Over Arsenal’s winter break, there was a war of words between players interviewed by the media and club media, asked, understandably about what had changed since Unai Emery was relieved of his duties and eventually replaced by Mikel Arteta. The war of words, as it is, mainly consists of Arsenal’s players saying what went wrong under the previous manager, excusing themselves of blame, while Emery is also trying to absolve himself of blame as he seeks new employment. Yet one man has largely escaped any blame: Arsenal’s Head of Football, Raul Sanllehi.
Sanllehi has been in sole control of Arsenal’s football for nearly 18 months. In that time, Arsenal have dropped from challenging for a top four place to challenging for a top half place. Unai Emery called last season a success, because he “stopped Arsenal’s decline” but he also oversaw a late season collapse that saw Arsenal go from third place to fifth place, taking one point from six from home matches against Crystal Palace and Brighton, and then getting demolished in the Europa League final. None of that should be viewed as a success; indeed, based on Arsenal’s explicit goals, of returning to the Champions League final, it was a complete failure. Yet, Sanllehi, as reported by The Athletic and confirmed by Emery himself, wanted to give his countryman a new contract.
Indeed, even as Emery’s Arsenal floundered and the players lost all faith in the manager—as evidenced by comments made by, among others, Bernd Leno and Héctor Bellerin—Arsenal stood behind their manager, releasing through media channels the idea that unhappiness with Emery was “external noise,” despite all proof that the sound was coming from inside the dressing room. That position, put forward after Arsenal listlessly lost to Leicester 2-0, saw Emery see out the ensuing international break, before being sacked after a home draw with Southampton and a loss against Frankfurt.
After Emery was sacked, Freddie Ljungberg was given the interim job, with Per Mertesacker, the club’s Academy Manager, stepping in as Ljungberg’s only coach, albeit on a part-time basis. This ridiculous state of affairs finally ended in late December, when Mikel Arteta was appointed, and installed on the eve of the busiest portion of the English football calendar. Indeed, the winter break is the first time Arsenal have had more than 5 days in between fixtures since Arteta took over. This inability to have a plan in place in case Emery got off to a poor start—which should be a default position for a football club to have no matter who the manager is—cost Arsenal time and points, in a season where the Champions League place was so open you could drive an oversized load through it with space to spare.
Sanllehi is now also responsible for player recruitment, having forced Sven Mislintat out of the club last year. Having forced Mislintat out, Sanllehi’s loan signing of Denis Suarez was hardly inspired. The summer recruitment from a man labeled “Don Raul” has too been questionable. While the addition of Gabriel Martinelli has been an undoubted success, David Luiz, who is now playing well under Mikel Arteta, was a flop under Emery. Kieran Tierney has battled fitness issues, and Nicolas Pépé, with three league goals, has not been a qualified success.
Indeed, Emery said in the week that Pépé was the club’s choice, indicating that Pépé wasn’t the player Emery wanted. While it is some fault of Emery that he was unable to integrate Pépé into the team, there is more blame to be ascribed to Sanllehi: when you have the limited finances that Arsenal have, if you are spending £72m on a player, it is someone that has to have qualities that align with the philosophy of the club, which includes the playing philosophy of the head coach. Now, Emery’s philosophy was muddled, but presumably Sanllehi, in wanting to give him a new contract, understood it, and yet, he spent £72m on a player that wasn’t Emery’s first choice, necessitating the sale of Alex Iwobi, rendering Arsenal’s squad to be poorly constructed, without a single natural left-sided attacking player in the squad. And while that worked out in Bukayo Saka being promoted, that surely wasn’t the original plan.
One reason Sanllehi may have moved for Pépé is the presence of Jorge Mendes as an intermediary. Sanllehi is famed for having contacts throughout the game, many of whom are super agents. Since Sanllehi has arrived at Arsenal, clients of super agents have been a frequent signing, with Pablo Mari and Cédric Soares joining David Luiz, and even Henrikh Mkhitaryan in January 2018. In this sense, Arsenal are doing what many clubs around Europe are doing—dealing with super agents, and becoming part of the merry-go-round of player movement.
Yet, this relationship deserves scrutiny. We will see over the coming months how much Mari and Soares play. While Mari was a necessary addition, given Arsenal’s paucity of centre back options, adding Soares was more confusing, with even Southampton surprised when Arsenal came in for him. That Soares is injured only adds to the confusion, especially as Sead Kolasinac is returning from injury, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles good form at right back under Arteta. Soares’ agent, of course, is Jorge Mendes, the man who, as an intermediary between two football clubs, helped Pépé move from Lille to Arsenal, likely grabbing a percentage of the fee as a commission. All of this adds extra fees and charges to Arsenal’s expenditure, at the very moment when Arsenal have to reduce spending because of their absence from the Champions League. It is a curious approach to squad building.
When Ivan Gazidis assembled his committee of Sanllehi, Mislintat, and Huss Fahmy, he envisioned Arsenal as a modern European club, with Mislitant in the Technical Director position, and Gazidis as CEO. Yet two of those figures are gone, and rather than running as a modern, well-organized club, Arsenal have been an ill-run mess off the pitch. There has been plenty of discussion of the Kroenkes, and the head coaches, Emery and Arteta; now, scrutiny must also be placed on the executives responsible for the composition of the playing squad and the day-to-day running of the club.