Where’s Ivan Gazidis when you need him, eh? After promising a bright future year after year, as the club inherits the legacy of his inability to say boo to either of the two gooses he needed to stand up to (Stan Kroenke and Arsene Wenger), he’s nowhere to be seen.
Fair play to Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham for being willing to try and defend a mess they haven’t created in front of an audience full of discontented Arsenal fans. They weren’t helped by a sound system that made them sound like airport PA announcements in an echo chamber – pretty much inaudible half of the time. At least when Ivan the Terrible was peddling soundbites that would return to bite him on the arse we could hear them loud and clear. It was as if some work experience lad was in charge of setting up the speakers and sound desk. Raul S’s heavy Spanish accent made understanding what he was saying even trickier.
Still, we got a slide of the plan (see above). It almost made me nostalgic for some of Ivan’s death by powerpoint presentations at previous shareholders’ AGMs –a classic clock-eating tactic so as to avoid too many awkward questions as lunch neared. Last night, the club used an interview with the ladies’ team manager as the reason to cease the rebellion (“We have to move on”), but we’d heard enough discontent by that point to make this observer wonder whether or not there will be another such event next summer, should nothing change and the club remain outside of the top four, falling even further behind in their ability to bid for established players. Currently, Arsenal are short at 2.25 to finish in the top four next season (implied 44% likelihood). So the bookies have some faith, even if the prediction is that failure is more likely than not amongst the oddsmakers.
Interviewed by Nigel Mitchell (Arsenal half-time man with the mic who oversees the kids taking pens against Gunnersaurus), Raul and Vinai started taking questions from our host, before they were joined by Edu, who was asked a few more. And then it was opened to the floor. Here’s where the rebellion predictably started. The whole thing lasted about an hour before the trio disappeared into a lift to escape… well I’d like to say rabid fans, but in reality it was people trying to get autographs from and selfies with Edu.
Over to my notes scribbled down at the time…
One way to keep the fans in the dark is to ensure they can’t understand a word that is being said (with reference to the appalling sound quality). Even the sign language guys were struggling (yes, we had signage for the deaf members of the audience)
Raul said he tried to sign Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid on a permanent basis but Real were not selling.
There was constant reference to the changes beginning 14 months ago, and needing time to take effect. So the club are admitting there is a line being drawn under the Wenger era, and that 40 positional changes have been made on the playing / coaching side – which begs the question… why were things allowed to get to the stage where revolution rather than continuity was required? Vinai explained, “the reason for the changes is that we are not where we need to be.” That’ll be fourth place then, and Arsene failing twice in a row on that front did for him, as I am certain it will for Unai Emery in the result next season is a repeat of last.
Raul said in so many words that the Arsene way of running a football club was severely outdated – meaning the first team coach was responsible for everything. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in the meetings between Raul and Wenger in their three and a half months together.
Raul stated the academy is crucial to the club’s model, stating all the great teams had a core of players developed by the club concerned. I’m not convinced you could say that about, for example, the Real Madrid team that won four CLs in five seasons, but anyway, he conveniently ignored the reality that such clubs often featured expensive signings, something Arsenal can’t do these days.
On that subject, Vinai refused to acknowledge the £44 million figure widely reported as what the club had to spend, even though the likes of the AST and Swiss Ramble have been accurate with their figures for many years, so why should 2019 be any different I am not certain. The Kroenkes putting some funds in to top up the pot??? If they are quibbling about £2 million for Kieran Tierney you’d kind of doubt it. So £44 million it is then, plus anything they can get for shifting some of the deadwood.
Raul first spoke with Edu about the possibility of joining Arsenal as a technical director at the friendly between Brazil and Uruguay, staged at the Emirates in November 2018. He told us that Edu played under Unai Emery at the tail end of his career at Valencia, so the pair know each other well already.
When Edu joined the pair on stage, it was notable that he saw his role as being very hands on with the players, and discussing the team’s requirements with the head coach going forward. Edu is apparently not going to have as much to do with the nitty gritty of transfer negotiations, although his contacts book will aid the club.
Raul stated that Arsenal need to be a driver in UEFA and FIFA. You can’t make it out from the photo of the Powerpoint slide, but underneath “International Relations” it said “UEFA, FIFA, PL”. The other thing that you can’t see is under “Player Market” it says “Scouting”. It’s interesting to note that’s a lot less of a factor than the academy. I wonder how that would contrast with the models of Liverpool and Manchester City. Actually I don’t – they have the funds to buy players, even with FFP rules. Liverpool made almost £100 million from the Champions League last season, and worryingly, Spurs weren’t too far behind.
