not needed at grounds would be a little bit like saying fans aren’t needed at grounds. Let’s just keep fans watching TV. Go out there and ask the fans what they’d think about that. You would be losing the essence of the game”.

Discussing the scouting process of Kieran Tierney in relation to scouting presence requirements for upcoming talent development. Francis said:

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“A player like Kieran Tierney, we’ve watched a lot of him since he broke into the first team where you will have a lot of data and the possibility to do a lot of video scouting on the player. But that started with a recommendation from our Scottish Scout, when Kieran was a youth player. So, we’ve been watching the player since then, since when we didn’t have data or video scouting available on him. Like those cases, there are many many more. 

“Also, I have used online and video scouting a lot myself, but you must remember that when you watch a game on a screen, it tracks the ball, what you’re getting is everything in relation to the ball. Now of course, that is hugely important but there are other areas such as off the ball movement, things that players are doing off the ball which is not caught on camera. Of course, the offensive actions will be caught. The offensive off the ball actions will be caught on camera but you’ve got a lot of other things that are to do with decision making, creating and filling space, compactness and tactical decisions where you can study a players tactical makeup, his awareness and his understanding of the game which you won’t get on video and online scouting. You need to be at the game. 

“Don’t think that scouts don’t analyse because in some areas there seems to be a question where they are trying to use analysis against scouts, scouts are analysts. That’s what a scout is, they analyse players individually. They also analyse teams a lot of the time, I spent seven years analysing opponents in the Champions League for Arsenal”.  

You witnessed a lot of talent, but during your 24 years at Arsenal, who was the most exciting player that you witnessed when scouting?:

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“As a scout, you see a lot of top talents. Some you’re able to recommend and sign, others you’re not able to even recommend, let alone sign for various reasons. When we signed Cesc Fabregas, we did try to sign Pique and Messi, that is a true story. For work permit reasons and bureaucracy reasons we couldn’t go down that line with Leo Messi. We were very, very close, I’d say an inch away to signing Gerard Pique.

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He was in London and he was very close to joining us. But out of the three we got one very good player (Fabregas), and at the time we got an exceptional player, who became the youngest ever player to debut with Arsenal at the time, one of the youngest captains in history, a World Cup winner and a player who went on to make a lot of money for the club when he was sold, at a time the club didn’t want to sell him, but he wanted to leave after giving the club nearly nine years. So, I’d say he is one of those players. 

Gabi Martinelli of late is another one, completely different players but the same focus, the same determination, hunger to succeed and drive. You can see already that he’s going to be a top, top player. Both have something very much in common in that they adapted far quicker than we thought they would. In the case of Cesc, it was 6 months, with Gabi it was 3 months. he adapted exceptionally quickly to the situation.

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Then you’ve got somebody like Emi Martinez, who I first saw in 2009 in the South American U17’s in Chile. You couldn’t say that Emi really broke through until nine years later, that for me is a tremendous success story. That wasn’t through not adapting, it was more through when you’re a goalkeeper that only one can play, if you’re an outfield player there are ten spots to fill. The fact that last season he could show his exceptional ability, talent and character, is a fantastic success story for scouting and of course the development of the club. We had some great goalkeeping coaches, people like Gerry Peyton and Sal Bibbo working with him over the years. 

But it is a great success story, of course he’s left Arsenal now, but he’s gone for big money, and that is a success story for both him and for scouting”. 

What were your final months like at Arsenal amidst all the changes due to the pandemic?

At this time, I could only video scout. I would be watching 6/7 games on video every day, also watching the edited clips that I would be given. But I did what I could with the resources I had at the time.  

But yes, you are frustrated because you can’t go and see those other things. Luckily, we’re talking about what was a short space of time, so all those players (I’d watched on video) had been very much scouted beforehand and in some cases for many years.

