Is Raul Sanllehi The Right Guy To Lead Arsenal Right Now?
Arsenal lost the first leg to BATE in the Europa League last night, in case you didn’t hear. And while it may not seem like it, Arsenal are at a crossroads, for the season and for the foreseeable future.
The question is are the right people at the helm of the club to see it through this storm and help move us forward. Or are we in the hands of people, that will only make matters a lot worse before it gets better.
Today we’re going to look at Raul Sanllehi and whether or not his tenure as the leader of Arsenal’s football operations can lead us back to the promised land or will it result in us enduring a winter outside the top trying to get back in.
Why a crossroads? It may seem like an over exaggeration but Arsenal supporters at this time are trying very hard to be patient but when you’ve been asked to be patient over 10 years through a variety of rebuilds and refocusing, having patience when it truly is warranted is going to be hard to come by.
Admittedly, I am not prone to be patient with Unai Emery as my expectations for Arsenal are high and I expect to at a minimum see some movement towards improvement – better defensive organization, attempting to move the ball from back to front, or trying but failing to press. Sadly, I see none of that.
Whether Unai Emery sinks or swims at Arsenal is now down to one man, the former director of football at FC Barcelona Raul Sanllehi. The question remains was Barca better because of Raul or in spite of him? Let’s examine
Raul – the Pre-Barca Years
By many standards Raul Sanllehi is considered somewhat of a football outsider. He has a BA in Economics, Marketing and Finance from Guilford College and an MBA &PDG from IESE Business School of the University of Navarra.
His background in sports and specifically sports marketing was established through his early tenure working as a marketing executive at Henkel Iberica SA where his duties were primarily focused on improving sales.
In 1996 Raul left Iberica and spent time in various marketing and sales positions at Nike up until 2002 when he was appointed General Manager of Nike division FCBMerchanidsing SL.
Meanwhile over at Barcelona the club that would light up the world was going through it own changes In 2003, the beloved figure of 1990’s Barcelona; Txiki Begiristain was appointed as Director of football.
With Raul’s position at FCB Merchandising SL, he was already a well-known figure at the Catalan club, and because of that comfort level Txiki decided to appoint him to be man in charge of Marketing at the club, giving him the freedom to work on his own terms and use his Nike connections to try bring bigger marketing success to the club as a a worldwide entity.
Becoming a Director at FCB
In 2008, Txiki was promoted to VP Football operations for Barca thus leaving his position as Director of Football open. Txiki surprised many by appoint Raul to a position that was predominantly filled by either former players or people with a stronger background in football than Sanllehi had.
There was gossip at the time around Camp Nou that the real reason Raul was appointed to that position was that Raul could (and would) get Nike to support the expansion of the Camp Nou if he were appointed to that role.
July 1, 2008 would mark Raul’s first day at his new job, however his predecessor and club VP, Txiki had already taken all the necessary steps to make sure his successor’s job got off to a flying start.
In the start of the most glorious era of Barcelona’s illustrious history, Pep Guardiola was already onboard to become the next manager of the club. Spanish defender Pique was also signed after a failed stint at Manchester United for € 5.0 m and Txiki had already closed on a deal to bring in RB Dani Alves from Seville for € 19.0 m.
Showing he was not afraid to make moves of his own, Raul didn’t waste any time getting down to work. His first big move, was as controversial as it appeared to all. He moved two solid starters in Zambrotta and Deco getting around € 25 m for both. He followed that up by moving club star, Ronaldinho to AC Milan for € 24.4m. It was a deal that had been lurking out there, but it was Raul who had the guts to close the deal.
Big moves weren’t the only thing on the docket. Raul also went looking for young promising players by targeting Seydou Keita, Martin Caceras and Alexander Hleb, Some felt these moves were too much as when it was all said and done the final amount spent that season went above € 88 million.
Remember Barcelona at this time, there was a lot of pride in promoting from within and when you consider whom they had on the books at the time; Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Busquets, Victor Valdez, and Henry spending that much seemed a perhaps a bridge too far.
