Raúl Sanllehí and the Prisoner of the Continental Model

The summer of 2020 marked a dark chapter in the history of Arsenal Football Club. What should have been a cause for celebration in the wake of the club lifting their 14th FA Cup, was marred by the announcement that the club had made 55 of its staff redundant owing to the complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a bitter pill to swallow. Arsenal, who had long been regarded the Premier League’s de-factor “classy club” was now having to explain to its fans why 55 of its staff members were to lose their jobs, while the club were able to bring in Chelsea winger Willian on an eye-wartering £120,000-a-week contract.

In the weeks after the Brazilian’s arrival, the club announced it’s 56th redundancy. Raúl Sanllehí.

Ivan Gazidis (left) and Sven Mislintat helped Sanllehí hire Unai Emery.

The club’s first-ever Head of Football was to end his brief spell with the club after just two years and six months, succeeded by Edu Gaspar, the main he brought in just thirteen months earlier.

Since his departure from the club, mum has been the word from Sanllehí, no doubt restricted by a tightly-imposed NDA, until recently.

Some two years on from his unceremonious departure, Sanllehí gave an interview to Dermot Corrigan at The Athletic.

The interview largely covers Sanllehí’s new role with Real Zaragoza, where he is the club’s Director General, however, Sanllehí does speak candidly about his time with Arsenal.

However, one quote has stood out most of all.

“They have betrayed the model a little bit now, by going back to the manager at the top, that is a mistake, but that is their mistake. I would have not allowed that to happen. But that’s fine, it is working so far for them.

Raúl Sanllehí on the departure of his organisational model at Arsenal.

This quote by Sanllehí, speaking of Arsenal’s decision to change Mikel Arteta’s official designation from “head coach” to “manager” is one he disagrees with.

In the time since Sanllehí has left Arsenal, the model he left behind has changed significantly.

Not only does Mikel Arteta wield considerably more power than his predecessor Unai Emery, but Edu, the club’s technical director, has since assumed many of Sanllehí’s responsibilities, while Richard Garlick, who joined the club last summer as director of football operations, covers a wide range of administration and legal duties.

Richard Garlick has taken over some of Sanllehí’s responsibilities.

Arsenal’s more streamlined executive model allows flexibility in the transfer market and a fair amount of overlap with head of academy, Per Mertesacker.

While Arsenal’s current model may not be perfect, it seems infinitely more efficient than the one they left behind…

Sanllehí was announced as the club’s head of football relations in November of 2019. At this time, Arsène Wenger was still the club’s manager and had long opposed the idea of a director of football coming in to lighten the load.

Looking back, Arsenal appeared to be preparing themselves for life beyond the Frenchman as Huss Fahmy was appointed as chief negotiator, replacing Dick Law, while Sven Mislintat was brought in as the club’s head of recruitment to replace departing chief scout, Steve Rowley.

Wenger’s decision to step down a few months later, meant that Arsenal’s new executive structure, in conjunction with CEO Ivan Gazidis, would be responsible for sourcing Wenger’s replacement.

Huss Fahmy was an important part of Sanllehí’s executive structure.

Before the exhaustive search for who could replace the Arsenal legend, some ground rules needed to be established.

Style of play and ability to work within a tight budget were main factors, however, the key aspect that Sanllehí and co wanted to introduce was that the new appointment would not be taking Wenger’s job per se.

Wenger had been Arsenal’s manager for 22 years and the club were keen to adopt a new model. Wenger’s successor, whoever they may be, would assume the role of head coach, not manager.

While the official job title may mean very little to the average fan, to the board, it was of the utmost importance.

Arsène Wenger’s all-consuming power was to be dliuted for his successor.

As manager, Wenger had assumed responsibility for a great many facets of the club, many of which, arguably, went above and beyond his official remit.

As head coach, his successor would be responsible purely for the first-team.

The head coach would, of course, have a say in the club’s transfer decisions and other elements that may impact the first-team squad, however, their responsibilities would remain solely with team selection, coaching and tactics.

The search for a new manager led to several big names being interviewed for the role, however, while all signs pointed to the appointment of Manchester City assistant coach Mikel Arteta, the club opted, at the eleventh hour, for former Spanish coach, Unai Emery.

