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How vital is a Technical Director to the future of Arsenal?

Raul-Sanllehi-Arsenal-Executive-Technical-Director-Search

Given that Arsenal Football Club had become so known for being a club built on a foundation of stability during Arsene Wenger’s 22 year reign, it is perhaps not so surprising that there have been teething problems during this radical period of transformation towards a continental structure off the pitch. Wenger’s steady hand guided the club through a difficult chapter in its history – one defined by austerity in the transfer market and his consistent vision of how football should be played in its most artistic form. But times have changed, and the club is now intent on changing with them, with a whole new cast of characters behind the scenes to help lead the club towards its new future.

Despite Wenger’s official departure announcement not landing until 20 April of last year, the restructure started some time before he said his final goodbye. The hiring of contracts negotiation Huss Fahmy, Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat, and the arrival of Raul Sanllehi toward the end of 2017 all signified a shift in the club’s direction. The process of weening the club off of the singular vision of one man towards a collaborative effort of many was given all of last season to facilitate a smooth transition.

Essential building block to early departure

Initially, the signs were promising for Ivan Gazidis and the rest of the Arsenal hierarchy that their new creation was working as expected. Sanllehi and Mislintat were both essential in the process that would eventually yield Arsene’s successor, and the club displayed signs that it was assuming the personality of its new blood. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and even Bernd Leno were signings made in no small part due to Mislintat’s familiarity with them from his days at Dortmund in the Bundesliga. Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi also demonstrated his influence, as their profile as young, talented players at reasonable prices fell very much in line with his modus operandi at die Schwarzgelben. 

However, the first signs of disharmony began to surface following the departure of Ivan Gazidis to AC Milan, as the now-former CEO was tempted by a new challenge of restoring another of Europe’s most storied clubs to its former glory. Leading up to the most recent transfer window in January, a strange duality to the transfer rumours emerged. For every Mislintat-type young player mentioned as a possible transfer target, there was a reported pursuit of a seasoned veteran- often with past links to Head Coach Unai Emery on their CV. 

It wasn’t long before a quiet, whispered rumour of Sven Mislintat’s departure became a full roar, as his apparent exclusion from the club’s candidate search for the newly created Technical Director position left him feeling jilted. Given that this storyline played out so soon after Sanllehi’s ascendence to Arsenal’s Director of Football role from his initial job descrption of Head of Football Relations, it left many wondering if Mislintat and Sanllehi were struggling to find common ground in their work together. In January, it was finally announced that Mislintat would leave a month later, heightening the importance of the Technical Director search.

All of this begs this question: is hiring a Technical Director imperative to the club’s future? The answer is more layered than the question suggests, consisting of both plans for the upcoming transfer window and the future beyond.

Set for summer?

As has been reported recently by well respected journalists on the Arsenal beat, the club has all but determined its direction for the summer. With nearly a whole year under his belt, Unai Emery has developed a clear picture of this current squad; its strengths, weaknesses, and areas that demand attention on the market in the off-season. The club has allegedly been sounding out player agents throughout the year, potentially laying the groundwork for moves this summer. Names such as Rennes’ Ismaila Sarr, Lille’s Nicolas Pepe and RB Leipzig’s Ibrahim Konate have all been bandied about for quite some time, with numerous links to these players and others making recurring appearances in the social media space. 

This all suggests that the club have already identified areas to address and targets that could indeed fit the bill for what Emery would like to see in his team next season. Despite Mislintat’s mysterious departure, the club’s scouts have continued with their work uninterrupted. A well-managed club generally has a clear idea of what they wish to do in the next transfer window, and on that front Arsenal seem to be on track with their objectives. 

The potential hiring of a Technical Director between now and the end of the season would likely do little to alter this plan. Any new hire, even in a position of power, will have a “bedding in” period where they get to know their new surroundings and the people that will be reporting to them. Whomever takes the reigns on the technical side of the operation will go through this process themselves, perhaps turning a focus toward getting a head start on the next transfer window down the line. It is therefore safe to assume that the club do not need to conclude their search with any desperation in order to have someone in place for the summer.

Increasing importance 

If the search for a Technical Director is not particularly important to the summer, the same cannot be said about future transfer windows. While the scouting network may have their briefs set for the immediate future, football is a fluid business with evolving priorities and eventually, these scouts will be asked to change course and focus on a new crop of players set to fill a newly emerging need. 

