When Ivan Gazidis sat down alongside Unai Emery at the latter’s unveiling in May 2018 he openly acknowledged he was not presenting the man who, until the very last moment of the recruitment process, everyone else had been expecting. It had all been pretty surprising to Mikel Arteta, too, given the former Arsenal midfielder had been in advanced talks about taking the head coach role. In a rhetorical flourish typical of the now-departed chief executive, Gazidis suggested anyone following the story until this point had been several steps behind all along, saying: “Those who know won’t speak and those who speak won’t know.”
It was all a little self-congratulatory and now feels fruitless, too, because Emery’s subsequent demise means there will be an even steelier gaze on the selection of his successor. Gazidis works for Milan these days and another of the three-man panel that recommended Emery to the club’s owners, the head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, controversially moved on in February.
So the common denominator in the two exercises will be Raul Sanllehi, who became head of football when Gazidis departed last December, and there is a sense the former Barcelona administrator will stand or fall by the decision he oversees next.
The way Emery, who never looked a comfortable fit at Arsenal and struggled to communicate with his players, fell short casts a sharp light on the machinations that brought him there. Gazidis had spoken of the “chemistry between us” in Emery’s interview but had also been quick to divide responsibility for the choice, stressing it was unanimous. The noises since then suggest it was in fact Sanllehi, who held the more lowly head of football relations title at that point, who got his man in the end. For every painstaking analysis of Emery’s failings there must be an acknowledgement that the biggest error in the first place was to decide he ticked more boxes than seven other interviewees.
Sanllehi will sit on a new committee this time, joined by his choice for the technical director role, Edu, and the managing director, Vinai Venkatesham. The merry-go-round that took place in the executive positions while Emery was in charge offers some mitigation for the on-pitch performance.
The house needs to be in order upstairs and how effectively the panel works to choose the most suitable manager now will be a sound indicator of Arsenal’s health.
It is why alarm bells sounded when Nuno Espírito Santo, the Wolves manager, was mentioned in connection with the role in the 48 hours before Emery was sacked. Nuno’s performance at Molineux, albeit with the resources of Fosun and the network of Jorge Mendes, has been exceptional but the catch lay in the small print. Sanllehi knows Mendes well and an element of distaste surfaced among some sections of the fanbase at the prospect of Arsenal handing de facto control to the so-called super-agent.
In fact Nuno is not being seriously considered for the role but it would be no surprise if his name had been used to test the water for what might be deemed acceptable. It would be unfair to suggest Sanllehi is hellbent upon thrusting the club into Mendes’s clutches; the salient point is nobody really knows what shape he or the Kroenkes, who will ultimately nod through whoever is proposed to succeed Emery, want Arsenal to take.
The jury is out on Sanllehi among some who work closely with Arsenal on player-related issues. The 15 years he spent at Barcelona, working as director of football and riding out the different intrigues that arise in that boardroom, marked him out as a skilled negotiator. But he is perceived as a contracts and contacts man; someone fluent in legalese and a master broker of deals in South America but hardly a club-builder or player-spotter.
That would seem less important had he not given the ambitious Mislintat, whom he and Venkatesham passed over for the technical director role, little choice but to depart. Mislintat, a magnetic character with encyclopaedic knowledge and a compelling talker about the sport, was hugely popular with those who regularly crossed his path and informed observers ask how on earth anyone with his gifts could be perceived as a square peg in a round hole.
The perception is that Arsenal’s power-brokers are short on genuine football expertise and, in some ways, the current setup feels like a regression to the days before Gazidis began ripping up Arsène Wenger’s old power structure. That theory may be proved wrong if Edu, described as “the final and very important part” of the club’s jigsaw by Sanllehi, can bring his own instincts to the fore. If Sanllehi appears the dominant figure in the recruitment triumvirate, there is an argument Edu is at least as crucial: should his keen sense of the club’s history be matched by a convincing, football-literate vision of how Arsenal should proceed, perhaps he can temper any reflexive recourse to the contacts book from elsewhere.
“We had some clear criteria,” Gazidis said on that day 18 months ago. “Aggressive, entertaining football; personality that fitted with Arsenal’s values; also a record of developing players through detailed tactical instruction and also cultural demand, pushing players.” Even today it sounds like a perfect balance; now Arsenal must hope Sanllehi and his reshuffled band of power-brokers can make it second time lucky.