Inside story of life after Arsene Wenger at Arsenal: Owner’s decisions by WhatsApp, no signings in January and Unai Emery’s plan to overtake Manchester City
- Arsenal are on an incredible 11-match unbeaten run under new boss Unai Emery
- Here, Sportsmail brings the inside story on life at Arsenal after Arsene Wenger
- The Frenchman finally called time on his long tenure in north London in May
- Now they eye a return to the Champions League and then a title challenge
The meeting room itself is banal but in its short life it has already hosted several historic summits.
Located on the corner of the new building at London Colney, appropriately overlooking Arsenal’s many training pitches, in case those who gather here were ever tempted to forget the point of their business.
Adjacent are the offices of Per Mertesacker and Freddie Ljungberg, a throwback to a different era but another reminder that they deal in hopes and dreams as well as profit and loss.
Spaniard Unai Emery was man selected to take over from long-serving boss Arsene Wenger
Ivan Gazidis and Raul Sanllehi were among those who made the crucial decision last summer
ARSENAL DON’T HAVE MAN CITY’S MONEY SO CAN THEY COMPETE?
£1.8bn – The market Arsenal of value of Arsenal as Stan Kroenke becomes 100 per cent owner, compared to £2bn value of Manchester City, the reigning Premier League champions.
£50m – Roughly Arsenal’s remaining club debt, although Kroenke’s KSE firm took a £557m loan to help him buy the final 30% of the club. Kroenke insists the burden won’t lie with Arsenal. City are effectively debt free, bankrolled by Sheik Mansour.
£400m – Arsenal’s approximate annual income for 2017-18, anticipated when they publish their accounts with profits after player trading of around £70m. City’s income was £500.5m in last season, with profits of £10.4m.
£380m – The cost in transfer fees Arsenal paid for their squad. City paid 868m for the most expensive squad in history.
£40m – Expected net spending budget for Unai Emery next summer, against multiples of that for Pep Guardiola.
Around a wooden table and on these red chairs is where Arsenal executives Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat sat last May and conducted their secret ballot on their preferred successor to Arsene Wenger. The shortlist was down to three and the way the departing chief executive tells it, they all had written the same name on their ballot papers: Unai Emery.
‘It was a huge decision,’ says Sanllehi, who only joined the club in February and is now running it as head of football, alongside managing director Vinai Venkatesham.
‘We knew the responsibility we had in our hands and we decided on a very disciplined process.’
The candidates were measured over seven different categories and Emery, they say, was the one who impressed most, despite having been let go by Paris St-Germain.
Eleven straight wins and a club closing in on a record that dates back to the George Graham era suggests their process was indeed thorough, even if final judgment will be withheld for now.
Today it is Venkatesham and Sanllehi who occupy the chairs in the meeting room. Arsenal’s management has been turned upside down in the last 12 months. Of course, the earthquake was the departure of Wenger after 22 years.
The aftershocks included his entire back-room staff leaving too, other than Steve Bould.
Danny Welbeck scored as Arsenal continued their incredible unbeaten run against Sporting
Then Gazidis announced his departure after 10 years at the club just as Stan and Josh Kroenke completed their purchase of Alisher Usmanov’s minority stake. The only precedent for such universal change is Manchester United in 2013 and that hasn’t worked out so well.
For now Sanllehi, 49, and Venkatesham, 37, represent the future and over 45 minutes of discussion they outline their vision. Essentially Venkatesham does the off-field numbers and Sanllehi the on-field strategy.
And for those who have suspected that the mantra of Arsenal over the last 12 years has been that fourth place is good enough, they want to send a clear message.
‘We want to make our fans proud of their football club,’ says Venkatesham. ‘We do that in two ways: by winning and by winning in what we call ‘our way’.
‘We want to win the biggest trophies in the game and if you compete in the Premier League, there are only two: that’s the Premier League and the Champions League. And we want to win them in a way that respects 130 years of history and heritage (at) this amazing football club.
‘The short-term ambition is to get back in the Champions League. That is a step on the journey but not the ultimate ambition, which is 100 per cent shared by Stan and Josh.
‘The short-term ambition is to get back in the Champions League,’ said Vinai Venkatesham
‘Raul and I were in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and spent a lot of time over two or three days with (them). They are 100 per cent committed to competing to win the Premier League and the Champions League.’
It is a bold claim off the back of finishing fifth and sixth and having last got past the last 16 of the Champions League in 2010.
‘I completely get that what people want to see is action and what they want to see is silverware,’ says Venkatesham. ‘I completely get that we’re going to keep being asked this question until we’re holding the Premier League trophy or we’re holding the Champions League trophy.’
Yet, even when trying to manage expectations, they set sights high. Sanllehi returns to a Spanish phrase to underline the gradual theme but it is clear Emery has told them to expect to finish in the top four this season.
‘Unai would not accept anything less than going for Champions League right now,’ says Sanllehi. ‘I don’t want to put on additional pressure, because we want to go in the right direction and sometimes — as he always says — step by step. Which is a literal translation of paso a paso, a very common Spanish expression. And he’s very conscious of that.
Emery has wasted no time in trying to implement his own philosophy at the north London club
‘We’re in a great streak of victories, hopefully it will last longer. The longer the better. But we know there are going to be ups and downs this season. Performance has probably not been at the level of the results. Which is great. It is better to be a lucky winner than an unlucky loser.’
