Ivan Gazidis: Stand and Deliver

It has been nine and a half years since Ivan Gazidis took up his post as Arsenal’s CEO. Gazidis walked into a politically unique situation at Arsenal, with an all-powerful legacy manager, given the freedom of the club to assuage his misgivings over the departure of his friend and colleague David Dein. Ivan has reluctantly been thrust into the foreground as Arsene’s powers waned and rifts in a disgruntled fan base began to grow.

Any manager is judged by a trifecta of stakeholders- the players, the board and the supporters. I think it is fair to say that Arsene lost all of those groups to varying degrees and Gazidis’ task in delicately removing a benevolent dictator has been a difficult and intensely scrutinised one. There can be few CEOs in world football more recognised and more closely analysed than Ivan.

Despite nine and a half years in the job, I would say that the jury is still out on Gazidis among the Arsenal fans. This summer represents a watershed in his tenure and, as I am sure he is all too aware, the judgement really starts now. Which is not to say that he has been sitting on his hands to this point, or that he has solely been left to handle the sensitive political situation between Arsene and Arsenal.

To his credit, what Gazidis has done, if you tug the thread a little, is highlight problem areas and look to address them. Earlier in his tenure, the Gunners were clearly suffering with soft tissue injuries to players. Gazidis drove a project that saw investment into a new medical facility and the club’s medical staff has been slowly overhauled since too.

Appointments of new club doctors like Gary O’Driscoll were subsequently supplanted by the arrival of Shad Forsythe and, latterly, Darren Burgess. The upshot is that the squad’s issues with soft tissue injuries have become less prevalent (the presence and departures of Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby were probably significant in massaging the injury stats either way in that regard).

London Colney has been rebuilt and modernised under Gazidis’ watch. Likewise, he led a refresh of the Arsenal academy structure as talent from the ranks began to dry up under long serving staff. The likes of Andries Jonker, Frans de Kat and Jan van Loon were appointed, while club stalwarts Liam Brady and Terry Burton were moved on.

Recruitment has been identified as a trigger point too, with Arsene Wenger openly complaining about the club missing out on nascent ‘before they were famous’ type talents. Arsenal bought Oklahoma based analytics company StatDNA to aid their efforts. It is fair to say that the youth academy restructure and the StatDNA projects have produced mixed results.

Suspicions abound that Arsene did not exactly warm to StatDNA as a tool. He openly told journalists that he was talked out of an approach for Antoine Griezmann during his time at Real Sociedad by StatDNA advisers. Signings made on the recommendation of the data often found themselves underemployed relatively early in their Arsenal careers- which did not always chime with a coach famed for his inexhaustible patience with his players.

Gradually, Gazidis’ work has become more prominent. He has spent the last twelve months or so constructing a support structure with Wenger’s removal / resignation in mind. The appointments of Sven Mislintat, Raul Sanllehi, Darren Burgess and Huss Fahmy have been more public affairs. Ivan began to distance himself from Wenger as necessary plans were concocted to smooth his departure.

During last spring, as Arsenal toiled and Arsene, edging towards the end of his contract, began to oversee a managed decline, Gazidis became more difficult to locate than Richey Edwards. Many would, with good reason, argue that aligning himself with a manager that was not longed for his job would have constituted political suicide.

Given that Arsenal awarded Wenger a new contract last summer, my own view is that the CEO should own that publicly, whether he ultimately agreed with the decision or not. Ivan’s personal opinions come into the public domain via “second hand sources” a little too easily for my liking. Ivan’s opinions are totally secondary to Arsenal’s actions and decisions. But this gripe has little bearing on how good he actually is at his job, which is the most important thing.

Gazidis has taken front stage and centre during the appointment of Unai Emery, which is natural. There has been a shift in the power dynamic at Arsenal and it’s natural that he owns it. It makes a certain amount of sense for him to ‘chaperone’ Emery through his media duties on his first day- especially given the language barrier.

Again, it doesn’t really have any bearing on how well he has done at his job, but I can understand why people are a little irked about Ivan making sure the camera got his good side in every shot of the new manager having gone into hiding when Wenger was on the canvas last year. Ivan has been mocked in the past on the basis of a few soundbites, which I happen to think is a little unfair.

The remarks about competing with Munich (it was never truly clear whether he meant on the pitch, or on the balance sheet) or on Arsene being accountable to the fans have blotted his copybook a little. I am certain he will regret both remarks and how much they resonated. But his “catalyst for change” strapline from last year will not live to the same level of infamy because he has delivered on that promise.

Now the question comes as to how effective the team he has built to replace Wenger will be. On the face of it, one can certainly see the logic in the appointments of Mislintat, Sanllehi, Burgess and Fahmy- all of whom are considered leaders in their respective fields. The logic for appointing Emery as Head Coach is easy to follow too. But Gazidis’ decisions will not be judged on theory, sound or otherwise. They will be judged in practice- as he will know well.

Without being privy to the precise appointment processes for the structure supporting the Head Coach, one can’t properly judge the motives at this point. Football does often fall foul of what Rory Smith called ‘Guru Thinking’. Everton just paid a generous severance package to Steve Walsh, two years after poaching him from Leicester City.

Leicester’s unprecedented title win in 2016 saw their backroom staff become some of the most in-demand support staff in football (Arsenal swooped for their video analyst, Ben Wrigglesworth). Walsh turned out to be a failure at Everton, as they gradually realised that he had not managed to bottle lightning in the transfer market.

The reputations of Frank Arnesen, Damien Commolli, Graham Carr and Franco Baldini as transfer market gurus have all observed a similar trajectory in the Premier League. Whether Arsenal have likewise been guilty of ‘Guru Thinking’ in their appointment processes will be revealed in the fullness of time. Ivan no longer has Arsene Wenger as an umbrella to shield him from the brickbats, but neither does he have Arsene as a blocker.

“Ivan Gazidis, what the fuck do you do?!” was one of the more uncharitable chants aimed at him by Arsenal fans during periods of tumult. I can’t imagine another fanbase in Europe that has constructed a ditty, charitable or otherwise, for their CEO, which gives you an impression of how public facing his job has been. If one permits oneself the tiniest bit of investigation, what Ivan Gazidis does and has done is pretty obvious. Whether or not he has done it well, we are about to find out.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.