The Ups and Downs of Business at Barcelona
When word got out that Arsenal had hired Sanllehi, his name was linked to the most successful period in Barcelona history and it implied he had a huge role to play in that. For 10 years, Barcelona won everything that could be won and by extension, Raul got plaudits as did everyone at the club.
However, with all the success it was an era of growing and costly mistakes at the board level based in part by decisions being driven by Sanllehi.
This was the year that Barcelona sold Eto’o to inter and turned around to sign Zlatan and Maxwell for a combined €74.5m(€69.5m and €5m respectively). Eto’o would go on to win the treble at Inter while Zlatan was, well Zlatan and would go on to be a thorn in manager Guardiola’s side.
Alex Hleb and Caceras wouldn’t feature for the side and ultimately had to be sent on loan. Neither player would play for Barcelona again.
Zlatan being Zlatan just didn’t fit at Barcelona and he would be sold for a €24m and a loss of €45m. This was reportedly decided after a dust-up between player and head coach with Zlatan calling Pep a “coward.” It was an altercation that would strain the relationships between player and club and likely result in their desire to move him on.
Additional moves were made with David Villa coming in for around €40m and while he was coming in Yaya Toure was on his way out to City for € 30m (an absolute steal for City.)
Barcelona would have another epic season, finishing first in La Lia, runners-up in the Copa del Rey, winning the Supercopa de Espana, and getting the ultimate prize with the UEFA Champion’s league.
Even with that success, the club would finish at a loss of €1m after tax. Sandro Rosell would come in and take over as President as Laporte stepped down. It would also be topped off by the man who made Barca successful on the pitch, Pep Guardiola leaving. It is rumoured that he left because Pep felt he wouldn’t get the same level of autonomy he got previously under the partnership of Sandro and Raul. And let’s be honest, he also felt he’d won everything that could’ve been won.
This was the year widely regarded as Raul’s best year as Director of Football. He would sign both Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas (boooooo) for a combined fee of €60.6m.
It would also be the year that he would have the club move on from the development of Bojan who would go on to be sold for around €12m.
After the success of the previous year in the transfer market, Raul experienced a year of mixed fortunes. He would sign LB Jordi Alba €14m and turn around and spend €19m Alex Song who would barely feature at the club.
Seydou Keita would leave also leave China but the big story was the health of fan favourite, Eric Abidal. Abidal had made his mark at the club during his tenure at the club but during this season everyone was stunned by his diagnosis of liver cancer which would ultimately result in his needing a liver transplant.
Abidal would return to the squad and his presence had an uplifting effect on the team. However, in April 2013, Abidal was reportedly summoned into a meeting with Sanllehi and was essentially told his level of play was not at the level they needed to be, and his contract would be terminated at the end of the season.
Abidal reportedly pushed back and mentioned that he had one year left on his deal to which he was reportedly told that the club would pursue legal action to terminate the contract. Abidal would later confirm a lot of this on an interview on French TV.
Depending on your viewpoint it was either the best year of Raul’s tenure or his most controversial. After abandoning their history of promoting La Maisa players to the first team, Raul would oversee the €88m transfer of Neymar to Barcelona. Promising youngster Thiago would move to Bayern for €25m while the likes of Abidal, Muniesa, David Villa and Fontas would all depart for around a total of €3.1m.
If that bit of business was perplexing enough, Raul would see to the return of Bojan, who was bought back from Roma for €13m, and immediately loaned out to Ajax. It was a move widely considered as a way for the club to circumvent FFP rules and Spanish tax laws.
The Neymar move would dominate the headlines though as a court case in Brazil levied claims against Barcelona in the move that would bring the Brazillian wunder-kind to the Camp Nou.
The cause was originally filed by national tax authorities, questioning the size of the deal arguing that it was actually in the range of €112m and not the reported €88m. This was backed up by evidence that showed that Neymar’s family had received around €40m on top of the club received and agent fees.
The case could’ve resulted in severe consequences for the club (around €197m in fines) and it could’ve seen both senior club executives, Raul and Sandro facing jail time. Ultimately the case was settled out court with Barcelona agreeing to pay a fine of €5.5m and Sandro agreeing to step down, which he did.
