Given modern football’s obsession with the transfer market, it was a matter of time before the people signing the cheques became superstars in their own right. At Arsenal, this meta-transfer universe has come to life in the last 12 months. Arsenal resolved to replace Arsene Wenger with a structure rather than a single appointment.
Initially, Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat were the men identified to share Wenger’s behind the scenes workload. Mislintat was an exciting appointment for Arsenal given his very visible work at Dortmund. Perhaps sensing the era of the ‘transfer guru’, Sven made damn sure everyone knew about his ‘diamond eyes’ too.
In the modern era, football’s hierarchy is entrenched at the elite level more than it has ever been. Ceilings are not so much made of glass as reinforced steel. Only an oligarch with the firepower to blast through several layers of iron can hope to break into the elite bracket. ‘Sport-washing’ is just one more term football fans have inducted into their lexicon.
Therefore, the focus on marginal gains has become far more pronounced, as clubs below the elite are clustered together. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Premier League, where six Champions League level clubs duke it out for four spots in Europe’s premier competition.
During his spell as Borussia Dortmund manager, Jurgen Klopp famously remarked, “We have a bow and arrow and if we aim well, we can hit the target. The problem is that Bayern has a bazooka. The probability that they will hit the target is clearly higher.” Mislintat made his name providing Klopp with undiscovered ammunition.
His appointment at Arsenal was greeted with optimism because Arsenal have a similar task to Dortmund, taking on heavy artillery with less incendiary weaponry. The club had begun to thrash around during the end of the Arsene era, as Wenger desperately searched in vain for solutions.
Mislintat was supposed to usher in an exciting new dawn and the signings of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira seemed to signal a fresh, exciting strategy. His swift departure enervated that optimism. That it didn’t work for Mislintat at Arsenal reveals a deeper truth, that no one man holds the key to the transfer market. No individual has a magic formula.
The rise of the ‘transfer guru’- as the New York Times’ Rory Smith termed it- is understandable. Football analysis is shaped through the prism of transfers, the answer to a good or bad performance is always to buy or sell. But the transfer market is not an automated system because it deals with humans, it is prone to error and randomness.
Therefore, the idea that someone has indefinitely ‘cracked’ the code to the transfer market is a seductive one. (Did you ever see the movie Pi? You should). Fans and clubs alike are looking for their own ‘cheat’ player behind the scenes, pressing the flesh and signing the cheques. Many of those anointed as ‘transfer gurus’ have knowingly managed their reputations too.
Of course, the likes of Monchi and Mislintat are not trailblazers in this regard. Steve Walsh was feted as the man behind Leicester’s unlikely title success, having unearthed the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Ngolo Kante. That he also sanctioned the signings of Gohkan Inler and a club record fee for Andrej Kramarić was swept under the carpet.
Walsh eventually joined Everton to much fanfare, before being quietly shuffled out of the door less than 2 years later having overseen a messy transfer policy at Goodison Park. Monchi ran into similar issues at Roma, where he failed to replicate his earlier success at Sevilla, while Mislintat survived just a year at Arsenal before falling victim to the power vacuum left by Ivan Gazidis’ departure.
Such stories are commonplace; Damien Commoli, Frank Arnesen and Franco Baldini have all joined members of the Premier League’s top 6 billed as the men with the keys to the transfer market. All failed in their new surroundings, for one reason or another. This is not necessarily because they were all chancers that ploughed a purple patch, often, the issues were borne of club politics and / or chemistry.
David Dein forged a similar reputation in the 1990s for wheeler dealing. Dein, like every transfer market operator, had his fair share of embarrassments that have been lost in the mists of time. Hatem Trabelsi, Sebastien Vieira, Miguel Angulo and the failures to land Patrick Kluivert and Ronald de Boer due to the club’s wage structure to mention but a few.
Even elements of the Ashley Cole deal don’t paint Dein in the best light. But this is totally normal because ‘cracking the market’ is like trying to bottle lightning. The Angulo deal fell through simply because the player had a last minute change of heart during his medical. It is not in the gift of a single individual to rule such a complex network like the transfer market.
Any Head of Recruitment is also entirely reliant on their network of scouts- not just the quality of scouts, but how the unit meshes together. Sound recruitment is a team game, which is why so many ‘gurus’ have struggled to repeat past successes in different environments. Many of them have also been over promoted due to their reputations and fallen foul of the ‘Peter Principle.’
Many were appointed to Technical Director roles and that is a very different job. Being a good scout does not guarantee that you will be a good manager or overseer of a scouting network. That’s why chemistry is so important, all of the scouts have to be on the same page, bought into a shared vision and that’s a very different task to having an eye for a player.
Arsenal absolutely need a Technical Director, Head of Recruitment or whatever you want to call it. But fans should be cautious about lusting after big names and reputations. The overall structure and the chemistry that exists within it is the defining attribute of a sound transfer policy. We are not really privy to that information, so it is difficult to have a firm opinion on who precisely should take the role.
An individual cannot define that, the role is, instead, to coalesce a sprawling network into a composite body with a shared purpose. It’s a tough role and an important appointment for Arsenal. After the recent departures of Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat, it is one they need to get right. The biggest reputation might not necessarily represent the best solution.