As the world attempts to handle the effects of incompetents and frauds leading the response important events, football is not an exception, and neither are Arsenal. Indeed, Arsenal are very much dealing with the ongoing effects of this kind of leadership, so much so that the moniker “Don Raul” might better be replaced with “Con Raul,” as Tim Stillman suggested.
Since taking over full control of Arsenal’s footballing operations in September 2018, the club’s decisions can be best described as baffling and misguided. First of all, there was the debacle over firing Unai Emery. Arsenal left him at the helm for far too long, even as results plummeted. This was not a sudden loss of form but a long decay: after April 15, Arsenal played 18 Premier League games before Emery was relieved, winning 5, losing 6, and drawing 7—a record of 22 points, and a goal difference of -3. Despite that, up until the month he was fired, Arsenal’s executive team, led by Sanllehi, discussed giving Emery a new contract, despite his failure, on multiple fronts, to fulfill expectations and qualify for the Champions League.
To be fair to Emery, he wasn’t necessarily helped by Arsenal’s moves in the transfer window. With recruitment firmly Sanllehi’s department, with Edu not appointed until the summer, it was Sanllehi who, through his contact oriented approach, sidelined the scouting of Sven Mislintat, who, among other deals, identified Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi. In his first transfer window in complete charge, Sanllehi utilized his contacts at his old club, Barcelona, to sign Denis Suarez. Arsenal paid a £2m loan fee, and £55,000 per week for Suarez, who played 95 minutes for the club. That was the only signing Arsenal made in the window, and, suffering from the Thursday to Sunday Europa League shuffle, Arsenal missed the Champions League by one point.
The summer recruitment period was a mixed bag. Of course, hindsight is always 20-20, but of the six signings Arsenal made during the summer, only one, Gabriel Martinelli, could be said to be a sure-fire success at time of writing. Martinelli, of course, was signed from the Brazilian 4th division, and was a success of scouting, rather than a success of utilizing the agents who take up prominent positions in your roladex. Of the other five signings, Kieran Tierney will probably be a success, but has been injured, Dani Ceballos has been average at best, William Saliba will probably be a success but was loaned back to St. Etienne, and Pépé, thus far, has the potential to be a huge bust, given his price tag. And then there’s David Luiz.
On the face of it, needing a replacement for Laurent Koscielny, David Luiz was a sensible signing: an experienced centre back, who would need no adjustment period to the Premier League. And Luiz was cheap, only costing £8m. In recent weeks, though, further details have come out. One reason Luiz was so cheap, it was thought, was because his agent, Kia Joorabchian, was having increasing influence from Sanllehi’s roladex. Yet another reason it was easy to do is the fee Arsenal paid out to Joorabchian: £6m, an eye-watering 75% of Luiz’s fee, adding 33% to the total cost of Luiz once his wages were included. It was the £6m to his agent that likely greased the wheel of the move. This would not be the only time Joorabchian was prominent in Arsenal’s moves: he was front and centre when Arsenal signed Pablo Mari, another deal that is hard to get a sense of, and when Arsenal paid Southampton £5m for the privilege of signing Cedric Soares on loan. Soares, an average Premier League full back, was injured when he arrived before lockdown, and suffered a facial injury during training in the leadup to the restart, and it is quite possible he never plays a single minute for Arsenal, which, on top of Denis Suarez, leads to another win for Sanllehi.
On transfers alone, Sanllehi’s job has been subpar. Yet there are further reasons that indicate why he is not the man to take Arsenal forward: overall squad construction, and Sanllehi’s method of transfers when the economic situation for the club has changed.
In terms of squad construction, Arsenal’s planning was confused, to say the least. With the departure of Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal lost the ability to have goals from midfield, and play between the lines. This was hurt even more by the freezing out of Mesut Özil, a move that Unai Emery said was club policy. This affected Arsenal’s ability to control games through possession in midfield, with Dani Ceballos ticking things over but offering little penetration. A move like this may have done with Unai Emery’s preference to not utilize the middle of the field in building play, and utilize wide areas, and attacking full backs. That, of course, can be a huge question, as very few modern, elite clubs avoid the midfield in the way Emery does.
With Pépé signed, Arsenal offloaded Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. While selling the former may have been a necessary move from a budget perspective and the latter was underwhelming on the pitch, both had an ability on the ball and technical security that is sorely lacking in current options. Furthermore, they were the only wide playmakers, with the ability to play inside and slip the full back in—especially as Bukayo Saka had not yet started a Premier League game.
When Pépé was signed, I wrote about the potential inability of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pépé to play as a front line. Between the three, the best player at linking play is Lacazette, and he has not been particularly convincing in recent months. Without Mesut Özil, there is very little technical security in advanced areas, so much so that Saka was utilized as a central midfielder against Brighton, and outshone Guendouzi and Ceballos.
Indeed, that Saka played in midfield signifies the overhaul that has to be done in midfield. That Arsenal have missed Granit Xhaka—who got into an argument with the Arsenal fans in October and looked like he was on the way out—is indicative of the larger issues in Arsenal’s midfield, which is filled with a number of flawed players. In an ideal world, Xhaka and Torreira would be one player, who could be the #6, with Guendouzi as one of the 8s, and a new, technically proficient, creative midfielder as another #8. This, though, is not an ideal world, and Arsenal essentially need to construct an entirely new midfield.
This was already going to be challenging; with the financial effects of the pandemic, necessitating Arsenal to cut their players wages by 12.5%, it seems entirely unlikely that Arsenal can do this in one window. And with the financial effects, signing Thomas Partey loses rationality: Partey will be 27, and while a very good player, is not at the elite level that will lift Arsenal. Nor is he the creative all-rounder that Arsenal desperately need.
What Arsenal need to do is find the likes of Thomas Partey before they become expensive. Then, they can develop under the coaching staff, which could allow Arteta to mould the team in his image. This is the level of scouting that clubs such as Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, and others do, and it enables those clubs to sign players cheaply, and move them on for the profit. If we look back at Arsenal’s recent successes in the transfer market and on the pitch, the wins have been the truly elite—Aubameyang—the young, inexpensive, and promising—Martinelli, Torreira, Leno, and Guendouzi—and the academy players, in Saka. The signings done out of ease and secured through Sanllehi’s contacts have not worked out; yet, that is the model that Sanllehi has chosen for Arsenal.
It is a muddled approach. Arsenal are relying on agents for recruitment, which is an expensive endeavor. Arsenal are now a club without much money. Of the events that hang around the club one of the more prominent ones is David Luiz’s contract scenario—one brought to the club by Raul Sanllehi’s miserable contacts book.