Thursday, June 20, 2024

Good news, bad news, contract extensions and convenient relationships

Let’s start this morning with good news, because I’m not sure this is going to be the cheeriest blog I’ve ever written.

So, Bernd Leno’s injury was confirmed as ligament damage but not cruciate ligament damage. He’s going to miss around 4-6 weeks, which means his season is over, but he should be back in time for next season. It’s not great in the very short-term, but it means we don’t have the complication of needing a goalkeeper in the transfer market when it opens again, and we can breathe a sigh of relief in general because it could have been much, much worse.

Unfortunately there was also bad news on the fitness front with Gabriel Martinelli set to be sidelined for some time after suffering a knee injury in training. Right at the end of the session he went knee to knee with a teammate and the prognosis is pretty bad apparently. Fingers crossed we get some good news like Leno, but Mikel Arteta admitted it looked like one which would see him out for months.

There was also confirmation that Pablo Mari will be out for two to three months due to a ‘significant sprain’ of his ankle ligaments, and he’s due further assessment so we’ll have to wait and see if it’s something that still requires surgery. Ahead of Thursday there might be some good news regarding the availability of Granit Xhaka and Sokratis, every fit body is precious right now.

Now, let’s talk contracts, extensions, and permanent signings. The Premier League set a deadline of midnight last night for clubs to sort out extensions for players whose deals were expiring at the end of June, whether they were loan players or fully contracted. Arsenal had four issues to sort out. David Luiz, who was signed on a one year deal from Chelsea last summer; Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares who were on loan from Flamengo and Southampton respectively; and Dani Ceballos.

At 7.20pm last night, Arteta was asked about these situations, and said he wanted to keep the players because of the injuries etc we have, and that, “It’s very complicated, the timing of it, and the legal issues that are involved in that. The club is trying to finalise everything in the next few hours.”

I suppose the first thing that occurs to me is why, with just a few hours until the deadline, we’re frantically trying to work things out with these players when decisions could have been made well before now. It doesn’t sound like the smartest way to operate, even taking into account all the injuries. This is a club beset with contractual issues, the last player to sign any kind of new deal was Joe Willock in September of last year, and you’d wonder what Huss Fahmy, our so-called contracts guru, is doing all day every day.

Obviously, working in tandem with the manager and the executive committee, this is what he was up to yesterday, according to various reports.

  • Giving David Luiz a one year contract extension despite the fact that we’d declined to take up the option that was in the deal he signed last August.
  • Giving Cedric Soares a four year deal to sign on a permanent basis from Southampton.
  • Giving Pablo Mari a four year deal to sign on a permanent basis.

I really do like to try and find the positives in the work that we do at the club, but this morning I have to admit I’m struggling to convince myself. Whatever about the other two, I genuinely cannot believe we’re committing another season of big wages to the Brazilian. I think you could have made a case for a short-term deal to the end of this season, because everything is just so weird right now, but this is a player in very sharp, very obvious decline and I don’t understand the logic in keeping him at all. This would have been the perfect moment to move on from a player looks less and capable all the time. It’s also one in which Arsenal have fully failed to read the room over when it comes to fan sentiment.

Soares: we need a right back to provide some squad depth, he’s ‘free’, and he is settled in – as much as anyone who has spent 6 months at a club and not played a single minute can be. A four year deal for a 28 year old who could barely get a game for Southampton this season seems a very nice outcome for him though. You could make the argument that if we gave him a three year deal in 12 months we’d have to have the ‘two year’ conversation as set out by Raul Sanllehi (one he doesn’t seem to be keen to have with anyone all the same), but four is very generous all the same.

Update: It would be fairer to say that Soares is a player Southampton had no interest in keeping rather than someone who didn’t play. He made 16 appearances in the 29 games they played before his departure.

Mari: a 26 year old centre-half with a good left foot fits the profile of what we need to rejuvenate our current central defensive options. For me, the jury is out simply because I haven’t seen enough of him in an Arsenal shirt to make a proper assessment of him as a player. That’s something that won’t be possible for a while yet either because of his injury, and while his career trajectory is unconvincing, he’s the one I see the most logic in when it comes to these deals. You can worry about his Premier League credentials but hold out some hope he’s something of a late bloomer.

So, to clarify: We’ve extended the contract of a 33 year old who has been pretty bad, and very, very, very expensive. Those reports that his single year cost £24m might have been denied by his agent, which is entirely his right, but I also have the right not believe him. If I’m given the choice between believing a football agent with track record of murky dealings, or a reporter with an impeccable track record, I know which camp I’m in.

We’ve also given a four year deal to player with the same agent who we ‘surprisingly’ signed from Southampton on loan despite the fact he was injured, and given a player who has suffered a significant injury a four year contract. Again, I can see that there is a flip side for some people, that these deals were easy to do, convenient almost, and in the current market maybe that’s a factor in the decision making.

And yet, let me paint you a scenario for a second. Imagine this was going on at another club:

Imaginary FC’s Technical Director shares an agent with a veteran centre-half who has just signed a new contract at his current club, but after Imaginary FC’s captain, who has given 9 years of sterling service basically goes on strike to force a move after ‘months of discussions’, the veteran centre-half can no longer countenance the idea of playing for his current club and ends up signing for Imaginary FC for a large transfer fee based on his age, large wages, and large intermediary fees which could see one year cost up to £24m.

