Arse­nal rev­o­lu­tion gath­ers pace – on and off the field

Sam Dean meets the un­likely men re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing the start of a new era in north Lon­don

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League -

You have got into a hole, my friend,” laughs Raul San­llehi, lean­ing back in his chair and look­ing to­wards Vi­nai Venkate­sham, who has just re­vealed the ex­is­tence of a What­sApp group the duo share with Stan Kroenke, the club’s owner, and his son Josh.

Venkate­sham, Arse­nal’s new manag­ing di­rec­tor, has brought this up to il­lus­trate how en­gaged the Kroenkes are with the club, but now he finds him­self try­ing to, in his words, “pivot” the dis­cus­sion away from the more in­ti­mate de­tails of their con­ver­sa­tions with the own­ers.

“This is not an of­fi­cial form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” says Venkate­sham. “It’s very in­for­mal,” adds San­llehi.

But it re­mains sig­nif­i­cant, and no doubt en­cour­ag­ing for some of the more scep­ti­cal Arse­nal fans, that the club’s new lead­ers are in con­stant dia­logue with Amer­ica. “They are pas­sion­ate about sport, about foot­ball and about Arse­nal,” says San­llehi of the Kroenkes. “This is not just PR, it’s the truth.”

Sit­ting in a meet­ing room at Arse­nal’s Lon­don Col­ney train­ing ground, San­llehi and Venkate­sham make for a cu­ri­ous dou­ble act. San­llehi, the new head of foot­ball, is the gravel-voiced Cata­lan who over­sees what he calls the “on the field” side of the club, while Venkate­sham is the straight-backed Ox­ford grad­u­ate who now leads Arse­nal’s busi­ness op­er­a­tions. “This is one or­gan­i­sa­tion with two lead­ers,” says San­llehi, who ar­rived in Feb­ru­ary af­ter serv­ing as Barcelona’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball since 2008.

The pair’s rise to the top of the Arse­nal tree has been fa­cil­i­tated by the de­par­ture of chief ex­ec­u­tive Ivan Gazidis, who last month agreed to join AC Mi­lan. The tim­ing of that change, so soon af­ter the end of Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign as man­ager, has only in­creased the sense of over­haul. There is a new set of coaches on the field, new lead­ers off it and a new struc­ture in place fol­low­ing the ar­rivals of Sven Mis­lin­tat, head of re­cruit­ment, and Huss Fahmy, di­rec­tor of foot­ball op­er­a­tions.

“It is over­whelm­ing,” says San­llehi. “There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of change hap­pen­ing in a short space of time,” adds Venkate­sham, who joined the club in 2010 and was pro­moted to chief com­mer­cial of­fi­cer in 2014.

How­ever, San­llehi and Venkate­sham make clear that the strat­egy has not changed. “The busi­ness model is the same,” says Venkate­sham. “Ev­ery­thing that we in­vest on the pitch has to be gen­er­ated by our busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties that are run off the pitch. We are con­vinced we can be suc­cess­ful against that busi­ness model.”

The blunt way to put this would be to say that Arse­nal are not in a po­si­tion to com­pete fi­nan­cially with Europe’s big­gest spenders. Kroenke, who took full con­trol of the club af­ter agree­ing to buy out share­holder Alisher Us­manov for £550mil­lion in Au­gust, will not be pour­ing in cash. This much has been ob­vi­ous for some time, but Arse­nal’s fi­nances have come un­der greater strain in the past two years be­cause of the fail­ure to qual­ify for the Cham­pi­ons League. In their most re­cent fi­nan­cial re­sults, for the six months ended Nov 30 last year, Arse­nal re­ported a £23.4mil­lion drop in foot­ball rev­enues as a re­sult of fall­ing into the Europa League.

“We need to re­gain that po­si­tion­ing, that priv­i­lege, to be seen as a Cham­pi­ons League club,” says San­llehi. “From there, the wheel starts rolling again. It is a vir­tu­ous cir­cle.” Venkate­sham adds: “The busi­ness model is ro­bust, so we can deal with sea­sons out of the Cham­pi­ons League, but ob­vi­ously that can’t go on for­ever.”

Arse­nal are there­fore in ur­gent need of what San­llehi calls “ef­fi­ciency”. With the wage bill al­ready stretched they can­not fall back on big-money sign­ings. In­stead, they must be smart in their re­cruit­ment, canny in their com­mer­cial deals, pro­duc­tive in the academy and in­spired on the pitch. On this front, there are en­cour­ag­ing signs, not least in the 11-game win­ning run un­der Unai Emery.

“Unai would not ac­cept any­thing less than go­ing for the Cham­pi­ons League,” says San­llehi. Venkate­sham adds that the Spa­niard “is go­ing to squeeze ev­ery sin­gle last bit of qual­ity we have got out of the squad”.

Re­cent deals with Adi­das, Emi­rates and Visit Rwanda will boost com­mer­cial rev­enues, while sum­mer sign­ings such as Lucas Tor­reira and Bernd Leno have im­pressed. “We need to be ef­fi­cient in the way we play and the way we gen­er­ate the in­come to put more fuel in the ma­chine,” says San­llehi. “There are other clubs who

are fi­nanced by other means. That’s not our model.”

A ma­jor fo­cus will be the academy, now be­ing led by for­mer cap­tain Per Merte­sacker. “It’s not only the fi­nan­cial model,” says San­llehi. “It’s also the iden­tity model: bring­ing play­ers who un­der­stand the club, who em­braced the club since they were kids. If you look at the his­tory of foot­ball, all the le­gendary teams are based on play­ers from the academy: Bay­ern Mu­nich, Ajax, Barca.”

What is clear is that Arse­nal will have to pick and choose their mo­ment to spend. San­llehi will have to think more care­fully and more me­thod­i­cally than the likes of Fer­ran So­ri­ano and Txiki Be­giris­tain, his for­mer col­leagues at Barcelona who are now so in­flu­en­tial at Manch­ester City. But the hope, and in­deed ex­pec­ta­tion, is that the new struc­ture will give him and Venkate­sham the best pos­si­ble chance of get­ting these de­ci­sions right. “We think we have the club right where we want it to start this new jour­ney,” San­llehi says.

Venkate­sham, sit­ting along­side him, nods. “For us, the vi­sion is very sim­ple,” he says. “We want to make our fans proud of their foot­ball club.”

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