Edu spoke a lot about the idea of coming “home” although his days at Arsenal concluded at Highbury in 2005. Still, some of the staff from then apparently remain and of course there are photos of the era he was at the club plastered everywhere at the Emirates. It’s an interesting debate to discuss how much Arsenal have changed since 2005, because of course, we were almost a decade into the Wenger era then. But that's one for another time. What would have shocked Edu was the degree of fan discontent. I felt a bit sorry for him. The surprise guest of the evening, he was thrown into a cauldron of animosity that was none of his own making, having officially started working for the club about a fortnight ago.
Someone shouted out “Buy some defenders” and Raul responded. I’ll be honest and admit that the sound, combined with his accent made the answer impossible for me to make out, but I did catch something about Emery needing last season as a learning curve, with the players needing to get used to a new head coach and his way of playing. It was also stated more than once, that the margin of failure was wafer thin and that the perception of last season would be very different if Arsenal had won a couple more points. I reflected that Arsene made the Champions League by the skin of his teeth more than once during his latter years, and that should have set the alarm bells ringing.
Edu emphasized that he would be working with the players we have today – defenders included – and that signings were for the future – he’ll have minimal involvement in the current transfer window (although the signing of Martinelli and the interest in Everton Soares suggests this may not be entirely accurate).
Understandably, the topic of who the club were pursuing and transfer negotiations were things that none of those on the stage would discuss. The transfer window isn’t over yet and they are still active. They are hardly going to tell an audience of fans anything that is going to compromise their negotiations.
In a sense, questions on this theme were a wasted opportunity. Questioners were picked at random by our host Nigel and some people waffled on making statements more than asking questions. It became an opportunity to express frustration, largely based on the way last season collapsed and the perception the club were not doing anything to redress this. The issue of the board was raised at one point, but it never made it as far as a pertinent question – or at least one that demanded an answer.
“It’s not a mess, it’s an incredible club,” Vinai told us. “There is a big passion here,” added Raul. No question about that, but sometimes it will manifest itself in an unpleasant way given the opportunity. Give us time, they requested, this has only been going for 14 months.
I think at some point the Kroenkes might have been mentioned once by a member of the audience, but they were otherwise let off the hook. It was amusing to recall that, when he faced the much politer fans’ forum meeting last season, it was mooted that Josh Kroenke might attend last night’s event. They’d have needed more security if he did.
Ultimately, Raul and Vinai are what Gazidis became. Two stooges taking flak that the owner doesn’t wish to face. Credit to them for facing up, but the conclusion of last night is that the last few seasons have really driven a wedge between the supporters and the people in charge of the club. That isn’t good. There is a lot of repair work to be done, and it needs to be strategic.
The #WeCareDoYou statement and subsequent petition got a lot of traction and the club were compelled to respond. But ultimately, things reached the stage where they are now – an evident state of gradual decline – because the owners and the board got complacent. They need to ‘fess up to this and make more of the changes required – specifically replacing themselves with expertise onto the board which will drive the club forward, and with all due respect pension off the clowns that oversaw the decline, their priority the balance sheets rather than stating to the manager that scrambling for fourth place just wasn’t good enough for a club of this stature.
Sadly, last night’s meeting simply became an opportunity for people to vent frustration rather than establish a productive dialogue (although the latter would have been difficult anyway due to the disastrous sound in the room). At the end of the day, the three guys on the stage are being asked to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but they are doubtless being paid decent money to try and do it. Last night wouldn’t have been pleasant for them. But they need to come up with a clearer way of communicating their message, and admit a degree of humility on behalf of the club.
But the elephant in the room is an owner that can help the club out financially without transgressing Financial Fair Play regulations, but won’t. The perception becomes that Arsenal being a competitive club is not a big priority for him, and the fans don’t like it. I do think Vinai and Raul are decent enough people, but they have a hell of a job covering for the owner, and competing against the odds of both bigger clubs and other clubs on the rise. They are putting a lot of faith in Unai Emery to get things right. Fans at present can’t see that it's going to be any different. A bad start to the season and the atmosphere will become even more toxic. How was it allowed to come to this? Simple – Stan Kroenke didn't care very much about the same things we did.