Arsenal scouting network revamp: what's changed and what's the end goal?
By Vinay Shankar
Every Arsenal fan would have felt that pain in the gut last week after the club announced 55 redundancies as a result of the financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. After this, various news outlets came out with the story that our head of recruitment Francis Cagigao was being let go alongside the heads of scouting in various European countries as part of the restructuring of our scouting network under technical director Edu after an extensive review.
The other message sent out was that this restructuring was different from the proposed redundancies. Make no mistake, this is poor communication on the part of the club and this has resulted in wild speculation across the media. Since KSE took full control of the club and made it private, information released to the public has been very limited and journalists close to the club aren’t as credible anymore. Thus, only ‘tidbits’ of information come out through the media.
The lack of communication leads to a vacuum being created. In the age of social media, this vacuum results in rampant speculation and particular narratives tend to dominate the papers. With that rant out of the way, let’s get back to the restructuring of our scouting network.
Arsenal’s scouting network was one the most extensive networks in the world and a lot of that is down to Arsene Wenger appointing the likes of Francis Cagigao and Gilles Grimandi as scouts in working within their respective areas of residence. During this period, we’ve seen a lot of raw talents become great successes, especially from France. But, for every success, there’s always a string of bad signings that tend to be forgotten.
Scouting can be a bit of hit and miss game because some factors like the team environment, cultural change etc, can only be envisioned. However, in practice, more experimental acquisitions don't work out. In the Highbury era, things were going incredibly well on the pitch so poor signings could be swept under the rug. That wasn't the case of the early years of the Emirates era. For every success like Fabregas, there’s a fair number of failures such as Sebastian Squillachi. Improvement was needed.
So, Arsenal bought StatDNA, a US-based analytics company for a few million in 2012. This was received with acclaim in the footballing community with the club regarded as ahead of their time in the embrace of data analytics in football. The Athletic’s piece on Cagigao gives a fascinating insight into how Arsenal’s recruitment strategy works in terms of scouting and using StatDNA.
Before a transfer window, the scouting network and the team of analysts generate a list of targets for each position in need of addressing and the club pursues targets based on this. Despite the club’s embrace of data-based analysis, they’ve never really used the system properly. We’ve kept both strategies separately and this is bound to cause friction and blame games among various parties. For an analogy, this is essentially dipping our hands in two different pies and choosing one based on taste. Unless both pies taste the same, picking one over the other is a recipe for disaster and an incredibly inefficient approach.
An integrated approach is the most sensible and efficient approach and this has been long overdue at Arsenal. Video analysis and data provides an insight into the player and how he would fit in with the scouts give the eyes on the ground to back this up as well as getting background information for the player. This approach is what I believe Edu is trying to bring in at Arsenal through this restructuring. Jason Rosenfeld may have departed but the club paid for the proprietary algorithms so the company remains very much a part of the setup.
Sven Mslintat reportedly brought in his team and network and making him director would most likely have seen a complete dismantling of the entire network, which would have been very drastic, especially trusting someone with no previous director experience to go ahead with it. But the club appears to trust Edu in carrying out overhauls if necessary, as evidenced by the shakeup of the youth setup so that Mertesacker plays a bigger role in the setup.
Edu has recently revealed his role as director involves looking into a transfer target in-depth, including interviewing family members as both him and Arteta care as much about a player’s impact on the dressing room as on the pitch. When Arteta was asked about Marì after his debut, he highlighted how vocal the player was and showed himself to be a leader rather than just talk about the performance. This gives you an idea about what goes on in the recruitment process.
When the extensions of Martinelli and Saka were announced, Edu was quick to praise their mentality and how well they’ve been brought up around family. With Edu being very close to the first team, he’s very much aware of what a particular player would bring to the dressing room, both positively and negatively. This is a major consideration during the evaluation process when deciding whether to buy a player. Therefore, there is a significant overlap between Edu's role and the jobs of the scouting heads of the various countries. Thus, in effect, the roles of the scouts have become redundant. The 'scouting' process is becoming more streamlined around Edu.
All of this makes up only one part of the recruitment strategy with the acquisition of the player being the other and this where Raul Sanllehi comes in. He was brought in for his negotiation skills and contacts and given a target, he can use his connections to get the club a shrewd deal. This approach is very much different from how the club used to operate before but it remains to be seen how it works out.
In the upcoming transfer window, Arsenal are going use the information from the scouts to pursue targets but this is a long-term restructuring and will take a while before the impact is seen at the club. However, behind the chaos of the redundancies, I hope this article has illustrated there is some solid reasoning.