TGG Podcast #36: Francis Cagigao - Talent spotter with Arsenal & Chile
Written by Simon Austin and Josh Schneider-Weiler — March 8, 2022
FOR 24 years, Francis Cagigao was one of the most important and influential figures at Arsenal.
As Head of International Scouting, he was close to manager Arsene Wenger and played a major role in the signing of players including Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Gabriel Martinelli.
After leaving the club in 2020, Cagigao became Director of Football for Chile. In Episode #36 of the TGG Podcast he outlined his role with the federation, reflected on his time with Arsenal and ruminated on some of the key issues in scouting and recruitment.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.
I’m a Londoner, the son of Spanish immigrant parents from Coruna, Galicia. They arrived in England in 1964. I grew up on a council estate in south west London and spent most of my free time playing football, although I went to a rugby school called London Oratory.
I played for some very good youth clubs and ended up at a semi pro club, Wembley. When I was 16, playing for them and for Middlesex County, I was spotted by Arsenal.
They allowed me to see out the final year of my A Levels and I joined them full-time the following year, even though I was already playing for their youth team - a very successful youth team - under Pat Rice. It was a great education - there was no better place at the time - and that has had a huge influence on the rest of my life.
I had an offer from Barcelona and Real Madrid to join those clubs and had to make a very big decision at 18. In the end I chose Barca and probably made the wrong decision. I should have stayed at Arsenal, where people had confidence in my ability.
I went to a huge club in the middle of a transformation period (1988), under Johan Cruyff. I didn’t have an agent and had a big operation when I got to Spain. I was playing for Barca B and training with the first team and playing for Spain at U19 and U20 age levels.
I came back to England (in 1991), played at Southend, didn’t fully get over a lot of my injury problems and wasn’t very well suited to the team. I had a career then between England and the Second Division in Spain and was already taking my coaching badges midway through my career. I took my badges in England very early.
Eventually I became Director of Football and manager of the first team at 29 years of age at Club Lemos (in Spain). I had to quit playing because I’d had operations on my ankle but I think those setbacks helped me to work with and identify young players.
I was also a coach in Spain and worked at the Spanish FA for many years as a tutor on the Technical Director course, so I’ve been involved in Technical Director formation for many years.
2. Joining Arsenal
I was taking my final coaching badges and doing some work experience at Arsenal, working with Don Howe, an absolute legend. Then, via my connection with Pat Rice, I’d been helping out with one of Arsenal’s Under-16 sides.
Pat told me that the club were looking at implementing a global scouting system. A meeting was set up between myself, Steve Rowley and Arsene Wenger and they told me about what they wanted to do.
I told them I’d just signed a three-year contract as a manager in the third division in Spain and they asked if I could combine both. Those days were pretty crazy! I was Head Coach and Technical Director of a club (Club Lemos) AND in charge of their Academy. And I was scouting for Arsenal in Spain and Portugal.
It was crazy times but again a fantastic education. In terms of the global side of it (scouting for Arsenal), it took off, with Steve Rowley, Damien Comolli and myself. Steve worked for many many years at Arsenal and was a brilliant servant and fantastic person. Damian moved onto other things in the game and I ended up 24 years at the club and have now moved onto other things too.
I worked at such a top club under such an outstanding leader, in Arsene Wenger, and also some brilliant people, such as Steve Rowley, Brian McDermott, Peter Clark. I think we had a fantastic team and would go so far as to say there were years when we were pioneers in our field. That was probably thanks again to the vision of Arsene Wenger.
3. Cesc Fabregas
I watched thousands of players. Cesc was playing in the same team as Gerard Pique and Leo Messi (for Barcelona). When I watched them play, you could say I went nuts, because I thought we’ve got to sign these three players immediately.
We tried to bring all three in. We had two in the offices and one signed (Fabregas), one didn’t sign (Pique) and the other one probably didn’t sign because of a work permit (Messi). The one we were able to bring in, Cesc, he had something that was not common in young players.
There wasn’t much about him physically, but you looked at a player of top top intelligence. I remember saying, ‘The kid’s got a GPS in his head.’ He was always one pass and one movement ahead of everyone else. His vision and awareness of the game was exceptional. He was very efficient in terms of playing through the lines, moving the ball quickly and understanding how to get on possession even in tight areas.
You link that to a very steely determination, the fact he wasn’t going to get bullied or smashed off the ball and you think, ‘He will do ok in England.’