To understand why a Technical Director is so important to this evolution, it is important to understand what their role within a club hierarchy is. While the Director of Football (Raul Sanllehi in the case of Arsenal) is at the top of the pyramid, with a final say on issues such as whether a manager will be backed or not, and who will be hired or relieved of their duties, a Technical Director slots somewhere in between that figurehead and the Manager/Head Coach of the team. A Technical Director typically is involved in the recruitment of players, often in collaboration with the Head Coach, as well as the managing of the scouting department and how they are deployed. 

Not so much concerned with the financial side of the equation, a Technical Director instead provides a list of viable options to the club that fit the recruitment needs. Given his or her (ideally) close working relationship with the Head Coach, this person may also be tasked with helping to shape the general philosophy of the on-pitch team, as well as ensuring the Head Coach has whatever support he requires. This includes coordinating with the physio staff and facilities managers to align with the Head Coach’s needs.

Given the breadth of responsibility this role can carry, it is clear to see why Arsenal are interested in filling the newly-created vacancy in an timely fashion. As the glue that ties the pitchside staff to the executive staff up in the private boxes, the Technical Director is essential to a modern, continental structure of a football club. Whomever the club ultimately select for the role should have a strong voice in determining the club’s future direction.

The Sanllehi factor

Thus far, it seems that the ongoing search has not been without its struggles. Alleged targets for the role, some more tenuous than others, include Edu Gaspar, Monchi, and Marc Overmars. Recently Monchi rejected the club’s advances in favour of a return to Sevilla, a club he enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with before departing for Roma last year. Overmars just recently put pen to paper on an extended contract with current club Ajax, while Edu’s name has somewhat fallen off the radar in recent weeks. Given the alleged contentious relationship Raul Sanllehi shared with Mislintat, with some claiming it was the Spaniard who forced out the former Dortmund man, and the recent rejection from two of the most highly regarded candidates, some have been left wondering whether Sanllehi has played a part in these roadblocks.

Known for his assertive style, reliance on a relationship-based approach to recruitment and the ability to help get complicated deals over the line, Sanllehi is a ruthless operator. His time at Barcelona was marked by great success, but at times it was anything but smooth sailing for him at a club marred in behind the scenes politics. This constant battle may have sharpened his senses for what must be done to hold onto power at such a big and successful club, but it could also have made him something of a difficult working partner.

If taken in isolation, the decisions of both Monchi and Overmars to return and remain, respectively, with clubs near to their hearts could be chalked up to loyalty. However, could it also point to a lack of a common vision with Sanllehi himself? For both men, the prospect of a powerful job at Arsenal represented a clear move up the ladder in both club size and power, but both apparently chose to stick with what is familiar to them. Perhaps this all gets a bit too speculative, but is Sanllehi not willing to allow for a competing or complimentary vision to co-exist with his own at Arsenal? As it pertains to these two men, we may never know, but the type of candidate that ultimately takes the job as Technical Director could give away much about how Sanllehi plans to guide the club into the future. 

If not urgent, important

With a stable and unified approach from the very top, clubs can be handed a serious advantage in seeing out their long term vision. One only has to look at Mislintat’s former club Borussia Dortmund to see the power of this approach. With CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc, Dortmund have seen themselves return from the brink of near dissolution due to serious financial mismanagement  to now being widely considered one of the most progressive, innovative and profitable clubs in the world. Their partnership has stood the test of time, lasting through multiple managerial tenures, a scouting department restructure, and the departure of Mislintat himself. Through it all, the pair’s vision of a club always on the leading edge of trends in the sport has made Dortmund one of the truly respected clubs in Europe.

It is exactly for this reason that Arsenal must conclude their search for a Technical Director by landing on the right candidate to partner with Raul Sanllehi. Importantly, the club need someone with a complimentary approach to the Spaniard’s, but who is also capable of standing up to his strong personality and able to assert their own ideas. Perhaps, given Sanllehi’s reputation as a man capable of landing big name players, the Technical Director should be somebody who favours a mix of established names and young potential. After all, Sanllehi himself has stated his desire for Arsenal to be ruthlessly efficient on the transfer market, something that cannot be done with big money signings alone.  

The club have their immediate future well handled, but the eventual hiring of a Technical Director should provide the very stability that Ivan Gazidis had hoped he was leaving behind when he departed. At the very least, it can allow supporters to go back to focusing on what really matters: the team on the pitch.

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