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Why Unai Emery Was the Canary in Raul Sanllehi’s KSE Coal Mine


Think back to last summer…if you dare. Unai Emery is still in charge, and Arsenal are in the midst of trying to broker much-needed player recruitment to try to push the club forward on the pitch.

In a very public showing of desire, both the Arsenal manager and Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha minced no words in their desire to reach an agreement for the Ivorian international to make a cross-London move to the Emirates.

We all know how that story played out; the eventual 72.5-million pound deal for LOSC Lille’s Nicolas Pépé. But what could have been telling, was another aspect which we perhaps didn’t pay enough attention to under the surface.

Another example of much the same quietly swept itself under the proverbial rug, when Emery was also overruled the previous summer in his desire for the club to sign Steven N’Zonzi; a player he managed at Sevilla during a period of great success.

Though it was Sven Mislintat who earmarked Lucas Torreira instead of N’Zonzi at the time, and current Chief of Football Raul Sanllehi who brokered the deal via his relationship with Jorge Mendes for Pépé, that these two deals demonstrate has been a disconnect between manager and club hierarchy.

Bear in mind, that digging up old wounds is not my way of suggesting that I lament the departure of Emery, or that I personally would have preferred the likes of Zaha and N’Zonzi; anything but. However, the concern behind this all comes in the wake of more and more realization by the fanbase that perhaps Raul was not the right man with the right plan for a club in Arsenal that is in dire need of hitting the reset button.

To make matters worse, recent quotes by Mislintat (now Director of Football at VfB Stuttgart), speaks to the same.

As recently reported in the Independent (make of that what you will), the former mad transfer scientist at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal spoke of clear dysfunction at the club, describing it as an “absolute mess”; a club without a clear plan or direction.

For base value, this is a complaint that many in the fanbase have levied over the course of the last several years, dating back to Wenger’s final two seasons in charge. There have been far more questions than clear-cut answers, and it is a reality that clearly still exists.

The two constants that can be currently linked to such complaints are none other than Raul himself, but also club owner Enos Stanley Kroenke, head of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.

With Kroenke, frustration runs deep. Beyond the near-constant jabs at the simple fact that he is American and not English, Kroenke’s preference to social distance himself from the club as much as humanly possible has drawn more than enough frustration from the fanbase.

Rightly or wrong, however, Kroenke’s default stance of leaving almost all club matters to the defect chief is a very normal course of action. Ownership models akin to Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germaine, and Chelsea, are very much the exception to the rule.

When you look at a club like Liverpool, under the ownership of John Henry and Fenway Sports group – another American conglomerate akin to KSE – you look at what hands-off ownership can actually yield…baring you make the right decisions.

The key difference between the two, has been FGS’s willingness to put faith in the right people with a clear plan in place. With KSE and Arsenal, however, it is unclear just what that plan and direction actually is, and recent issues at boardroom level speak to as such.

When Raúl Sanllehí came to the club from Barcelona as Head of Football Relations, and after gaining promotion to Head of Football for the club in the wake of Ivan Gazidis’ departure, it directly contradicted the move to bring in Mislintat.

In Raúl you have a man who has a track record of relying on the contacts he – with all credit to him – collated and fostered during his years as Director of Football at Barcelona, and also in his role with Nike. As for Mislintat, he has a proven track record relying on heavy scouting work, metrics, and data analysis to find diamonds in the rough. The two could not be any more different.

With the resulting power struggle in the remaining two members of the hopeful leadership triumvirate, Mislintat lost out and departed the club, leaving Raúl as the one pushing a narrative of name over fit.

The deal for Pépé, and the lofty price tag that came with it, speaks on this further. In a summer where Tottenham brought in PSV Eindhoven’s Steven Bergwijn for 27-million pounds, a player of similar potential as Pépé, the public notion that Sanllehi relied on his relationship with an agent to get a big name into the club – something he did yearly at Barca – makes you question if he was ever the correct man to give the castle keys to.

This has been an Arsenal squad that has needed substantial, if not major surgery for a couple years now. Some of our business in the last two windows has been good, though. Deals for Lucas Torreira, Bernd Leno, Gabriel Martinelli, Kieran Tierney, Mattéo Guendouzi, and William Saliba have all been noteworthy.

But in a summer where investment was desperately needed at centre-back and the center of midfield was of vital importance, the man in charge opted to go for a big-money move, rather than go for a cheaper yet equally talented player, and thus allow us to spread 80million across multiple areas.

Because of this decision, it forced us to turn to deals for David Luiz at centre-back, and a loan deal for Dani Ceballos. The jury is still out on Ceballos, a player who can equally come good or prove poor, while Luiz is unanimously thought of as poor business across the board.

As we quickly move into the current summer after the completion of a delayed end of the season due to Covid-19, heavy links have already surfaced with serious interest in Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey.

On the surface, Partey signifies a very good deal from a playing standpoint. At 27-years old, he’s entering the prime in his career. He is arguably one of the top midfielders of his mould in Europe, and in that mould, we’d be getting a player we desperately need.