I saw the opportunity to bring him in and then we worked very well as a department. Arsene was key, because he afforded Steve Rowley and myself the space to work and make decisions. David Dein also was a key figure in those days in helping to push through those recommendations and work on the legal side of everything. I think we did our job very well with Cesc and with many many other young players.
The next part is how quickly does that young player adapt and that was down to his intelligence. The rest of the story is down to Cesc.
After that we saw a lot more young players from Spain, that was a pioneer moment. We brought a young player in from a top top world club. In my opinion a club that hadn’t properly done their due diligence in terms of internal identification. I’ll always say that the most important part of identification is internal identification - the one that starts at your club.
Make sure you’ve done your homework and know who are the top young players coming through. You need to know who the top player in your 14s, 15s and 16s is because things move so quickly nowadays and in two or three years some of those players are in your first team and are assets.
(Arsenal bought American data analytics company StatDNA in 2014 and it effectively became the club's data analytics arm).
We were very very wary initially. There were things we didn’t understand. We didn’t understand how certain conclusions were being made and people were coming to certain numbers, so you have to delve into the process.
In the beginning, Steve Rowley, Arsene Wenger and myself had a lot of conversations with Jaeson Rosenfeld and it was a question of building understanding and trust. It’s very important for people working in data and analytics to have a good comprehension of the game. I don’t think you can separate it. If you’re going to work with very advanced data, people need to have an understanding of the game. That’s the key thing.
Certainly the last few years we came to a very good consensus and we had a committee. It was Head of Scouting, the manager, Head of Data (Sarah Rudd), the CEO. We would work as a transfer committee, certainly that was the way it worked in my last six, seven years at Arsenal, with Arsene and even post Arsene as well.
The important thing is to identify what you want. Data is the same - you have to understand the process. I would say that now I have a good understanding of how it works, of the needs. You have to go acquiring knowledge, acquiring experience and I don’t think there’s any substitute for those two.
There are also a lot of (data and analytics) people who have come into football who are not the right types for football. There were a lot of people who had jumped on the bandwagon and still are. But clubs in general are now more efficient, they have more information about what they want and the data is more in accordance with what each club needs.
The most important thing is to find the metrics that suit your particular club, level or culture and identity.
5. Leaving Arsenal
It’s not something I can really go into in depth because of the settlement agreement we came to, but I would say there was not a good felling between myself and some people at the Arsenal hierarchy.
I am Arsenal through and through. I started my career there as a player, going back to winning the 1988 FA Youth Cup. It’s a club I worked for for many years, still the first result I look for and whenever I get chance to watch them (live), I do. You’re not going to fall out of love so quickly.
There was not a good feeling (at the end) and if I have to be honest I would say 24 years at one club is a very very long time. Maybe the club started to take things for granted, maybe I started to take things for granted, I don’t know.
I certainly think we had a very very good scouting ID and recruitment set-up and an exceptional Academy set up as well. That was broken up. But, listen - in football you have to move on. ‘What ifs’ are a pointless exercise.
I am someone who very much speaks their mind and I believe in that. I also believe that people who work around me have to speak their minds as well. If you have something to say, don’t hold back, say it. I understand it’s not for everybody. The most important thing is not to dwell on things and move on.
6. Scouting character
The fact I was brought up in England, so there is this part of me that is very much London and I have a very good understanding of the English game, but I also had a good understanding of the Latin game. It helped me to identify which players could adapt quicker to the Premier League.
It was very quick, very demanding physically, still is. You need to have a good understanding of the character, the intelligence, the hunger, the ambition of those young players, of their surroundings, their family situation. In the end it’s that player who’s going to have to adapt and to want it more than anything else in his life.
First you have to look for those key elements within their game. So you’d say we’re not going to watch him against the bottom side, we’/re going to watch him against one of the top sides, away from home in a hostile environment, if possible playing a few years up. Then when we meet him, you want to know a bit more about his persona. You speak to the player.
It’s very important to see how assertive he is, how hungry, whether he’s a good listener, how he rates his own performance. I remember talking to Cesc and saying how do you think you did and he would say, 'No, that was poor,' and I’d be thinking what an outstanding performance he had had. Very analytical and would actually break it down. That would make him keep driving himself.
It was also very good to listen in to the conversations between Arsene and a young player, because he would always ask the right question. It wouldn’t be unnatural for him to ask a player where they saw themselves in six months, a year; could they see themselves playing in the Arsenal first team now? These are not easy questions to answer and I can imagine the situation is very difficult for a young player, so when you see that auto confidence and an analytical mind in a young player, if he has talent, you’re onto something.