Did you begin to scout any new players during this time where you couldn’t live scout?: 

“No, but clubs do that anyway. Clubs will have people looking at lower, lesser leagues, or leagues outwith what is considered the top ten leagues in the world. Most that have resources will be looking on video at these leagues. You’ll be looking at debutant players from all over the world because you will have the information and a platform that gives you those debutants information on a daily basis. 

“Then, how each club tailors it or how each clubs’ hierarchies decide to go about it is a decision that each club makes. I think over the last few years, a club like Liverpool, they seem to have got their percentages right. They’ve got a top class, elite manager, but they’ve also done very well with their academy, and within their scouting and recruitment, you see the figure of someone like (Arthur) Edwards who is very strongly data driven, but working alongside people like Barry Hunter, people with a very good track record in scouting. They seem to have come across the perfect mould for Liverpool Football Club, which a lot of clubs can aspire to”.

Did your experience change from Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta being in charge?

“First and foremost, they are all very good coaches and managers. I think that someone with the longevity and track record of Arsene at Arsenal is incomparable. Who can you compare it to? Alex Ferguson, maybe? People that have left legacies, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein.

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Unai and Mikel are modern day managers, Unai has won trophies and Mikel, you’re talking about somebody who has just started his managerial career. Mikel is somebody who I think could go on to be an exceptional manager, but of course he’s at the start. He’s had a fantastic apprenticeship at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola which I think has been fundamental in his learning curve. But I think he’s at the right club, because he was an Arsenal player and he understands the club, he’ll have a burning ambition to do well.

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But all of them have brought good things to the table, in terms of their relationship with scouting and recruitment, I think it would be unfair to judge Unai or Mikel with Arsene at this time. But the scouting and recruitment departments are there to identify and recommend, then of course it’s the club who sign the players and in a lot of cases of those players it was Arsene who had the final say, he believed in his scouting and recruitment groups. 

I think in terms of someone who has given a chance or helped progress young players or made them top, world stage footballers, I think Arsene Wenger is incomparable”. 

Last question on the video scouting side, were any of your high-profile recommendations ever signed without live scouting them?

“In my time at the club, we had to see every player. Even the really well-known ones, Arsene would insist on up to date reports. On how they played, on their movement on and off the ball, how they were physically and their mindset. He would want you going to watch games live and reporting back.

“Arsene didn’t have the time to travel and watch live football, I think he only came with me twice to watch a game live, and one was a Champions League Semi Final. The rest of the time, he would watch as much as he could on a screen, and you would get a lot of cases of him seeing something on a screen and asking if we knew this player and telling us to go and watch them live. So, in some cases, that’s how it would work.  

“I can’t remember signing a player basically just off video, but I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen and I’m not saying that it couldn’t be a success. But I think if you were to call it gambling, I think the percentages would be lower than having seem them various times live. 

“It’s all good and well saying I’m going to buy a £50 suit off the peg and to say let’s give it a go but if you want a tailor-made suit that you’re paying over £1000 for, well are you not going to try it on? If you’re not going to try on a tailor-made suit that you’re paying over a grand for it then good luck. Then maybe the sleeves are too short, or I know it’s modern day but if the ankles are showing too much then you might have very well made a mistake. 

Lastly, what is next for you as the dust settles on almost a quarter-century of success in North London? Will we see you operate and bring more high-profile names to the future of the game?: 

“Well I’ve had half my life at a club where I started my career, so I’m at a moment now where I’ve generated a lot of experience and I’m excited in terms of what the future can bring. 

“I’m in a situation where what I have to do first and foremost is to listen, to see what’s out there, listen to projects, and when there is a project that is a perfect fit for me then I’ll look to return. But it does have to be something that falls in line with my skill set, my mentality and thinking on the game. 

“Sometimes this can take a week, and you can jump straight back in, but I think before doing that, you have to take some time to reflect and you have to take some time to see what’s out there, to listen to people. That’s the moment I’m in, I left Arsenal on the 1st of September and that’s very recent, so now is the time to reflect and to listen to people before I’m in a position to make that sort of decision”.

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