Column: So are Arsenal in crisis or not?

15 May 2019

Arsenal
Photo: Getty Images "Of course, form on the pitch can be fickle, and Arsenal are still adjusting to the post-Arsene Wenger era. Yet when it comes to the front office side of things, the team’s long-term prospects are just as muddled," writes Richard Whitall in his column. Pictured is the Arsenal-bench in the 1-1 draw with Brighton which made it clear that Arsenal were almost certain not to secure a Top 4 spot in the Premier League.

Feelings on whether the storied London club are on a stable path back to their former heights are as mercurial as the team’s form on and off the pitch.

If the club appoints former player Edu, he might arrive too late - and Arsenal may feel pressure to make a “major buy” without intelligent direction.

Seems like there are staffing issues at the club - a toxic mix of conflicting ideologies, egos and missed opportunities.

Richard Whittall contact@offthepitch.com

Your views on the state of Arsenal Football Club will likely depend on whether you’re a glass-half-full or half-empty type.

On the one hand, Arsenal have crashed and burned in the latter part of the Premier League season, turning in a series of uninspiring domestic performances under freshman manager, Unai Emery. Losses to Everton, Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester since April have seen them miss out on fourth place and potentially another Champions League berth.

On the other, the team finished with a higher point total than the 2017-18 season - Arsene Wenger’s final with the club - and have fought their way to a Europa League final against Chelsea. A European trophy would not only vault them back into the Champions League but would be their first piece of UEFA silverware since the 1993-94 Cup Winners’ Cup win - something of a respite for weary Arsenal fans who are already questioning whether Emery is the right man for the job.

Letting contracts wind down

Of course, form on the pitch can be fickle, and Arsenal are still adjusting to the post-Arsene Wenger era. Yet when it comes to the front office side of things, the team’s long-term prospects are just as muddled.

On the bright side, long-time chief Arsenal executive, Ivan Gazidis, has moved on this past year to a CEO job with AC Milan, which he started in December 2018. Under Gazidis, Arsenal missed out on the Champions League last year, and many blame him for the club’s failure to cash in on talents like Aaron Ramsey - now on his way to Juventus - by letting their contracts wind down, paving the way for their exit on a free transfer.

This, in addition to the club’s stagnant commercial revenue growth, have had a direct effect on Arsenal’s bottom line, as the excellent Swiss Ramble pointed out in a twitter thread earlier this year.

Notoriously reluctant

Reduced financial flexibility is particularly bad for Arsenal, a club whose owners who are notoriously reluctant - or, with stringent Financial Fair Play rules, unable - to inject the team with cash. 

And anyone hoping that Gazidis’ departure might bring a sea change in Arsenal’s ability to compete with an increasingly financially lopsided Premier League will have to wait as the club sorts out its remaining staffing issues - a toxic mix of conflicting ideologies, egos and missed opportunities.

Moreover, Sanllehi wanted to rely less on in-depth statistical analysis and more on a more traditional scouting network to recruit talent, which is why he was eager to hire the recently sacked Roma director of football, Monchi, as Arsenal’s technical director.

It all begins with Arsenal’s wise decision to forgo filling Gazidis’ role and instead appoint head of football relations, Raul Sanllehi, as director of football, and Vinai Venkatesham as managing director, a savvy move that offers some separation between the footballing and business sides of the club.

Analytics-based approach

While this is a positive long-term development, it has not been without some growing pains, stemming from the unexpected early departure of one of Gazidis’ hires: Sven Mislintat. 
Mislintat, the former Borussia Dortmund chief scout, was appointed Arsenal’s head of recruitment in 2017.

He combined an analytics-based approach with transfer market heft and was responsible for bringing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mattéo Guendouzi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the Emirates.

Yet despite the early promise, Mislintat left Arsenal only a year and change into his job.

Sources claimed that the reason involved Sanllehi’s desire to hire a technical director, effectively a demotion for Mislintat. Moreover, Sanllehi wanted to rely less on in-depth statistical analysis and more on a more traditional scouting network to recruit talent, which is why he was eager to hire the recently sacked Roma director of football, Monchi, as Arsenal’s technical director.

700 global scouts

Monchi, you may recall, made his name at Sevilla, where as director of football he helped discover players such as Dani Alves, Seydou Keita, Ivan Rakitić, Jesús Navas, Sergio Ramos and José Antonio Reyes, selling them onto other bigger clubs and making hundreds of millions of euros for Sevilla in the process. He also worked well with the managers there, including Unai Emery.

While Monchi is no doubt a man of considerable talent, Sevilla’s own core network of 700 global scouts certainly made his job there somewhat more manageable.

Moreover, unlike Monchi, it is not clear how closely aligned Edu and Emery will be on Arsenal’s overall recruitment strategy.

This may have been why Monchi failed to achieve the same success as director of football at Serie A club Roma, a role he took in 2017 and left “by mutual consent” in March of this year, but not without a considerable war of words with its American owner.

Practically a done deal

None of this dissuaded Sanllehi from pursuing Monchi in the hopes of pairing him up once again with Emery at Arsenal. But despite what some claim was practically a done deal for Monchi to take over as technical director at Arsenal this past March, he shocked everyone by opting to return to Sevilla instead.

Now, Sanllehi has dutifully scrambled to get former Arsenal player Edu Gaspar to agree in principal to take the job of technical director instead.

But Edu’s work with Brazil for Copa America means he may not begin his work in earnest until July, well into the busy transfer market (though he has already secured at least one Arsenal transfer, according to FourFourTwo).

Moreover, unlike Monchi, it is not clear how closely aligned Edu and Emery will be on Arsenal’s overall recruitment strategy.

Might be a quiet summer

And there is no word yet on whether Arsenal’s American owner, Stan Kroenke, and his company, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, will pony up any money should Arsenal lose the Europa League final in Baku and miss out on the Champions League yet again.

However, as Sevilla illustrate, this approach works best when you have many boots on the ground.

All of this means Arsenal may be headed for a relatively quiet summer in the transfer market, or worse, in a position where they may feel pressure to make a “major buy” without intelligent direction or input from a technical director who has had adequate time to discuss strategy with the manager.

But the big long-term question is: how will Sanllehi’s strategy pan out for Arsenal over the next five seasons or so?

As far as the man’s personal preferences go, there is nothing wrong with favouring a boots-on-the-ground approach to scouting. However, as Sevilla illustrate, this approach works best when you have many boots on the ground.

Top eight places far more competitive

It also requires everyone to sing from the same song sheet, which was far more a certainty with the promise of Monchi than Edu. In other words, Sanllehi’s approach is something of a gamble, but with their rivals ready and willing outspend the club in the transfer market, it’s a worthy one.

Nevertheless, as the Premier League rich get even richer and as the mid-table teams start to make the top eight places far more competitive, Arsenal cannot afford any extended uncertainty behind-the-scenes.

For better or for worse, it’s now Sanllehi’s show at Arsenal, and the 2019-20 season will reveal whether he, Edu and Unai Emery are capable of bringing the Gunners back to glory.

 

Richard Whittall writes mostly on soccer analytics and finance. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Foreign Policy magazine. He lives in Toronto.