As football fans we’re constantly measuring and discussing the performances of players, managers and the team. That’s an obvious part of it all. The games are played, we react to collective and individual performances, in-game decisions, substitutions and all the rest. That’s where the focus is and that’s completely understandable.
We don’t spend quite as much time looking at those higher up. It’s not to say we don’t pay attention, but the people at executive level don’t get the same kind of scrutiny. It’s not quite as easy to judge them and the work they do, because so much of it goes on in the background. Right now, in the wake of Amy Lawrence’s story in The Athletic (£) which reports that David Luiz might cost us £24m in fee, agent’s fees and wages for one single season – more than the £20m I estimated last week – it might be a good time to look at the work Raul Sanllehi has done since he officially joined the club in February 2018.
He was brought in by close friend Ivan Gazidis, and made ‘Head of Football Operations’, a new title, and one which deliberately wasn’t called ‘Director of Football’ because of Arsene Wenger’s well-publicised objection to that term. He arrived at more or less the same time as Sven Mislintat, but his February appointment means the January window when we brought in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and did the Henrikh Mkhitaryan deal is not on him, rather the Borussia Dortmund connection of Sven.
When Wenger called time, the trio of Gazidis, Mislintat and Sanllehi plumped for Unai Emery as the surprise choice to replace him. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to understand how Emery – with no English – could have impressed non-Spanish speakers at his interview, but there was one man in that room who he clearly would have communicated best with. When he was appointed, he was accompanied by an agent called Arturo Canales, someone with whom Sanllehi was reported to have a ‘close relationship’ (ES).
That decision has to go down as a joint effort, despite the fact it seems heavily influenced by Sanllehi. From there, this trio were supposed to work together. Gazidis as Chief Executive, Mislintat to identify talent in the market, and Raul to get the deals done (a simplistic overlook, but that was more or less it). Even with that, the departure of Wenger left a power vacuum at the club, made more obvious by absentee owners the far side of the Atlantic. Soon, Gazidis was rumoured to be going and off he went to AC Milan, while internally there was conflict over recruitment.
Mislintat had been promised the role of Technical Director, but when Gazidis left and Sanllehi was appointed Head of Football (with Vinai Venkatesham brought in as Managing Director), that was withdrawn. We were told that Raul preferred a contacts-led approach to recruitment, whereas Sven preferred to find players through scouting, data and more technical approach. It didn’t take long for him to become sidelined, and he decided to leave the club, departing in February 2019 and later citing the ‘different approach’ to recruitment as a role in that decision.
He had no influence over the January transfer window that season, in which Sanllehi and Emery pursued the capture of Barcelona winger Denis Suarez throughout the month, eventually signing him on a loan deal which cost us somewhere in the region of £4.5m. Suarez played a total of 95 minutes, across 6 substitute appearances, and never started a game. His time at the club was hit by injury, but he was never a particularly inspiring signing in the first place.
Arsenal’s 2018-19 season ended disastrously. Champions League football looked almost assured, but we fell apart at the end of the season in the Premier League, and lost the Europa League final badly to Chelsea. For many, it set alarm bells ringing about the performance of the Head Coach. Sanllehi wasn’t worried though, and according to Emery himself was keen to offer a contract extension.
Arsenal lose Aaron Ramsey for free. Arsenal lose Danny Welbeck for free. This despite Sanllehi insisting early on in his tenure that the management of player contracts had to be improved, and players should not be allowed go to the final year of their deals. If he could be given something of a pass for situations like Ramsey and Welbeck which were somewhat inherited (although we could have made decisions in the summer of 2018, and Sanllehi has admitted it was a mistake), how is it that in 2020 we have a host of players going into the final years of their deals (Saka, Ozil, Mustafi, Sokratis, and top scorer and captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang)?
Then there was the Laurent Koscielny situation. Let me be clear: I am not in any way condoning his behaviour in refusing to go on the tour, but I think you have to ask serious questions about the kind of environment in which an experienced player who gave his absolute best for 9 years is prepared basically set fire to his legacy at the club in order to leave. Emery has to take some blame, of course, and his management of the Frenchman was a key factor in what happened, but this happened under Sanllehi’s watch as Head of Football.
