On an episode of The Woj Pod today, Arsenal board member Josh Kroenke spoke explicitly about his tenure as President and Governor of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets franchise. Lurking beneath the surface of his comments were implicit insights on how he has handled and will continue to handle this period of change at Arsenal.
Kroenke, son of Arsenal’s majority owner and ultimate decision-maker Stan Kroenke, spoke candidly on a number of topics in a wide ranging interview with Adrian Wojnarowski, the David Ornstein of the entire NBA. Most interestingly, from an Arsenal fan perspective, was his comments about his decision to fire legendary coach George Karl after 9 seasons coaching the team to great regular season success. Despite the fact Karl had led the team to playoffs all 9 seasons, he had only gone past the first round one time. The likely Hall of Fame coach also had one year left on his contract when he was let go and had made it known he wanted to continue coaching . As the general manager (a comparable position to the Director of Football position in football clubs) had made the decision to pursue another opportunity, Kroenke stated that he thought it was the perfect time to reset the club in order to focus on the players more. Multiple times during the interview he stated that professional sports were players’ leagues, though he noted the NBA led in that category.
However, he did express some regret that so many changes, changing both the GM and head coach in the same offseason, were made so soon. Further, when asked about his penchant for hiring younger, slightly less-well known candidates, particularly for the general manager position, he stated that he wanted to hire the best person for the position at that time. In the Nuggets particularly situation, he decided that picking up a GM that would draft well was going to best help that team.
The whole interview is well worth listening to and has a couple other Arsenal-related tidbits I won’t spoil to nudge you to give it a listen.
So, what does that tell us about the situation at Arsenal? It was difficult to listen to his recounting of the Karl saga without drawing immediate comparison to the current situation with Arsene Wenger at the club. Though the team has won the FA Cup 3 times in recent years, results in the league and in Europe have stalled and ultimately been disappointments. We know that there was significant pressure last season to not give Wenger a new contract but that Stan Kroenke ultimately made the decision to extend him. Perhaps tellingly from Josh’s “too much, too soon” comment, Arsenal have gone to great lengths to revamp the backroom structure of the club with the additions of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat, among others. Both were announced last year and will have been in place at the club for months prior to the summer.
It would not be hard to imagine that Josh would have counseled his father against a wholesale change last summer, which would have been necessary had a then-more powerful Arsene Wenger been let go. Now, with in-all-but-title Directors of Football and Player Recruitment in place at the club, would the ownership group be more willing to part with the manager? Based on recent reports leaked out to the press, which clearly came from a club briefing, that seems to be the case. Further, the year remaining on Wenger’s contract would not be a problem for Kroenke, despite Wenger’s position on honoring them. (To be fair, firing someone and paying them what they’re owed under the contract is honoring the contract, but I’ll stop being a lawyer here.)
With the release of the above-mentioned reports listing potential Wenger replacements, it is interesting to look at Josh’s previous track record on hirings of important decisions.
- Masai Ujiri. Josh’s first hire was a home run. Ujiri was a college basketball player, never played pro, that worked is way up from an unpaid scouting position, to an international scout, to the Director of Scouting before joining the Nuggets. Now with the Toronto Raptors, Ujiri is considered a top 5 GM in the NBA.
- Tim Connolly. Connolly replaced Ujiri. Connolly also did not play professionally and worked his way up from an internship and video coordinator. Connolly has largely been a success with the Nuggets, particularly in the draft with their second round pick Nikola Jokic probably being the best value draft pick of the past decade.
- Brian Shaw. Kroenke’s first head coaching hire, the one he took blame for in the interview for bringing in too much change at once, was a bust. Shaw was a longtime role player in the NBA that coached as an assistant for over a decade before getting his first shot as a head coach in Denver. While he ultimately failed with the Nuggets, Shaw was a top head coaching candidate at the time and not a dark horse selection.
- Mike Malone. Kroenke’s next coaching hire was more successful. Malone was a college basketball player but did not play professionally. He started out as a high school assistant coach and worked his way up through the college and professional ranks. Malone has been a highly respected assistant coach for many years and considered somewhat of a defensive guru. Malone is currently leading a very young team in their fight to make the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.
So what can we take from these hirings? First, no matter how much Josh Kroenke likes Thierry Henry personally, it seems very, very unlikely that he would hire such an inexperienced candidate for the role. He is not going to be blown away by Henry’s status as a legend. As he stated in the podcast, while in college, Kroenke sat in on a lot of team meetings to get an idea of how things worked inside a team. He later interned in the league office to get a better idea of things worked from a different perspective. While he certainly doesn’t deserve to be patted on the back for these things and definitely used his family connections to get opportunities others couldn’t get (if I had a billionaire father, I’d definitely take a cool unpaid internship!), he does genuinely seem to appreciate candidates that have put in the work and have a history of working their way up the ladder. While Henry’s assistant coach position with Belgium is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t really fit the mold of previous Kroenke hires.
Lastly, I think it can be deduced that Kroenke will hire a fairly well-known and respected candidate, but not necessarily one has long-term experience as a head coach. Shaw and Malone were both long-time assistants, with Malone having a brief stint as head coach for the terrible Sacramento Kings organization (for a comparison, probably Sunderland). Both had interviewed for numerous head coaching jobs and were top candidates for years. While there were more experienced options out there, Kroenke went for coaches he believed could best develop their young core and work towards keeping the players happy and productive. While certainly experienced candidates like Leonardo Jardim or Max Allegri are in play, don’t rule out less experienced, younger candidates like Paulo Fonseca or Mikel Arteta. I’d be pretty confident in saying from his prior experience, Carlo Ancelloti would not be a traditional Kroenke hire, though maybe they want a more experienced candidate to helm the ship as the backroom staff gets acclimated to their new environs.
While it is certainly sad that is has come to this point with Arsene Wenger, I do think there is room for some optimism in the future of the club, particularly because we may finally be ready to move forward. While the Kroenkes have been a scapegoat in recent years at the club, the younger Kroenke has a chance to reshape that narrative if the decision to move on from Arsene is indeed made this summer. A home run managerial hire, to go with the lauded Sanllehi and Mislintat hires, would go a long ways towards reinserting Arsenal into the Premier League title picture.