How do you become the most important executive at a football club like Arsenal? Given the size of the organisation, the scale of the job, and the requirements of it, and the amounts of money involved, you would imagine there is rigorous process to ensure you are the best possible candidate of the many who would be interested in such a position.
But what if you’re lucky, in the right place at the right time? What if there was no rigorous process, and when the previous guy left, he recommended you and the owners just said ‘Ok, sounds good’?
It’s a bit simplistic, but that’s essentially how Raul Sanllehi became the most powerful man at Arsenal. It didn’t happen overnight. Originally brought in by Ivan Gazidis, he was part of what was supposed to be a balanced, coordinated executive trio headed by the former CEO. Sven Mislintat arrived at more or less the same time to be the recruitment guru, identifying the talent, while Sanllehi’s years at Barcelona meant he had the kind of contact book in the game that would help get deals done. All three working in tandem in an efficient way.
Soon though, Gazidis left after AC Milan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; Mislintat was ousted as the internal power struggle played out; and on the recommendation of Ivan – who KSE trusted – Raul won out and became Head of Football. Stan and Josh believed in Gazidis, so when he gave them assurances about Sanllehi, they went with it.
His influence was almost immediate. As Arsenal sought a new manager following Arsene Wenger’s departure, a short-list was compiled, and it looked as if Mikel Arteta was going to be a bold, brave appointment. At the last minute however, Unai Emery was appointed. It was a surprise, not least because it was unclear how he could have convinced Gazidis and Mislintat in the interview process given his complete lack of English. Sanllehi brought him to the table, suddenly Emery was being represented by an agent called Arturo Canales, with whom Raul had a long-standing relationship – and out of the blue he got the job.
Yesterday, Sanllehi and Arsenal parted company. Everyone is at pains to make it appear as if this was just an amicable parting of the ways, but then they would, wouldn’t they? The club’s statement thanks him for his work; he released a statement of his own.
Here’s the bottom-line though: On July 1st Arsenal appointed Tim Lewis as a non-executive director. A lawyer with Clifford Chance, he was brought in to provide oversight for KSE, and to look at how things were being run. In recent weeks I was told that he was going through the numbers in every department, taking a close look at transfers.
On August 15th Arsenal announce that Raul Sanllehi is to leave. It’s either just a huge coincidence or he’s discovered things that aren’t up to scratch. Can we join the dots in any significant way? Does 2+2= 4? In this case, it surely must.
Back in November, just before Unai Emery departed , I received a text from someone whose information I trust implicitly to tell me the head coach was on his way out, and that Raul would be going with him. It was suggested to me there was something in the Nicolas Pepe deal that didn’t add up. In the end it didn’t happen, obviously, but concerns over the structure of that deal were there from the start.
I have since been told – and I don’t imagine it will surprise anyone – that Arsenal overpaid massively for the Ivorian. I’m not just talking a couple of million here, by the way. The involvement of super-agents in the deal always seemed strange when Sanllehi’s counterpart at Lille, Marc Ingla, was a former colleague at Barcelona. Ingla, by the way, was handed a three month suspension by the French football authorities for providing ‘false information relating to the legal and financial situation’.
This should not reflect on the player, by the way. He is a real talent, and the price-tag and the way the deal was done is completely out of his hands. However, the club record £72m transfer (£20m up front and £52m spread out over the next five years), is one which has a serious question mark over it.
As Sanllehi’s influence and control at Arsenal grew, so to did dealings with friendly agents. As Amy Lawrence and James wrote in the The Athletic (£) a few weeks ago, Canales was involved in the deal for Bernd Leno:
I don’t think you need a first class degree in reading between the lines to see what’s being suggested there. From the outside you could see how the relationship between Sanllehi, Kia Joorabchian, and Technical Director Edu seemed cosy, at best. I spoke about it and wrote about it a lot. Amy and James did too, and Pete at Le Grove was consistent in his writing – too much just didn’t seem right. If we had concerns, so too did many internally, but Sanllehi was almost the single point of contact between club and ownership, and some who spoke out were forced out.
Last summer, Arsenal were aware that Laurent Koscielny wanted to leave and go back to France. After the serious Achilles injury, he felt he’d been overplayed, and was concerned that what was left of his career could be in danger. Discussions went on ‘for months’, according to the captain, who became so frustrated with the lack of progress that he basically pissed all over his nine years at the club and refused to go on the summer tour. It’s not to make an excuse for him, but it was so shocking because it was so out of character, he was a man pushed to his absolute limits. Why?
