Francis Cagigao Had it Coming (Part 1)
The news was as terrible as it sounded. The Arsenal hierarchy have decided to relieve 55 staff members of their positions, citing financial reasons due to the pandemic. Of course, it stirred an uproar. On the ethical side of things it looks pretty bad. The club is owned by billionaires and can afford to pay a single inactive footballer more than enough money to dwarf the collective compensation of the disemployed staff.
And on the sporting side, sacking your renowned head of international recruitment and your leading scouts in European countries for what is not clearly related to performance is probably a bad decision. But is it?
Do Arsenal, for sporting reasons, really need Francis Cagigao? (This will be the first of a three-part series that explains why Arsenal have fired Francis Cagigao and downsizing the scouting department).
The legend is that Francis Cagigao has a preternatural eye for first-team talent. From Cesc Fabregas to Hector Bellerin to Gabriel Teodore Martinelli: he spotted them all.
It sounds utterly romantic to the public eye: a far-roving scout is on the search for good football players when he comes upon a once-in-generation talent in an Albanian village playing keep-it-up with his siblings in their parents backyard. The scout spills his beer when he sees the elegant touch of the kid, finds a napkin and hurries across the yard to sign him up for one of the biggest clubs in the world where the kid will become a legend, break all kinds of records and dominate football for two decades. Except that both Cesc Fabregas and Hector Bellerin were found by Cagigao at… Barcelona.
Or perhaps more realistically: it’s the final of an obscure junior tournament and a few hundred people have turned out to watch the two finalists battle it out. One of the Blue Team’s strikers gets injured and they have to put on an unknown 12-year-old who manages to collect the ball in the last minute inside his own penalty box, drives forward with it, skips past two challenges, turns an opponent inside out, and casually lobs it over the onrushing goalkeeper for his fifteenth hattrick of the game. Oh.
Wake up. Football is a much more organized sport than we imagine it to be. Youth teams in organized football are everywhere. By the time they are 14 or 15 years old, most of the top young players in Europe are known by all of the biggest clubs already.
Take Kylian Mbappé for instance. Shopped around for trials at the precious young age of 14 at Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and Monaco. Chelsea are said to have missed out on him because they couldn’t assure first team football before his eighteenth birthday.
Or take Paul Labile Pogba — already the highlight and poster boy for his generation at the Manchester academy, just like a certain Mason Greenwood. Jadon Sancho went to Manchester City from Watford at 15 after a little war between several EPL clubs and he got signed by Dortmund for 10 million euros without playing one bit of senior football yet. Is that enough or do you need to remember Martin Odeegard who Real Madrid royally signed up at 15?
Even outside of Europe, where youth football is dominant, the same pattern exists: everyone pretty much knows who the very best players will be even before they enter teenagehood.
Take Neymar Dos Santos for an instance: signed up to be a Nike athlete and ambassador at the infantile age of 13. And just before then, given an exclusive tour of Real Madrid facilities, met with Zinedine Zidane, and even featured in a friendly match for a Madrid youth side that included Dani Carvarjal.
In The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, the author, Sebastian Abbot, details how one of the Brazilian youth sides were already known as the Phillipe Coutinho team.
Mohammed Salah was a household star teenager at the Egyptian side, Al Ahly. Sadio Mané was recognized as one of the outstanding young players at Generation Foot academy. Nigeria steamrolled the U-17 World Cup with Samuel Chukwueze (who is destined for a big move) and Victor Osimhen (now at Napoli) who broke the scoring record. And, of course, Gabriel Teodore Martinelli had undergone trials at Barcelona and Manchester United, had been called up to the Brazilian national setup in 2019 and has a personal trainer and chef in preparation for a successful professional career.
The list is endless and the point is clear: Arsenal didn’t need a scout to recognize that Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were top-tier talent. You don’t need a scout to see how Erling Halaand could be a very good striker.
The problem is not talent identification. Any fool can see Vinicius Junior’s bags of talent at 15. The problem, then, must be talent acquisition and retainment. How do you get your hands on any of these kids with such a bright future? And how do you keep the next Lionel Messi with your club?
Or what good would it be if you scouted Bukayo Saka as a League One club but couldn’t sign him up? What good would it be if all your kids were snatched away by bigger clubs before they could even debut for your u-23?
Don’t get it wrong. Scouting is still an important role. For example, if you were Real Madrid and had your pick among a dozen talented youngsters, who should you sign up? Scouting doesn’t just discovers talent, it assesses talent as well.
Or if you were Bournemouth and can’t even dream of any of the kids Real Madrid can throw away, then you might be scouting for the closest thing to what might be a Harry Kane — a youngster who isn’t yet spectacular by any means, but could put it all together in the future in senior football.
Scouts make both positive and negative recommendations, so if scouting is still obviously needed, why have Arsenal fired Francis Cagigao? Simple answer: human (or otherwise, manual) scouting at the very highest levels of football is becoming more redundant every passing day.
Why? Two reasons: technology and the agent-scout. In the next part of this article, I will explain why…