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Assessing Ivan Gazidis’ Arsenal legacy

With the architect of All New Arsenal going, let’s look at what he built.

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Football Association Respect and Fair Play Award Ceremony
We’re running out of different Gazidis pictures
Photo by Sang Tan - WPA Pool/Getty Images

After a whole lot of back and forth (and back and forth (and back and forth)), it would appear that Ivan Gazidis is about to put quill to parchment and sign a shiny new contract with AC Milan, to hopefully, for his new bosses anyway, do at Milan what he did at Arsenal.

But that brings up a question - what exactly did he do at Arsenal? I don’t mean that question in a negative/attack/snarky way, I just don’t quite know how to properly assess the decade of work that Gazidis did in London. There’s no published job description for “Arsenal CEO”, there’s no hard set of metrics that we can lay out and say “he met this one, this one, and not this one”, and there’s no league table of CEO performances against which we can measure his performance.

So in the absence of stuff like that, we’re left with some guesswork and some broad areas of work that we can assess, even if in a bit of a vacuum since every club works a bit differently.

Squad construction/contracts

Throughout his tenure, it’s unclear how much say Gazidis had in how the Arsenal team was built - it’s probably accurate to say that he was mostly the deal-doer, and that Arsene and his trusted scouts did most of the actual recruitment. That said, though, there were a couple periods in the last decade where it could be argued that Arsenal overpaid for average talent, and that that cost them when it came to transfer time. It’s hard to offload a fringe player making starting wages, and it’s hard to keep a starter at a rational salary when the fringe player is making what the starter made a couple seasons ago.

Arsenal have also developed a habit of not working out deals - either extensions or transfers - with their bigger players until it’s too late, thus robbing the club of any and all leverage in negotiations. From Robin van Persie through to Alexis and Mesut Özil, Arsenal always wait until the player basically has one foot out the door, or seems to, and only then starts negotiating.

Working like that is a huge gamble, and it results in either having those good players leave or, as in the case of Özil, having them stay but at such inflated wages that their transfer value at the end of the new contract is severely depleted because Arsenal paid for the player’s peak season(s), so a next team would be paying for the decline. Nobody wants to do that at full price.

Again, it’s hard to compare directly between clubs and transfer policies, but I’m not sure I’d give Gazidis a really good grade at this part of his job.

Running the business of Arsenal

This is an area that we can at least make some sort of educated judgment about how Gazidis did, because it involves tangible things (pounds and pence). It is really hard, again, to pin down exact numbers for every commercial deal a club does, so it’s not really realistic to put together a spreadsheet that has every club and every deal on it, add up the numbers, and say “you’re the winner!” or “you’re the loser!”.

That said, what we can do is look at Arsenal’s sponsorships/commercial deals, at a high level, and see how they rate. The first and most obvious one is shirt sponsorship - the renewal process happens every few years, and it’s a reasonable barometer for how well a club’s commercial department does its job.

There are now three aspects to shirt sponsorship - there’s the deal with the shirt manufacturer, there’s the deal to slap the gigantic ad across the chest so that people who don’t follow soccer ask you why you’re rooting for (or if you work for) Fly Emirates when you wear your replica shirt, and now there’s shirtsleeve advertising as well. First, let’s look at the manufacturing side:

Premier League shirt manufacturer deals

Team Brand Value (£/year, in millions) From Until
Team Brand Value (£/year, in millions) From Until
Manchester United adidas 75 2015 2025
Chelsea Nike 60 2017 2032
Arsenal Puma 30 2014 2019
Liverpool New Balance 28 2012 2018
Tottenham Nike 25 2017 "multi-year" is how this deal is described
Manchester City Nike 12 2013 2019

There are a couple very large caveats with this table. Both City and Arsenal are rumored to be signing new deals next season, Arsenal with adidas and City with Puma, and it can safely be assumed that City’s will dwarf their current deal. What’s unsure is by how much - rumors have the deal at as much as £50 million a season, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

Arsenal, obviously, won’t see that big of a jump, but it’s reasonable to assume a still-rather-large bump in their deal when they move to adidas next season, probably keeping them either third or fourth on the list of most valuable shirt manufacturers. Until other clubs renegotiate in a few years and the cycle starts all over again, that is.

I would say, though, that the shirt deals are a net plus for Ivan, if narrowly - Arsenal famously took a lower AAV in shirt manufacturer money, in cash, up front so they could help build the Emirates, and since then have been playing catch-up, in the value context, ever since. Keeping Arsenal in the top three or four clubs despite that is pretty solid business.

So, let’s look at the other side: the shirt sponsorship.