Compared to the previous year, this season would seem relatively tranquil with Raul overseeing the arrival of Luis Suarez to Camp Nou for €83m. It also saw fan favourite Cesc Fabregas go to Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez sold to Arsenal for a combined €75.5m. It resulted in a net spend for the talented Suarez of €8m, all in all, a great piece of business for Raul.
The End of Sanllehi at Barca
“This has to be the worst spell of any sports director in history” – Nasser Al Khelifi- PSG president-2016
After the highs and lows of the previous years, the remaining years at Barcelona would likely seal Raul’s fate in terms of leaving the club. Consider that in 2016, the club would start the year off with a 6-month transfer ban.
At the conclusion of the ban, they would sign Arda Turan, Arturo Vidal, Lucas Digne, Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Jasper Cilessen, Paulinho, Nelson Semedo, Ousmane Dembele, Phillipe Coutinho, and Malcolm for a whopping combined total of €520m.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Barcelona would lose Nemar to PSG in a protracted battle with speculation swirling around that Raul and club President, Bartomeu, were meeting mafia bosses and oligarchs to attempt and bring a halt to the deal.
PSG would ultimately win out on the deal and bought Neymar to Paris for €220m. It is so far the most expensive transfer ever.
In his 10 years as director of Football at Barcelona, Raul Sanllehi, spent more than €1’000’000’000 while losing (for various reasons) the likes of Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi and with Pique, Busquets, Messi all entering the twilights of their careers without anyone positioned to take their place.,
If you believe all the innuendo (and there is enough evidence out there to confirm) Sanllehi has been involved in terminating the contract of a beloved player with cancer, two tax frauds cases and a mob-like fight with the owners of PSG.
He has presided over the unsettling of many of the club’s stars and oversaw multiple deals that would best be classified as shady as players were sold and brought back one season after the other.
And his piece-de-resistance may be that he also is considered the brains behind the move from UNICEF to the Qatar Foundation in its shirt sponsorship deal. Many viewed those moves as a smear on a once proudly unsponsored shirt.
So, what’s this got to do with Arsenal?
So you’ve probably now read this entire tome related to the background of current Director of Football Operations (or whatever his title is) and wondered – so what? Why is this important?
Increasingly as players and staff have left there seems to be an increase in news leaks that attack the credibility of those leaving. Sven Mislintat left and shortly thereafter stories began popping up that he was nothing more than a glorified desk jockey. There were even people on twitter insinuating that he had taken money from agents. Then we got confirmation of Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus and suddenly some people were carrying stories that he never intended to sign the offer Arsenal had offered him.
Then there is the curious Mesut Özil situation. Either, Unai Emery has lost complete faith in the man and has completely ostracized him, or the team leadership doesn’t like his contract and is establishing an environment where he no longer wants to stay here and looks to move on. When you look back at Raul’s career and the speculation regarding his handling of the Eric Abidal contract, you wonder who really is driving his exclusion from the team.
If any of these events were single events and there wasn’t a history of brutish behaviour in Raul’s background, there would likely be no cause for concern. But there is and well, it’s all very un-Arsenal like. This is a club that doesn’t handle its backroom business in public. And its all gotten very public to, in my opinion, control the narrative and not put the club leadership in a bad light. However, the more discerning minds may start to realise that it is doing exactly the opposite.
Arsenal need to be a club playing for the biggest prizes and how we do that – spending money or following a model similar to Dortmund is open to debate and speculation. Regardless of the way forward it needs resolute leadership who understands and believes in the core values of this club. The worry is that Raul and by extension the leadership team he builds don’t get that.
We need a clear path forward and I applaud Raul for saying all the right things. However, we all remember when Stan Kroenke took his first steps to ownership of the club in 2010 he said all the right things and well, where are we some 7 to 8 years later?
The hope is that the fears around Raul are unfounded and in he ushers a new era of greatness for the Arsenal. There is surely enough evidence that isn’t afraid to make the deals necessary to build a winner but at what cost?
Editors note: All fees are courtesy of transfermarkt and should be interpreted with caution.
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