It seems strange to wonder if what’s happened in the last few days will provide Arsenal’s ownership with a wake-up call.
Stan Kroenke first became involved in 2007; he has been the majority shareholder since 2011; and KSE have been sole owners of the club since 2018 – when he paid £550m to buy out Alisher Usmanov’s shares, and then hoover up all the remain shares from fans/small stakeholders.
We’ve had words, some nice corporate lingo to suggest they have ambition and want to win things, but little evidence that they really understand Arsenal, or indeed English football. There are significant differences in the way sports operate in the US, so despite their experience in that market, not enough of it translates to this side of the Atlantic.
I suppose the one thing I’d say is that letting Arsenal run the way it had been run for years seemed sensible at the time. Under Arsene Wenger, we were a top four club season after season; we had Champions League football every year; the gravy train just kept on going. Revenues increased, TV money kept going up, the value of the club itself grew, so they were happy to let things carry on. If it ain’t that broke, why fix it?
There is, of course, an argument that had they been more hands on, more demanding, more ambitious etc, we might have achieved more, but you also need knowledge and assurance to do that. Even the staunchest critics of Wenger couldn’t argue against his ability to talk well about football, the game, the club, or anything else for that matter, so if Stan felt he could put his faith in a man like that after the conversations they had, you can understand it.
The last couple of years have really brought things into focus though. Since Wenger left, the decisions made by KSE have almost all been bad. The idea of having a three-pronged executive approach made some sense. Chief Executive – Ivan Gazidis; Head of Football Relations – Raul Sanllehi; Head of Recruitment – Sven Mislintat. We all understand HOW it was supposed to work, but it didn’t. All three are now gone. The appointment of Unai Emery – over which there have to be serious questions considering the many other questions we’re asking in the wake of Sanllehi’s departure – turned out to be bad.
When Gazidis left, the decision to split the job in two between Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham was bad. They left the club with little or no oversight, leading to a situation which was unhealthy and ultimately the departure of the Head of Football under a heavy cloud, regardless of how each side is trying to spin it since Saturday’s announcement.
Late last year, members of the club’s ‘traditional’ board – left powerless by the formation of the executive committee – attempted to have former player David O’Leary appointed to the new set-up. Sanllehi blocked it, KSE allowed him to do that. It was a bad decision. My understanding is that many people around the club shared concerns about how things were being run, and O’Leary would provide some football expertise and oversight into what was happening, how it was happening, and with who. Few people who hold positions of power want that diluted in any way, so you can understand Sanllehi’s reluctance to approve O’Leary, but KSE’s duty as owners wasn’t to keep Raul happy, it was to ensure the football club was being as well as it could be.
Fast forward to July, it finally gets through to the owners that something isn’t right, that they need to investigate, that they need some oversight. Tim Lewis is appointed as a non-executive director, with a brief to examine the operation at all levels; within six weeks Sanllehi is gone. Tim Lewis was a good decision. Mikel Arteta was also a good decision. But too many of the things they’ve rubber-stamped haven’t worked out, and it’s hard not to look at it through the prism of distance.
Although Josh Kroenke has become far more involved of late, and he is essentially the one we should be talking about when it comes to KSE and Arsenal, there’s still a 5000 mile gap between London and LA, or Denver, or wherever he might be. We know now that Arteta has a direct line to the ownership, another positive development, and I’m sure that since he took the job back in December, those lines of communication have grown increasingly broad. Emery, by contrast, had no such option, a head coach more tightly controlled than anything Arteta would accept.
It sounds almost redundant to say it, but this is a moment where KSE need to think very clearly about the operation. Is Vinai all we need at executive level? Does he need help in terms of associates or subordinates? The commercial and business world is facing unprecedented challenges right now – would some more experience there help? Is there a need for long-term strategic appointment right at the top. A new Chief Executive, someone who gets the job because they are the best available candidate, with the right blend of experience and vision, and not someone who simply has the job because they’re the guy who is left standing when everyone else is gone? Which isn’t to be critical of Vinai, but now is the time to think very strongly about how we operate.
It still feels as if we’re a bit light when it comes to football experience at the top. We know Arteta and Edu will drive the ship, but could we do with more? There’s talk of O’Leary now coming on board, but Arsenal have a wealth of former players who know and understand the game, and who could make a positive contribution to the direction we need to go in. Is there an external candidate whose qualities would help push us forward?
What has happened in the last few days should demand the kind of root and branch examination of how the football club is being run, and from it should emerge the kind of plan which ensures we never leave ourselves as vulnerable to opportunism as we did. You can certainly own a football club from afar, but recent events have shown that if you take your eye off the ball, and if you act with the kind of naivety our ownership have, chances are you’ll keep scoring own goals.
Right. I’ll leave it there for this morning. James and I are going to be an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, and there’s plenty to talk about obviously. 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.
Podcast out around lunchtime. Until then.