Is it time to start questioning Arsenal’s Football Operations?
It’s hard to be an Arsenal fan these days. Frustration has been the order of business for fans all around the world as the club have gone into the summer of 2019 looking anything but purposeful in their quest to establish a new vision of the way forward in the post-Wenger days. At various points throughout the weeks since the disappointing 2018/19 season ended, everyone from players to coaches to the ownership have drawn the ire of anxious fans in desperate need of some positive momentum before next season begins.
While picking up the pieces from last season’s late collapse on the brink of Champions League qualification, many have found themselves looking around for someone to blame for the current situation the club finds itself in. In some cases, as with the overwhelming anger at ownership, what is being demanded is simply not possible; something that could be realised after even the most rudimentary glance at the laws of the game. But in their haste to hang a difficult financial situation around the neck of one person or another, have people forgotten to focus on the football operations side of the club?
Fresh Blood, New Vision?
Throughout his decade as CEO of Arsenal, Ivan Gazidis faced a lot of criticism for his decisions away from the pitch. Whether it was the way the club evolved its transfer strategies into a more data-driven approach, or his perceived inaction when it came to managing the club’s commercial revenue streams, he became one of the few people at the club outside of Arsene Wenger to consistently receive criticism.
However, no matter how people thought about the majority of his stay at the club or the manner in which he finally departed, his last 12 months in charge brought about a host of sweeping changes that would lead Arsenal out of the Wenger Era and into a new future built on foundations the Frenchman had helped lay.
As part of replacing a man whose influenced stretched beyond the training pitches and into the very fabric of the club, Arsenal needed to find a collection of executives and staff that could both fill the void he would leave behind, and help reshape the structure of the club into a model that could carry a vision through the tenure of the next Head Coach and beyond. Raul Sanllehi, Huss Fahmy, Sven Mislintat, Darren Burgess and others arrived at the club with a clear directive: drag Arsenal into the future and back into the Champions League.
A Cloudy Picture
A year on from Wenger’s final match in charge at Arsenal, and nearly 2 years since Gazidis first set the project in motion with his first changes to the executive team, have we seen that new vision? Mislintat and Sanllehi were part of the three-man committee with Gazidis that would eventually select Unai Emery as the next manager, but drama behind the scenes would see the former depart last winter, barely a year into his job as Head of Recruitment. Burgess was the next to leave, with the club announcing his departure this summer.
At the very least, these sudden departures of two men thought to be at the heart of the Arsenal revolution should be alarming to fans. Mislintat arrived with a sterling reputation based on an eye for young talent; something that is purportedly at the heart of Raul Sanllehi’s vision of “efficient squad building”. Was it simply a bad fit for the German whose personal style cuts clear across the grain at a buttoned-down club like Arsenal? Or was there something else in play behind the scenes, where perhaps a power struggle was developing in the vacuum left by a Wenger’s departure?
Burgess left after a year in which he had been hard at work reshaping the player performance and medical side of the club’s operations. Was this also the product of a tussle with Sanllehi or others in the back room? Or did Burgess not see eye to eye with Unai Emery on how the club would handle injuries and manage player workloads?
Perhaps sensing the anxiety and confusion felt by many of the club’s fans, Arsenal had Raul Sanllehi and Managing Director Vinai Venkatesham sat for a lengthy two-part interview for the club’s YouTube channel as the season was winding down. In among the usual platitudes and PR speak about a new future and vision, the pair got down to talking about transfers. Notably, they claimed that the club had settled its summer transfer plans months ago, in spite of the flux going on behind the scenes.
If this is true, we have yet to see the evidence. In fact, throughout the interview, it was hard to shake the feeling that words were being spoken not to reveal the inner workings of this new-look Arsenal, but rather to soothe the worries of an anxious fanbase when their suggestion of a clear directive and vision has yet to be revealed in their actions.
The transfer budget has been severely restricted by the rules and by a lack of Champions League income, but nothing about Arsenal’s current situation was unknown when these hirings were made. In fact, Sanllehi and Fahmy were hired with the explicit directive to improve on how the club manages its financial situation to allow them more resources to improve the squad. Thus far, it is hard to say there has been significant progress made on that front.
The Right Direction?
Next season, fans will rightly continue to look at the players and coaches with a critical eye. Unai Emery will be going into the second year of a three year deal, but there is a break clause looming at the end of the next campaign that the club will waste no time in exercising if progress isn’t made on the pitch. It is entirely possible that another “failed” season will be blamed more firmly on the Basque Head Coach considering the massive leaps forward rivals have taken in their second season under their respective managers. This could lead Sanllehi, Venkatesham and the board to feel another change must be made to further the cause.
However, fans should not give the men making these decisions a free pass. As part of this new “continental” style power structure, accountability extends beyond the manager’s office at London Colney and deep into the upper reaches of the club’s management. Tactics, style of play and player selection are still the remit of the Head Coach. But the vision for the future? Player recruitment? Commercial endeavours? All of these are the responsibility of Raul Sanllehi and the backroom staff. Should the team flounder on the transfer market and continue to concede ground to their rivals in the Premier League, perhaps it’s time we as fans start to ask the question: “Are these the right people to carry Arsenal forward?”