Said agent, who watches games from the Director’s Box with the Technical Director and the Head of Football, then brings another of his clients to Imaginary FC. They had been linked with a left-back from his roster who plays elsewhere, but out of the blue he sorts out a loan deal, which costs Imaginary FC in the region of £5m all told, for a right-back who arrives to sign his temporary contract in a knee brace.

Some time previously, Imaginary FC had been looking for a new head coach after the esteemed long-serving manager departed. There were all kinds of names being linked with the job, but out of the blue a supposedly safe but uninspiring appointment is made. That new manager is represented by an agent who has a close relationship with Imaginary FC’s Head of Football. That new manager doesn’t speak any English yet on the interviewing panel only one of the members speak his language, so who did he convince to get the job – or how did the other two members become convinced?

Fast forward a bit, and that very same agent has a Spanish central defender on his books, playing in Brazil and doing well there having scratched around for most of his career in the Spanish second division. In the January transfer window, Imaginary FC bring said defender to the club on loan … no wait there’s a hiccup over money he’s gone back to Brazil and … hang on, he’s back … it’s all sorted now. Those money issues are solved.

What would you think?

Here’s how it looks from an Arsenal point of view:

Head of Football – Raul Sanllehi.
Technical Director – Edu (his agent is Kia Joorabchian).
Veteran centre-half – David Luiz (his agent is Kia Joorabchian).
Injured right-back – Cedric Soares (his agent is Kia Joorabchian).
Spanish centre-half – Pablo Mari (his agent is Arturo Canales, the man who represented Unai Emery, and a close associate of Raul Sanllehi).

Even if some people might have concerns about where money is going, I’m sure everything is above board and legal. The question is, are these players the best players that Arsenal could have got, or simply players that suit our needs from agents with whom we clearly have very cosy relationships? Is that ‘just how it works’ or does it suit other people far more than it suits Arsenal? Do you stop to wonder why Sanllehi was so opposed to the idea of Arsenal appointing a former player to the board, particularly when it was suggested to me that part of his proposed remit would have been a measure of oversight on football matters?

It’s also worth asking if when you turn a loan deal into a permanent signing, are there secondary intermediary fees due? Why didn’t we just buy Pablo Mari in January, rather than pay a loan fee then a transfer fee? If we had the money to do it now, we had the money to do it then. Why didn’t we wait until this summer to bring in Cedric Soares if he was a player we really wanted, and when he was actually ‘free’, rather than pay a significant loan fee + wages for a player who was injured anyway? We had imperfect options at right back, but we had options. It’s not as if we didn’t have anyone to fill that role and you’d struggle to convince anyone that the situation was so desperate that it necessitated the capture of an injured player.

The centre of Arsenal’s defence needs a lot of work. It needs to be rebuilt and reconstructed. If part of that reconstruction is a player whose performance levels fluctuate like the wind then our foundations are rotten. Luiz couldn’t concentrate against Man City because he was worried about his contract. What happens when he’s about to play next and he has something on his mind? Red card? Penalty? Both? Again (2 red cards and 4 penalties so far this season).

By Sanllehi’s own admission, for Arsenal to be competitive, we need to ‘outsmart the market‘. Here’s what former Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat said about the way we were trying to find players:

We had a strong systematic approach to transfers, a mixture of watching things live as well as quality data and video analysis – Arsenal actually owns their own data company. That meant that we acted independently, we knew about all markets and players in all positions that came into question.

And part of the reason why he left after a power struggle which saw Sanllehi come out of top:

The new leadership work more strongly with what they are offered from clubs or agents through their own networks.

Which approach sounds best suited to ‘outsmarting the market’? The one which marries intense on the ground scouting, data, and technical/video analysis, or the one where your agent mates suggest players for positions you need, getting paid in the process (as all agents do)? How much did we scout Soares or Mari? And if we did run the rule over David Luiz before deciding to spend that much money on him (which I don’t think we did anyway), whoever did that needs to find a new career because scouting is not for them.

For a guy held up and brought in as the deal maker, the broker, the man who could press the flesh and makes sure deals happened, Sanllehi seems to need a lot of help from agents to get things done (we even paid a healthy sum to a third party agent to help do the Pepe deal despite the fact he wasn’t the player’s representative).

Which isn’t to say every Sven signing was a success, nor has every Sanllehi signing been a failure, but there’s a pattern of behaviour here that I find concerning. There’s a way a well-run modern football club should manage its recruitment, and this is not it. I realise some people don’t see a problem in this, and that’s absolutely fine. I can’t look at what’s going on and not be worried though. Everyone reading this can make their own mind up. Maybe ask a QPR fan how it all went when Mark Hughes and his then agent Kia Joorabchian were doing their work there.

Meanwhile, our hottest and most exciting young talent is heading into the final 12 months of his contract and still nothing has been agreed – despite months in lockdown and plentiful time to have proper conversations about it. Our captain and leading goalscorer has been allowed to get into the final 12 months of his deal. What exactly are we outsmarting here?

Let’s just hope that the new manager of Imaginary FC Arsenal FC can fashion a functioning team from all these strange parts we’ve accumulated.

Till tomorrow.

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