Even if they are obliged to back their man, there is an encouraging degree of football understanding in Sanllehi’s acknowledgement that ‘performance has not been at the level of results’.
Some executives wouldn’t even see that in their teams, let alone acknowledge it. Whether a dual-leadership approach will survive imminent pressure points is unclear, yet this is increasingly the way of the best-run clubs.
It mirrors the split of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano at Manchester City, both ex-colleagues of Sanllehi at Barcelona.
The real power is Stan Kroenke, 71, and his son Josh, 38, often criticised as absentee owners, though that wasn’t true last season, when Josh spent two months in London examining every aspect of the club. The management claim it has never been the case, with their WhatsApp group with Stan and Josh cited as evidence.
‘Even during the game we get comments [on the WhatsApp group],’ says Venkatesham.
The real power is Stan Kroenke (above), and his son Josh, often criticised as absentee owners
‘They are passionate about sport, about football and about Arsenal. They really like what they are doing. This is not just PR, it’s the truth. They watch every game. Sometimes because of the time difference they have to put on the alarm clock and watch it in the middle of the night.’
If their heart is in the right place, the head might question whether their goals are achievable when faced with an Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City in the Premier League and a Qatar-backed Paris St-Germain in the Champions League, to say nothing of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The pair repeat throughout this interview that Arsenal’s model will be self-sustaining and Liverpool and Tottenham have shown the model can work well (even if without delivering trophies yet).
‘It definitely puts stress on efficiency,’ says Sanllehi. ‘We need to be very, very efficient in the design of the first team. We need to be very efficient in the way we play and the way we generate the income to put more fuel into the machine.
‘There are other clubs financed by other means. That’s not our case and it’s not our model. Every club have their own way of doing things.
‘Definitely Arsenal are at the world level, where they can compete with everybody. Your level is not only a case of how much you can pay your players. We need to do things very well, yes. We need to do things sharp. But I believe we can compete with anybody.’
Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are two players who have shone in recent weeks
Even a cursory examination of Arsenal’s accounts up to 2016-17 indicates that the wage bill is at its maximum and the decision not to award Aaron Ramsey a new contract is a direct result of the additions of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the re-signing of Mesut Ozil.
There is £12.5million of interest to be found from someone — either from Stan Kroenke’s personal funds or from the club — on the £557m borrowed to complete his takeover.
Operating profits (which excludes money made on transfers) are heading down, though commercial income ought to be rising, with new deals signed with adidas and Visit Rwanda.
And there is no planned cash input from the owner, though Sanllehi insists that if, in exceptional circumstances, a player outside their normal budget was available and represented value, the Kroenkes would consider it.
‘They would definitely listen,’ says Sanllehi. ‘Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. They have proven to us that they are extremely reasonable, and passionate about this project. We have a direct line with them, we talk constantly and they are very intelligent people. If there is a very clear opportunity, we would definitely talk to them about it.
For now they are strictly Europa League and the longer they stay away from the top table, the harder it will get. ‘It’s not as simple as saying, ‘This is the number of seasons we can be out of the Champions League’,’ says Venkatesham.
Emery dishes out instructions to his players during their Europa League victory over Sporting
‘We need to get back there. The business model is robust so we can deal with seasons out of the Champions League — but obviously that can’t go on forever.’
That said, there appears to be a more coherent strategy to avoid the Ramsey, Ozil and Alexis Sanchez debacles (a long-standing issue, preceded by Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Samir Nasri all getting to the last year of their contracts).
‘In general, I do believe that a player’s contract should never go to the last year, as a policy,’ says Sanllehi. ‘But I don’t think I am inventing the wheel.
‘Normally, the contracts of the players are for five years. You need to have a clear idea of what you want to do with that player when he is in the third year, at the latest.’
Transfer business will be conducted early, so the late scrambles of recent years will be avoided.
‘We did investment (this summer) very early, because we understand this market as being inflationary, so the longer you take to make the signings the higher the prices normally become,’ says Sanllehi. ‘We did all the homework beforehand, I would say from February, March.’
There are unlikely to be any additions this January transfer windoiw unless there are injuries
And there are unlikely to be any additions this January, unless there are injuries. ‘I don’t believe much in the winter window. There are exceptions. But if you have the right planification (sic) in the summer and the team are performing at the level you expect, you should not go to that window or try to avoid it.
‘It’s there for emergencies, a big injury or if something is really not working and you need to recover there. I give much more importance to the summer windows.’
Of course, it is likely to take more than one summer of revolution to turn around the club. The objective, however, is at least clear. ‘We know that Arsenal belongs to the Champions League,’ says Sanllehi.
‘It has been proven over the years; the fanbase and the heritage reflect we are a top club. When you make the list of the biggest clubs in the world Arsenal is always there in anybody’s list that knows about football.
‘Our position is there and we need to be back there because right now it has been two years. We need to regain that position.’
Arsenal manager Unai Emery is expected to deny fit-again Petr Cech a starting place at Crystal Palace on Sunday.
Cech has missed four matches with a hamstring injury, but Bernd Leno has performed excellently in his absence. And Emery admitted: ‘Now we are very happy with Leno. It’s not good for me to have to decide [who] is in the first XI, but it’s the best for the team.’
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