However, to spend ~50million on him this summer, where the club’s finances are in even more dire straights off the back of issues related to COVID, resulted in the now confirmed business done by the club for Flamengo’s Pablo Marí, Southampton’s Cédric Soares, and extending the contract of the aforementioned Luiz. It – yet again – raises the question of if we will continuously be led down a path of recruitment that is always focused around one big-name signing per summer.

Much like in the previous one, we are entering a market where there is plenty of value available, for a market value that is considerably lower than someone like Partey, or even free.

Players the likes of Ibrahima Sangare (8.5m MV), Malang Sarr (free), Robin Knoche (free), Timothy Castagne (15m M), and Jean-Clair Todibo (8m MV), offer options that both have upside in the market and development as players. So the question to be asked, surely, is why are players of this profile not being targeted in a summer where now, more than ever, we need to hit a reset button and properly build moving forward under a new manager.

The only saving grace – at least in my estimation – is the fact that Arsenal have the youngest average age in the Premier League (25.7 years old). And while Veteran leadership is always needed in a young(er) squad, it appears that the clubs hierarchy are not considering the resale value of players when they build-out transfer plans and contract negotiations.

At current, Arsenal’s cumulative market value rests at 525-million pounds; good enough for the sixth-highest valued squad in the Premier League. While our value is streets ahead of the likes of Everton, Leicester City, and Wolves, we are miles behind our big-six rivals by a depressing distance; 70-million behind United, 100-million under Chelsea, and the gap only grows if you consider Spurs, Liverpool, and City.

Though City and United needed to spend money equal to players value to hit their total market valuation, the trio of Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea all relied on buying players for lower market values, and watching them grow over a period of time; business akin to the likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich, and Inter Milan.

All clubs just mentioned comfortably rest in the top-ten clubs in Europe (per Transfermarkt) regarding the purchase value of their players, and how it differs to their eventual total market value. In this instance, Liverpool – with an American conglomerate owner, the same as Arsenal – are the best in the business. The purchase value of their squad is a shade over 500-million pounds, with a current total current market value of ~900-million pounds. This constitutes a remarkable increase in value in comparison to the original price paid, as a result of success on the pitch, individual player development, and profile of their players (contracts, age, etc.).

When Mislintat was brought into the club, the long-term outlook for Arsenal should have been us building a club to challenge again off the back of a building remit of similar if not identical principles. Putting faith in Sanllehi puts us down a road of trying to get us back on track with big names and big prices, rather than a more organic and long-term scope.

As a prime example, it took Liverpool three seasons to eventually acquire Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Virgil van Dijk, and Andrew Robertson. And though these players are at the tip of the spear when it comes to ability and value in Europe, at the time of their purchase, they were anything but.

Salah had barely gotten a chance at Chelsea, and had to put his career on life-support at Fiorentina and AS Roma to rebuild his reputation. Firmino was bought for sub-40-million pounds from Hoffenheim. Mané, though superb for Saints, still had it all to prove at a big club, as did Van Dijk, who moved from the same club, while Robertson had gotten relegated with Hull City. These were players who had clear ability to the naked eye, but were hardly household names and considered to be at the top of the player pyramid.

How does their market value stack up now, compared to where it was when they were first purchased?

Similar comparisons can be made from other clubs on that list. RB Leipzig purchased Timo Werner from VfB Stuttgart for 12-million pounds four years ago, and just completed a deal to sell him to Chelsea for the value of his release clause of 53-million pounds; a 441% return on their investment.

The hard truth of the matter regarding Arsenal is that not a single player on our books right now could present us with a chance to pull-off similar business, apart from maybe Guendouzi, and Martinelli. However, academy products like Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, or Joe Willock, would signal pure profit considering they weren’t purchased.

What we now have at the club is a model that lacks any semblance of sustainability, despite the good pieces in place we do have in the set-up, both regarding players and people in positions of power; namely Edu, and Francis Cagigao.

And if we are really honest with ourselves, every year we get it wrong, it becomes doubly difficult to try to put us back on track in the league.

When you consider that Wolves – a club who has only been back in the Premier League for two seasons – has spent the same large sums of money that Arsenal has over the last two summer windows (~230m-pounds), we no longer have the cushioned luxury to look behind us in the table and say that clubs are still well in our rear-view, even if we’re behind our direct rivals.

Wolves, Leicester, and Everton, are all fully capable of competing with us; not just in the market, but in the league. This season is a prime example of that fact.

Moving forward, perhaps an even more harsh reality is that we are maybe only two or three more years away from putting ourselves into a position where it’s too late. There has never been a more important 12-month period for the club than the one we are preparing to tackle, including the months in the wake of Arsène Wenger’s departure.

If Arsenal Football Club is to truly move forward, and truly start making decisions befitting a club that have the future and its development in mind, then Raúl Sanllehi may well have to be replaced. And if Stanley Kroenke and KSE are not prepared to hold the Spaniard over the fire and demand he starts making the right decisions, then Arsenal are better off in different hands. Not because he’s American, but because he won’t do what it takes.


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