Arsene Wenger’s extensive scouting network is one of the key factors that initially distinguished him from his Premier League rivals.
Wenger brought many new qualities to English football: expansive tactics; a refined appreciation of technical aspects of the game; a superior understanding of diet and nutrition. However, he also brought an unrivalled eye for a player.
When Wenger arrived in England, there was not the abundance of foreign managers we see now. English football was more insular, and Wenger’s knowledge of both French and Asian football gave him a global perspective that was hugely advantageous.
Arsenal were thus able to pluck the likes of Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka from relative obscurity without significant competition.
Wenger’s methods have since been adopted by other top-flight clubs. Almost every Premier League outfit now has a global scouting network at their disposal. However, Wenger was one of the greatest innovators in this regard. In his early years at Arsenal, he signed players from nations as far-flung as Lithuania, Japan and Liberia.
Arsenal still turn up unpolished gems. Who had heard of Laurent Koscielny before Wenger plucked him from Lorient? Koscielny has gone from Ligue 2 to the Champions League and the French national team in the space of two years.
Similarly, Olivier Giroud was hardly a household name in England before Wenger took him from Montpellier for what increasingly resembles a very reasonable fee.
The Frenchman’s methods have always been ahead of the curve. For years, it was a matter of necessity.
Arsenal have not had the financial power to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, so Wenger has had to employ alternative methods to identify talent. The Gunners could not afford the scatter-gun spending of some of their rivals—instead, every purchase had to be meticulously researched.
Wenger is fortunate in that he has had the privilege of working alongside an outstanding chief scout: Steve Rowley. Rowley sits atop a pyramid structure of scouts whose tendrils encompass the globe.
Arsenal have more than a dozen scouts currently operating in the UK alone. The precise structure of their organisation is highly secretive, but as of 2008, they also had Tony Banfield operating in Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, Francis Cagigao in Spain and Portugal, and Jurgen Kost in central Europe and Germany.
Sandro Orlandelli heads up a specialist team in South America. Speaking to Brazilian radio station Globo in 2010, Orlandelli said:
Five players have been bought because of me. Denílson, Pedro Botelho, Damian Martinez, Carlos Vela, who was the first signing the club made under me, and also Wellington Silva, who is one of our biggest prospects for the future.
Some of those signings have proved more successful than others, but it's clear that Arsenal recognise South America as a fertile breeding ground for new talent.
While Orlandelli has had a wide-ranging career taking in posts in Japan, France, Saudi Arabia and Sweden, many of Arsenal’s scouts share closer ties with the club.
The likes of Tony Adams have enjoyed short-term stints as scouts under Wenger. Former Gunners Gilles Grimandi and Peter Clarke operate in France and Holland respectively on a full-time basis.
Incorporating former players in the scouting network is crucial: They immediately understand the sort of player Wenger is looking for.
One such scout is Danny Karbassiyoon. Karbassiyoon was a young prospect at Arsenal who was eventually released and allowed to join Burnley. Unfortunately, his career was ended prematurely by knee problems, but Arsenal were able to offer him an alternative position scouting North and Central America.
Karbassiyoon is in no doubt about what Wenger is looking for in a player. He told Arsenal.com:
If you watch Arsenal's first team play, you can see exactly what I'm looking for when I go watch games. The Boss is always looking for players that are technically gifted as well as intelligent. If a player lacks proper technique, he will probably find it very difficult at Arsenal. All 11 players expect one another to be able to keep the ball, and it's very easy to get found out if you don't possess the tools to do so.
The profile of player that Arsenal look for has evolved in parallel with Wenger’s philosophy. In his early days in London, he prioritised physique and athleticism; Arsenal tended to sign tall players with plenty of power and stamina.
However, in recent years, Wenger has focused on technical proficiency and game-intelligence.
The areas where Arsenal recruit have changed, too. Wenger used to focus on francophone footballers, including those from West Africa. Wenger once told Eurosport that he believes players from that part of the world benefit from two major advantages: a natural athleticism and power, and the educating presence of a wealth of football academies.
However, times are changing. Recent stories suggest Arsenal are ramping up their presence in Germany. Wenger has already signed Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, Mesut Ozil and Serge Gnabry. Perhaps there will be more to follow.
The expansion into America is also a sign of Arsenal’s attempts to keep ahead of the pack. It has begun well. Karbassiyoon clearly has a good eye: One of his first finds, Gedion Zelalem, is already making waves in North London.
When a scout spots a player, the first thing they do is alert Rowley. He will then instruct them as to how to proceed. Rowley told Young Guns Blog:
If the report sounds interesting then I will tell them to watch a couple more times, then I will send another scout to look at the player, to get a fresh perspective. If they come back positive too, I will go.
After I’ve watched the player I will compile a dossier for the manager, and also a video which contains the player’s good and bad points. The manager is so, so good at assessing a player that he can say straight away whether he likes what he sees or not.
Then he will get onto his own contacts around the world to find out more about the player’s background, so it’s not just down to playing ability. When he’s made the decision, we move quickly to seal the deal.
Arsenal have to move very quickly if they’re to beat richer rivals to new talent. The game has caught up with Wenger and other clubs have caught on to his scouting strategies.
In June, Wenger’s old ally David Dein told London24:
I know Arsene will try to improve the squad if he can. It’s up to the scouting network around the world - they are looking to find the best players possible for Arsenal.
But they are not alone, everybody else is trying to do the same thing. When I first used to go to the African Cup of Nations there would hardly be any scouts from England.
Today you are getting scouts from all over England going to watch the talent there.
Wenger’s methods have become commonplace.
Arsenal’s increasing financial power makes the competition less of a worry. Arsenal can now afford to go out and sign the likes of Ozil, and players of that calibre don’t require too much scouting.
However, that doesn’t fit with Wenger’s developmental philosophy. He enjoys sifting through the dirt for gold. At Arsenal’s AGM in October, he reaffirmed his commitment to Arsenal’s recruitment policy:
The future of Arsenal will rely on the quality of work we do inside, to scout and develop players. We are respected all over world for values; we're not artificial.
It seems that Wenger’s extensive scouting network remains at the heart of his ambitions for Arsenal.