It meant a last minute transfer scramble we shouldn’t have been involved in to find a centre-half. We brought in David Luiz from Chelsea. He’d just signed a new deal a few months previously, but all of sudden he and Frank Lampard couldn’t continue together or, perhaps, there was something much more lucrative on offer. Again, in The Athletic, Amy revealed the true cost of the Luiz deal was close to £24m for one year’s service, between fee, payments to intermediaries and wages. The Brazilian signed a one year contract with an option for one more. There have been denials from those involved about the figures, but few dispute the outlay convincingly, and there has not been any demand for a retraction.
That deal was the first involving Kia Joorabhcian. In January, he was front and centre as we paid Southampton a big loan fee and wages for an injured Cedric Soares. The pandemic hit, he had no chance at making an impression beyond the training ground, yet all of a sudden a 29 year old surplus to requirements for the Saints had a four contract at Arsenal.
Our other January arrival was Pablo Mari, a journeyman centre-half – who I hope will turn out to be a good player for us – who flitted around the Spanish second division and the Eredivisie before landing at Flamengo. He played well for a season in South America’s best team, and then he was on the move again – this time to Arsenal. His agent: Arturo Canales. The club paid loan fees and wages then, like Soares, made the deal permanent during the summer.
This week we handed a 32 year old Willian a three year contract, almost unprecedented at this club in terms of the length based on the age of the player. I wrote about him this week, and I do think he can be a useful part of the squad. In isolation it’s a deal you might consider a bit strange given the contract length, but with all the other things going on one which raised plenty of eyebrows. My understanding is that there has been extremely close scrutiny of some of the more recent deals we’ve done.
Even leaving aside the transfer activity which, when you put it all together like that, should set alarm bells ringing, there are other question marks over Sanllehi’s basic performance as Head of Football. This season was salvaged at the last minute with the wonderful FA Cup win, but for the first time in more than 25 years we faced the prospect of no European football. A dismal league campaign saw us scrape into 8th on the final day.
When we fell apart in the Premier League at the end of last season, and then got destroyed in the Europa League final by Chelsea, someone serious about making Arsenal as good as it could be would have had given serious consideration to a change of coach. Instead, Sanllehi wanted to give Emery a new contract. Why?
Why, when it was so obvious this season was going down the toilet in a big way – so much so that the word relegation was used without any irony – was he so protective of his compatriot? Loyalty is a wonderful thing, but to cause a schism between the club and the fans to protect an under-performing coach always felt odd to me. Issues like contract management have not improved. We’ve sold poorly, we have too many players running down their deals, heading into the final 12 months of their contracts, or even valuable assets leaving for free.
Clearly not everything that happened under his watch was down to him. There were inherited problems, no doubt about it, and the decline had started before his arrival. But when you step back and look at our performance with Raul as the top footballing man at the club, he only made that steeper. As I wrote here previously, football is quick to judge and assess the quality of the work of players, coaches and managers, but too slow to apply the same critical eye to those at executive level. Yesterday, Arsenal did that and the outcome was the departure of Sanllehi. For me, it’s a positive development.
So, what now? Well, Mikel Arteta will take on more responsibility. For me, he’s the Arsenal manager, not simply the head coach, and alongside him the spotlight shines very brightly now on Edu. If I were KSE, I think it might have some worries about his relationship with Kia, but having spent the best part of a year working for/under Sanllehi, he now has to deliver in his role as Technical Director. Can he? Your guess is as good as mine. I hope so, but we’ve heard so little from him since he arrived that it’s impossible to say.
Transfer plans continue unabated with Arteta and Edu now the ones tasked with making deals happen. A left footed central defender is close to signing, and clearly there are going to be more ins and outs during this transfer period. I don’t believe this will have a negative impact on our chances of re-signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I suspect Arteta is pleased at these developments, there was something telling when he spoke about how he had direct lines of communication with the owners, so hopefully he and the Technical Director can do the business between now and the close of the window on October 6th.
Vinai Venkatesham – by all accounts a really good guy – ‘will lead us going forward’, according to the club statement. Will that see him be named Chief Executive rather than Managing Director? It does feel somewhat as if there’s something missing at executive level now, so perhaps there might be further additions in the weeks ahead, but I wish Vinai the best of luck because he’s got a huge job to do.
When Arsene Wenger left, there was always going to be a period of instability. A figure like that leaves a big gap when he goes, the departure is seismic and it takes time for things to settle. I hope that in time we look at the Emery/Sanllehi era as something we had to go through to find our feet again. I feel confident with Arteta at the helm. His vision for what he wants from the club at every level is clear and easy to get behind. His demands for everybody to be on board have resulted in some casualties, on and off the pitch, but I’m so enthused to see him to get to work at Arsenal, and to try and get us back to where we all want to be.
This is a football club and a fanbase that deserves better than it’s been getting for the last little while. So, hopefully we’ve turned a corner, and the road ahead fully lined with people whose best interests tally with what’s best for Arsenal.