Premier League shirt sponsorships

Club Brand (chest) Annual value (£, millions) Brand (sleeve) Annual value (£, millions) Expiration date (shirt/sleeve)
Club Brand (chest) Annual value (£, millions) Brand (sleeve) Annual value (£, millions) Expiration date (shirt/sleeve)
Manchester United Chevrolet 47 Kohler 20 2021/"multi-year"
Manchester City Etihad 30 Nexen Tire 7 2021/2021
Arsenal Fly Emirates 40 Visit Rwanda 10 2019/2022
Chelsea Yokohama 40 Hyundai 10 2020/2022
Liverpool Standard Chartered 40 Western Union 5 2023/2022
Tottenham AIA 35 N/A 2022

The first thing I notice when I look at that table is that Arsenal win the North London Shirtsleeve Sponsor Derby, so nice job there, boys. I also notice that, again, Arsenal are competitive with the rest of their theoretical peers in this department - shirt sponsorships can be fluid, and can leapfrog the same way that manufacturer deals do. And they can also be influenced by drunk-on-bailout-money car executives who sign bananapants deals that then get them fired, but in hindsight that doesn’t seem like the worst deal ever.

So Gazidis was pretty good at the shirt sponsor game, but how is he in the rest of the sponsorship/partnership world? Well, without doing a comprehensive analysis of every top six team and their commercial portfolio, I would say that Arsenal are...ok. Manchester United are clearly the, uh, gold standard here, as they slap their name on literally everything they can find, all over the world. They have 50 partners divided into several categories, each of which pays them a decent amount of money to be called “partner”.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have a smaller, more slowly growing portfolio of partners. They’ve long lagged behind not just Manchester United, but City and Chelsea as well, and I’m not sure the gap is closing all that quickly. This is the one area where I’m not sure Gazidis did everything he could - Arsenal should be as aggressive as United in branding everything they can get their hands on. Liverpool, for instance, have fewer sponsors, but have really upped that number in the last couple seasons, and if Arsenal aren’t careful, their neighbors to the immediate north, the ones with the unoccupiable stadium, might catch up as well.

There’s also the not-insignificant fact that Ivan Gazidis, and thus Arsenal, got taken by a Chinese con man who managed to get Arsenal to sponsor a car company for which he was not authorized to negotiate. I don’t believe any money changed hands in that deal, but it’s really not a good look for a massive global business to get taken by a random dude with a fraudulent document. It shows a pretty large institutional hole in the due diligence - or utter lack of same - that the deal was advanced to the “we’ll sign this” stage and nobody seemed to want to vet the guy proposing the deal, and that’s on Ivan as the CEO.

So overall, I guess if I’m giving letter grades, I’d give Ivan a C+ on the commercial side; he did what he should be doing, as far as shirts, but the rest of his work in this area wasn’t really what Arsenal are or should be capable of.

Club reorganization

This isn’t why Ivan Gazidis was brought on, but, fairly or unfairly, what he did in this area is how he will inevitably be remembered years from now. After nearly two decades of Arsene Wenger running literally everything at the club, Gazidis decided it was time to decentralize things, so that when Wenger did eventually go, the club would not fall to pieces with his departure.

It took a couple seasons, and overcoming a lot of Wenger reticence, but finally, last season, Gazidis was able to fully implement his vision of having a CEO, a head of recruitment (Sven Mislintat), a “head of football relations” (Raul Sanllehi) and overhauling a lot of the back-room fitness/health staff as well. These changes were not done with the 100% backing of Arsene Wenger, and it’s probably true that the implementation of these changes led to a standoff between Wenger and Gazidis that Gazidis won when Wenger resigned.

We of course don’t know whether he resigned or was given the “go or be fired” speech, but the net result was that Gazidis’ overhaul of the front office was complete when he hired Unai Emery as, pointedly, head coach and not manager. Arsenal are now fully plug-and-play, as most top-level clubs are, and whatever your feelings about Arsene Wenger, it’s hard to imagine that in this day and age Arsenal will ever go back to the monolithic style of leadership again.

I guess your feelings on how Gazidis did in this part of his job depend a lot on where you fell on the Wenger In/Wenger Out scale. I think that overall, it’s good for the club, but I also think that a huge test of Gazidis’ new structure and system comes now, when the club has to replace Gazidis.

I really have a hard time working up an emotion about a front office person leaving - I am not one who dives deeply into the inner workings of my favorite teams, for the most part, and I leave armchair GM’ing to those who enjoy that. But I will say that, after going through this exercise, I’m actually pretty OK with Gazidis leaving - I don’t think it’ll destroy the club, and I don’t think anything he’s currently doing is irreplaceable.