Former Arsenal super scout Francis Cagigao believes Thomas Partey will enable title challenge
New Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey could be the signing that turns them back into title contenders, says the man who watched him for the club over the course of six years.
Francis Cagigao left Arsenal this September before Partey arrived – departing as head of global scouting via mutual consent after 24 years.
‘He is a player that we pursued for a long time and strongly recommended over the last few years,’ he says of Arsenal’s £45million midfielder who will debut on Saturday against Manchester City.
‘I first watched him about six years ago playing for Almeria on loan from Atletico Madrid and he was more box-to-box, attacking even.
‘I think we will see him with the shackles off because he did very much play in a constricted midfield unit [at Atletico].
‘He could be the final piece of the jigsaw that makes Arsenal challenge for the title.’
He says this in a thick London accent – he went to a school that overlooked Stamford Bridge where he first went to watch football with his Galician dad – and with all the passion of an Arsenal fan.
And he also speaks with the authority of someone who played a part in Arsenal signing everyone from ‘Invincible’ Lauren and ‘pioneer’ Cesc Fabregas, to the young Brazilians Gabriel Magalhaes and Gabriel Martinelli in the current squad.
Cagigao the player was spotted as a 16-year-old in the Isthmian League for Wembley FC and spent two seasons at Arsenal, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1988, before signing for Barca B.
‘I was a mediocre professional,’ he says of a career that saw him play at the Nou Camp when Barcelona’s second string used the first team arena, and at Roots Hall on loan for Southend United.
On work experience back at Arsenal in the late nineties, working with their Under 16s while taking his UEFA badges, he was asked by Arsene Wenger to become part of a global scouting network.
It was a steep learning curve. One early mission to Ukraine ended with him trapped in a Kiev airport.
‘I was in a restaurant when I had my credit card, wallet, money and passport all stolen with my jacket,’ he recalls.
‘It was an absolute odyssey trying to get back home. In the end I had to spend four days in Ukraine.
‘At one point I could neither fly out of, nor leave, the airport. I was in a sort of no-man’s lands so I just decided to sit on my suitcase singing a song loudly until someone came along and asked what I was doing there?
‘I remember waking people up at Arsenal at three in the morning and saying: listen, you got to get me out of here.’
While still juggling a coaching job with Spanish third division side Lemos, and scouting for Wenger, he spotted Lauren playing as a midfielder for Levante and recommended him to Arsenal as a right-back.
‘He had all the qualities of a modern day full-back,’ he says of the recommended positional change.
‘It was the same years later with Hector Bellerin who was playing right wing with Barcelona’s Under 16s.’
Fabregas became the jewel in Arsenal’s crown having glittered in a Barcelona youth team that included two other targets: Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.
Of Fabregas he says: ‘I knew I was watching a boy who had a GPS in his brain and played with a maturity beyond his years.
‘His decision-making was near perfect already. He was a 15-year-old who had to get stronger but he already had great stamina.
‘He had to add a little bit more malice in the attacking third and improve defensively but he had all the basic attributes of an outstanding playmaker.
‘I think we can talk about Cesc being a pioneer. This was the first time we saw a player that young arrive at Arsenal from a big club which showed how strong our scouting department was. And obviously we had the figurehead that was Arsene.’
The mentions of Wenger pepper Cagigao’s recollections. And there is huge respect for someone he believes managed to modernise the club while still honouring its traditions.
‘Arsene was somebody who didn’t have time, but made time for people.
‘One of the reasons I didn’t leave in moments when I could have, was the relationship with the manager, and with [former chief scout] Steve Rowley who was brilliant for the club.
‘Whatever player we brought to the club whether he was a 16-year-old from Barcelona, or an established professional we would sit him down in front of Arsene Wenger, he insisted on it.
‘And if you’re investing in young talent you need to have a brave manager who while he is fighting for titles is prepared to throw those young players in.’
Wenger’s pull was not enough for Arsenal to bring home all their targets.
‘There are players that get away every season and it’s public knowledge that Messi, Pique, Juan Mata and others were very close,’ Cagigao says.
‘In Messi’s case work permit issues insured that we could not get as close as we wanted.’
There is plenty of nostalgia in this chat. But ask him for his most satisfying recruit and he comes up with a player who only left the club this summer.
‘It took 10 years but we got there in the end,’ he says of the capture of Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez now at Aston Villa.
‘I first saw him in Iquique, a small city in Chile in a South American Under-17 tournament in 2009.
‘The important part of his story is how tenacious and driven he was to show everyone that he is a top-level goalkeeper who has now left a lot of money at the club.’
He’s pragmatic over the future of his craft. On the debate between old and new methods he says: ‘You need to have live scouting, video scouting, and data analysis. What are the percentages? That depends on the traditions and culture of each club.
‘But we must never lose the essence of the game. Which is certainly not the Peaky Blinders cap, long coat and worn boots, but it is the need for the technical viewpoint of a knowledgeable, experienced trained eye, with a track record.’
And someone who is working 100 per cent for the club, presumably? ‘Exactly, someone who doesn’t have vested interests elsewhere. It’s very important for clubs to control the market; not for the market to control the clubs.’
He fits this job description better than anyone after two decades of experience so why have Arsenal let him go?
His departure coincided, but was not part of, the club’s recent round of redundancies that took its toll on the scouting and recruitment department.
‘I came to an agreement with the club. You can’t afford to be bitter because it leads to a very negative process,’ he says.
‘I want very much for Arsenal to do well and I believe strongly that that they have, if not the strongest squad in the premier league, there are very few better. And they have a very talented manager.’
That strong squad is in part down to him. Playing behind Partey this season will be centre-back Magalhaes – ‘a team effort,’ he says of the defender recruited by his department. And there will be minutes for young forward Martinelli, another diamond mined by Cagigao.
‘If you can sign a player from Ituano in the Brazilian fourth division that tells you that the players are still out; they just need to be found,’ he says.
‘Good players are a constant but it’s a question of investing and having the resources and the right people to find them.’