The former captain said all this occurred after ‘months of discussions‘, so this couldn’t have been a huge surprise – even if the strength of Koscielny’s actions might have taken them aback a bit. It became public on July 11th. Those that say this situation left us desperate for a replacement may have a point, but it took until deadline day – almost a month later – before we brought in David Luiz, a deal over which so many questions are being asked right now.
As for the rest of our squad building last summer, Mkhitaryan started the season before being shipped out on loan to Roma; Elneny was loaned to Besiktas; the aforementioned Ramsey and Welbeck left, while Petr Cech retired; Nacho Monreal was sold to Real Sociedad for an absolute pittance; and David Ospina was sold to Napoli. In came Gabriel Martinelli (a big positive); we spent a £27.5 on William Saliba – an 18 year old defender who couldn’t join us for a year; Dani Ceballos came in from Real Madrid; we spent all summer chasing Kieran Tierney before he joined (injured) on deadline day; and on top of Luiz, there was the club record outlay on Nicolas Pepe.
He cost £72.5m from Lille. It was widely reported that there was a significant fee paid to a third party – Jorge Mendes – for his part in arranging the deal. The FT described Lille’s ‘complex debt arrangement’ in a profile piece, also reporting that Sanllehi’s former Barcelona colleague Marc Ingla (then CEO) had been handed a three month suspension from all football matters for ‘allegedly providing false information relating to the legal and financial situation of the club.’
Anyway, that was our summer business, and while I have little sympathy for Unai Emery, I don’t think you can look back and say it was particularly well done. We lost a lot of experience and quality, and while Emery didn’t do a good job – far from it – it’s not unreasonable to suggest some of his struggles came from our recruitment and squad management.
His performance as head coach went from bad to worse, to even worse and then to disastrous as the season went on. Yet despite results and performances demanding change, nothing happened. In fact, the club and the Head of Football, continued to back him – calling him ‘the right man’ just weeks before the hammer fell. Fan concerns were casually dismissed as ‘noise‘. We slipped further and further down the table. Eventually, Emery had to go. Way too late, but at least it happened. Why did it take SO long though?
We then appointed Freddie Ljungberg as caretaker manager, with our Academy Manager Per Mertesacker to help him because there was literally nobody else, along with a goalkeeping coach to make up his staff. It wasn’t so much a baptism of fire for Freddie, as a desperate attempt to steady a sinking ship. Weeks later Mikel Arteta was appointed, and for me that’s a big positive. I won’t qualify it in any way, because if there’s criticism for other decisions, credit is due for others.
In November, it was reported that then Chairman Sir Chips Keswick had made a proposal to have former player David O’Leary appointed to the executive committee. This was rebuffed, leaving the ‘traditional’ board basically powerless since KSE’s 100% ownership, with no oversight on their work. Keswick and Sanllehi fell out, Sir Chips announced his retirement last week.
Arteta’s first transfer window in January saw us linked with a number of players, many of whom seemed to be linked with super-agent Kia Joorabchian – a man who now watches games from our Director’s Box, and is well known to Technical Director Edu. David Luiz is closely associated with him; we were linked heavily with PSG left-back Layvin Kurzawa (another one of his clients); and when we surprisingly signed Cedric Soares on loan from Southampton, Joorabchian was there in the picture as the right-back signed his contract. We’ve also been touted as a destination for soon to be out of contract Chelsea winger Willian, and you don’t need me to tell you who his agent is.
The other signing in the January window was Pablo Mari, a 26 year old Spaniard playing in Brazil for Flamengo via a series of loan spells from Man City at Spanish second division clubs and one season in the Eredivisie with NAC Breda. He impressed in Brazil, but his loan signing with an option to make permanent was still a bit of a left-field deal. Hopefully he is a late bloomer – not all player trajectories are the same – and does really well at Arsenal and in England. His agent? Arturo Canales.
I am hopeful that under Mikel Arteta the club will start going in the right direction again. He seems like a man of genuine integrity with a desire for success at a club he forged a strong connection with as a player. There have been green shoots, reasons for optimism, and if that trajectory continues, then it will reflect well on those above. In the meantime though, I think there’s plenty to scrutinise in terms of how this football club has performed under the direction of the current Head of Football.
Note: I realise I may have missed out some details of things, good or bad, which have happened under Sanllehi’s direction, but have tried to give as broad an account as possible. As ever your thoughts and comments are welcome in the arses.
James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you a bit later on. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
The podcast will be out for you around lunch-time. Until then.