The last 12 months have seen Arsenal undergo a series of changes which have completely altered the complexion of the club as we knew it. From backroom staff to manager to boardroom to pitch, when you step back and look at it in total the scale of what has gone on has been quite something to behold.
If it felt like bringing in Unai Emery, new signings, and his backroom staff was the final piece of the new red and white puzzle, the continued rumours of Ivan Gazidis going to AC Milan caused some instability – particularly when he had been seen as the driving force behind many of the new appointments and the new direction the club appeared to be taking.
Yesterday we got some clarity at last as Arsenal’s worst kept secret was made official. It was never a question of if he would go to AC Milan, but when, and clearly a move like this takes a lot of wrangling behind the scenes. That he leaves at the end of October to start at the beginning of December in Italy shows you some negotiation has gone on because the club would have been within their rights to hold him to a longer notice period or even put him on gardening leave for much longer than a month.
Perhaps it’s the goodwill in which he’s viewed by Stan and Josh Kroenke. Perhaps it was a financial sweetener from the hedge fund which now owns the Italian giants. Who knows? We might find out in time, but in truth I’m not sure it really matters that much now that we have a clear idea of what’s going on.
The most important part of this whole thing is what we do, and for now it seems as if we’re going to operate without a CEO and we’ve appointed two men to handle two different sides of the job Gazidis was in charge of. Raul Sanllehi, who was appointed Head of Football Relations in January, will now simply become the Head of Football, while the current Chief Commercial Officer, Vinai Venkatesham, will be the club’s new managing director.
The distinction is obvious: the Spaniard will oversee all things football, and with a wealth of experience at Barcelona, he’s clearly got a track record which makes him the ideal candidate to do that job. He’s a smart operator with fantastic connections in the game, and the efficiency with which we did our incoming summer transfers was, in no small part, down to him.
He’s got some legacy issues to deal with straight away, as he’s been left a couple of messy contract situations in Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, and whatever he does with those two, one of his most important jobs will be to ensure we don’t let players run down their deals the way they have in recent years. We might have to make difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions about selling players – maybe ones we like – but that’s the way it goes at every club of our level, and others have shown that you can sell key men, reinvest, and come out the other side stronger.
As for Venkatesham, I don’t know a great deal about him, but if Gazidis has been criticised for our relative under-performance from a commercial standpoint, then surely the man in charge of that division can’t escape some scrutiny for it either. It was under his remit that we were caught up in a bizarre story earlier this summer about a partnership deal with a Chinese company brokered by a fake employee, but we’ll see how he gets on as his work gets underway.
Either way, I think the separation of the two parts of the job is a good thing. Someone to focus completely on football and someone to focus completely on business. Over the last couple of years, I’m told that there was a blurring of the lines, so to speak, when it came to Gazidis. Primarily his role was more business focused, but he took an office at the training ground, began to get involved in player recommendations when it came to signings etc, and as Swiss Ramble pointed out in one of his fantastic Twitter threads, it came at the expense of our financial numbers. We’ve been boosted by broadcast income, but a rising tide lifts all boats, and the nuts and bolts of our commercial income haven’t matched the other teams around us.
Some will point to the deals done in 2014 as evidence of our commercial growth, but such were the restrictions on us from the deals which helped build the stadium, they were always going to be significantly better. Others, I’m sure, can analyse what went on under Gazidis from a business point of view with much great acumen than I ever could – Phil Wall asks will anyone notice his departure – but he has been a kind of figurehead since his arrival in 2009 and in mitigation, I don’t think he’s always had the easiest job.
He arrived at a club with a hugely powerful and popular manager, dealing with a squabbling board as the fight for control was still very much underway. Then there was the sale to Kroenke which gave him majority control, the isolation of the second biggest shareholder which ultimately led Alisher Usmanov to sell to the American but not before spending years piping up whenever things went wrong – and a lot went wrong – and dealing with an increasingly disgruntled fanbase.
And this is where Gazidis shone. He almost always said the right thing in a way which made you think things were going to be ok. A consummate orator, he could deal with tricky situations and questions pretty well – although year after year at the AGM Arsene Wenger, under even more pressure than the CEO, managed to outshine him in front crowds who were ever less predisposed towards the work he was doing.
“We can do things that will excite you,” said Gazidis.
“We should be able to compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich,” he said.
His words promised much but ultimately actions delivered little. Not all of his was his fault, Wenger’s power, Kroenke’s absenteeism, and other factors made things complicated, but this was a man who would talk positively about safe-standing and reduced ticket prices in public but didn’t follow through on that behind the scenes. This is a man who, when we were sitting on football’s biggest cash reserves, suggested we try and use Leicester as a model, and by the time everyone had stopped laughing at how ludicrous that was, transfer fees exploded ensuring what we had in the bank didn’t get us anywhere close to what it would have if we hadn’t kept our powder dry
When things were going so wrong last season, the man with all those words was nowhere to be found when some kind of leadership was required. He let Wenger take the sticks and stones week after week after week, but when the manager’s decision to ‘step down’ was made he presided over a toe-curling press conference, eulogising a man who wasn’t dead yet, putting himself front and centre despite being invisible – and deliberately so – for months. That rankled because it felt so cowardly, and whatever you thought of the Frenchman, he deserved better than that.
Gazidis deserves credit for the work to restructure the club, the appointments we all know about, but the jury is still out on the efficacy of some of those men – for no other reason that we haven’t had enough time to see how good they are at their jobs. He won’t be around to see how they get on though, because he’ll be elsewhere. And that’s all right, man takes a new job is hardly a shock or something to get angry about, but the timing of it feels a bit odd all the same.
Is he getting out before he’s held accountable for his work in that regard, or is the AC Milan offer simply too good to turn down? To me it feels much more like the latter than the former. Financially it’s a big increase and potentially worth millions more after he’s given some shares ahead of future sale. I wouldn’t blame him for taking that chance, but nor do I feel like his departure is a great blow to us.
KSE were always going to make changes at board level despite their offer document saying they had no plans to. Josh Kroenke will now take a much more active role in the running of Arsenal, we’ll obviously wait and see how that goes, and it might well be a case that he takes a different role than CEO as some of the old guard on the board are replaced in the not too distant future.
The question we have to contend with now comes back to the post I made yesterday: where are the Kroenkes going to take Arsenal? Will it simply be their European investment vehicle in a high profile space in which even mediocre outfits make profits and whose value continues to rise, or do they genuinely have ambitions to take us back to where we want to be?
All of us, I’m sure, hope it’s going to be the latter. Maybe Josh sees this as a chance to make his own name, and will preside over the kind of investment and smart running of the club required to make us truly competitive again. That’s the ideal scenario I guess. The flip-side is that we find ourselves stuck in a kind of mediocre rut that we can’t get out of, another one of the middling KSE franchises in their middling portfolio. I think our size and reputation protects us from too much of a downward slide, but the Premier League is an ever more difficult playground, and unless we find ways to kick on, we could be the team we are now for some time.
Anyway, it’s all ahead of us and hopefully now that things have been cleared up, the new men can get to work and help make things better.
Best of luck them.