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
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.”