Catalyst for Change

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Whilst it feels as though it would require some kind of bloody coup to remove Arsene Wenger from his current post, Arsenal are making cosmetic changes behind the scenes to transform the club from a benevolent dictatorship to a more modern sporting organisation. Sven Mislintat replaces Steve Rowley as ‘Head of Recruitment’, while Raul Sanllehi joins from Barcelona as ‘Head of Football Relations.’

At the back end of last season, Arsene bristled at the idea of having a Director of Football figure, somewhat cantankerously protesting that he “doesn’t know what a Director of Football does.” In fairness, his prickliness has to be taken into context. For a start, it appears as though the “dance of negotiation” between Wenger and the board threatened to break into a fully fledged rap battle last spring, the two sides trading lyrical disses on the sly.

Also, the context of the questions in post-match press conferences were rather pointed. “Hey Arsene, do you need a Director of Football to babysit you because you’re shit at your job now?” It’s understandable if he was inclined to be obtuse in response. My reading is that the backroom changes were a condition set down to him upon being offered a contract, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

With Mislintat and Sanllehi appointed, they will no doubt be drawing up their contingency plans. The agenda already looks full to bursting for both; Arsenal have been inefficient on contracts and squad management over recent years, likely because of a lack of necessary support structures to support the manager.

Arsene has made some barbed comments about the scouting department in the press and there is a great deal of activity ahead in the next 18 months. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil are leaving, Santi Cazorla has not been adequately replaced, Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech are ageing and Per Mertesacker will also retire this summer.

That’s a lot of spinal surgery in a World Cup summer. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus have simultaneously reached the end of their cycles and will shop seriously next summer. That, along with the Quadrennial meat market of the World Cup, ought to set the market ablaze. Arsenal don’t have a roped off area in the marketplace as the superclubs do, so they will have to be smart about they recruit.

Mislintat was probably identified by the Gunners because they see themselves in approximately the same situation as Borussia Dortmund, a second tier European club taking on the Goliaths with a slingshot, broadly speaking. France was once considered Wenger’s private reserve, but the likes of Griezmann, Kante, Mbappe and even Pogba have evaded his clutch in recent years.

Arsenal need to be smarter about identifying players in the ‘before they were famous’ bracket and that is likely what Mislintat has been brought in to do. The club’s recruitment in the £15-35m bracket has been extremely hit and miss of late. It’s crucial that Sven and Arsene work together to identify targets. Too often, Arsenal have brought players in and worked out how to fit them in later.

The likes of Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi have struggled for consistency, largely because it doesn’t look like they were purchased to fulfil a specific purpose in the collective. Hopefully, Mislintat can help reverse this trend a little by scouting types as opposed to names. The top 6 is too competitive for the Gunners to waste the opening months of the season hurling players into the deep end and hoping that they can swim.

The beginning of the 2018-19 season is already going to be confusing, as Arsenal try to settle in whoever they identify to replace Alexis and Özil. Anything Mislintat and Wenger can do to smooth this process has to be a priority. Sven’s job is therefore two fold, not only does he need to identify suitable replacements for a good deal of Arsenal’s spine, but he and the manager need to collaborate to make sure the new players can gel as quickly as possible.

There is also the added complication that the club is not generating funds via player sales. Arsenal need to replace a good chunk of their spine and they won’t receive a penny in return for the likes of Özil, Alexis and Cazorla. Cech, Monreal and Koscielny will probably be phased out when their time comes, rather than sold. In short, Mislintat has to help Arsenal rebuild without a severely reduced capacity to generate income through existing assets.

Meanwhile, Raul Sanllehi’s to do list is no less forgiving. If Sven Mislintat is charged with scouring footballing flea markets for unpolished gems, Sanllehi will need to help polish Arsenal’s image. They are about to lose their two headline acts, a PR blow that makes the sporting task of replacing them even more difficult.

This already difficult task becomes virtually impossible if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League next season. The Puma and Fly Emirates sponsorships are both up for renewal at the end of the current campaign, we already know that the club’s two billboard players are leaving, failure to finish in the top 4 will likely be as off putting to potential replacements as it will potential sponsors.

In other words, Sanllehi’s extensive rolodex will be required. The reality is that it is unlikely that the club can replace both of their star players without buying another established star. Arsenal might be able to replace one of their star turns from football’s ever decreasing reservoir of untapped talent, but not both. In any case, sponsors will probably demand at least one globally recognisable mannequin on which to hoist their wares.

If we accept that Özil and Alexis are a lost cause, contractually, tying Aaron Ramsey down has to be one of Arsenal’s key objectives. Come next summer, he will only have 12 months remaining on his current deal. The club can ill-afford to lose him in the same summer as Mesut and Sanchez, but they can also ill-afford to let him leave on a free transfer too.

The Welshman has the club cornered, but Raul has swum with bigger sharks during his time at Barca and lived to tell the tale. Arsenal have appointed two men of great pedigree and because the club have waited a little too long to make these additions, their respective in-trays will be overflowing on arrival.

Though this piece from Rory Smith warns of the potential perils of ‘guru thinking’, the club have at least tried to add the skills they are clearly going to need over the next few months. Sanllehi and Mislintat might not quite be ‘like a new signing’, they could yet prove to be even more important than that. But both will have their work cut out from day number one.

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