You build relationships in football, so if you had a relationship with a certain player or their family. Whether that be David Dein initially, or Ken Friar at some stage and after that Dick Law, it was a case of working very closely with them and SR and AW and getting all the information possible to the club so they could decide how much to invest and whether to invest.
I could have moved on many many times while I was at Arsenal. I had a lot of offers. Arsene and Steve Rowley knew about most of them.
I always stayed at the club because I was happy. My split from the club probably came at the right time. I maybe should have moved on when Arsene left, but I was actually asked to stay on in that transitional period, when I had something else.
So I like to think I helped the club through a transitional period, and now I’ve moved onto something else and I’m happy. I’m working in an environment where I’m number one, I’m able to continue that learning curve and I’m able to influence and put in practice a lot of the experience I’ve accumulated over many years in the game, over 35 years.
I had the chance to go to other clubs as a Sporting Director, also a Head of Recruitment, but this offer came along. It was something completely different, would give me a different perspective and was also a very big challenge.
It started with having to hire in the range of 30 or 40 staff. I took this job now over 12 months ago. An initial proposal is often different to what you find. I arrived in Chile when they were in a moment of upheaval. They had dismissed their senior manager after four games of the qualifying competition with four points out of 12 and were in seventh place.
When I arrived we didn’t have a coaching staff or a team manager in the midst of World Cup qualifiers. There were no U17 coaching staff or head coach, no U15 senior staff or Head Coach; no scouting, ID and analysis department; the logistics department had been broken up and there wasn’t a stable medical department.
So these 12 months have been firstly putting in place all the coaching, performance and support staff across all those teams and building a scouting and analysis department, including data, and then working on a new logistics department, a new medical department and then also the support and performance staff for women’s football.
It’s been very very intense.
8. Ben Brereton
I knew about Ben Brereton when he was about 16-years-old. I had followed him via the England U17s and U19s. And during his youth career he had played and scored against Arsenal.
Yes, there had been some noise in Chile about him and they were aware of him. There had even been a phone call before I got here asking about his situation, but nothing had been done.
When I got to Chile, there were no reports on Ben Brereton and no analysis, so one of the first things I did was to start that process and then we began to talk to him.
We actually used Jeremy Corbyn’s son, Ben, to introduce us, because Jeremy Corbyn’s wife is Chilean and they knew the Brereton-Diaz family.
We used that to get into his inner sanctum. I began talking to Ben and his agent about the possibility and then it was a question of me convincing our Head Coach that we had to bring him in, because he gave us something we didn’t have: a completely different type of option up front.
Of course we had Alexis Sanchez, who you could call a second striker come winger, Eduardo Vargas and younger players like (Ivan) Morales, but we didn’t have a player of Ben’s stye and I knew he was a player with a lot more potential to come.
So it was a case of let’s bring him in, let’s look after him, because I’m sure this player will do well for us. And luckily for us and for him things have turned out very well. To tell you the truth the credit has to go to Ben. He came here, he didn’t speak Spanish and for him I would imagine it was a very big help to have this Cockney Director of Football he could talk to!
He was a little bit timid at first and it wasn’t easy for him initially. We brought him in prior to the Copa America. He scored against Bolivia, played very well when he came on against Argentina and it took off from there. There was always a good felling with him and the rest of the squad and now it’s very evident that Ben is a very very important player for Chile.
Did I think he would make so much of a difference for Chile? No, because I didn’t think he would adapt so quickly, and that is why the credit is his, because he is a top professional and a top-level, humble, down-to-earth guy. Thats why he’s having the success he’s having.
I think he’s a player with so much more to come and I would be very surprised if he’s not playing in the Premier League next season, be it with Blackburn or another team. He is a player who, at this stage in his career, should be playing at the top level.
9. Talent in South America
It’s probably the Continent with the most talent. It’s by far the most difficult World Cup qualifying area, there are no easy games. Where South American football has to improve probably is at club level, although the Brazilian league is very strong.
There is a lot of top top young talent here in South America. The problem they have had here is a lot to do with their own internal identification and the fact that financially its very hard to hold onto players when you’ve got the top European clubs showing interest.
But people are working very well here and I do think you’ll see more and more South American players playing in the Premiership in the next three or four years.
10. Personal ambitions for the future
I think I’m at a stage where I have a lot to offer and am working on something important here. I don’t want to look too far ahead. Come six, seven, eight months time it may be a moment for me to look ahead.
At some stage I would like to go back to European football and work there again, because I think I will be in a good position to add value. But at the moment I’ve still got a lot of work to do here.