With Per Mertesacker being appointed as the head of the academy the previous year, Arsenal’s new model looked to be coming together to help manage the post-Wenger years. As far as Sanllehí and Gazidis were concerned, the only thing missing from the operation was a technical director.

Sven Mislintat was assured of the technical director role by Ivan Gazidis.

While Gazidis had privately assured Sven Mislintat that he would be a shoe-in for the role, a setback befell the new executive team.

Many had suspected that the departure of Arsène Wenger would create a power vacuum within the club as the board and backroom staff clawed to any power they could get their hands on, however, it was not Wenger’s departure that brought the inevitable power struggle, it was Gazidis’.

Despite having finally won the battle for ultimate control of the club with Wenger, the CEO announced that he would be joining Serie A side AC Milan in December of that year.

Gazidis’ strong relationship with Gordon Singer, the son of AC Milan owner Paul Singer, meant that Gazidis swapped London for Milan and left Arsenal’s new structure barely four months after helping build it.

Gazidis was replaced by Vinai Venkatesham and Sanllehí’s title was changed to “head of football”.

Ivan Gazidis’ departure handed power to Vinai Venkatesham and even more to Sanllehí.

In essence, the structure that Sanllehí was so keen to introduce was not compromised. While Venkatesham was not the CEO, but rather the club’s managing director, the club still had a head of recruitment, head of academy and a head of football, all they lacked now was a technical director.

The technical director role, in Sanllehí’s eyes, was one that would unify the footballing model of the club. It would ensure that the philosophies of the first-team and its coaches were adhered to in the academy and would provide appropriate support to both Unai Emery and Per Mertesacker.

But this too, brought problems of its own.

Sven Mislintat, the club’s head of recruitment, was hoping to be the man to take the role, as he had been promised by Gazidis.

Milsintat, nicknamed “diamond eyes” owing for his knack for spotting players at Borussia Dortmund, had enjoyed a successful first summer with the club, identifying the likes of Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, both of whom had had an immediate impact in Emery’s side and was hoping that the goodwill of his summer would help ease him into the role of technical director.

Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira looked to be useful signings in Emery’s first season.

Sanllehí felt otherwise.

The role Sanllehí envisioned needed at least one of three things:

  • Experience in the role.
  • A previous working relationship with Unai Emery.
  • A connection with Arsenal.

Mislintat met none of the requirements.

This began to cause issues. Mislintat had taken the job at Arsenal on the proviso that he would become the club’s technical director. However, the promise of the role was made to him by a man who had since left the club and now that the selection process fell to someone else, Sanllehí wasn’t interested.

In the end, things proved too much for Mislintat. Being passed over for the technical director role was one thing, but now his job as head of recruitment was being affected too.

Unai Emery pushed hard for the club to bring in Denis Suárez from Barcelona, having worked well with him before at Sevilla. Mislintat, on the other hand, was not as convinced.

Denis Suárez was prioritised over Mislintat recommendation, Yannick Carrasco.

Despite the German’s protestations, Sanllehí trusted Emery’s judegement and signed Suárez on loan from Barcelona, ignoring Mislintat’s suggestions of Yannick Carrasco and Ivan Perišić.

The signing of Suárez is viewed by many as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, but in reality, it was symbolic of the club’s approach to transfers.

Mislintat’s data-driven approach was at odds with Sanllehí’s more contacts-led style. Having been Barcelona’s director of professional football, Sanllehí had amassed an impressive rolodex of some of the most powerful and influential contacts in the game and intended to use them, even if that meant overruling Mislintat’s recommendations.

Unsurprisingly, Mislintat decided to leave Arsenal and seek his fortune elsewhere.

This was not good news for Arsenal’s executive model, but for Sanllehí, it was yet another feather in his cap as his stronghold over the club’s footballing operations was expanding beyond his wildest dreams.

While Mislintat was replaced temporarily by Francis Cagigao, the club began to take more decisive action for the technical director role.

Sanllehí fixed his sights on three key names. Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo (known colloquially as Monchi) at Roma, Marc Overmars at Ajax and Edu Gaspar, who was part of the Brazilian national set-up.

Arsenal believed they had Monchi and preparations were underway.

For a while, Arsenal looked to have Monchi all sewn up. The Spaniard had verbally agreed to move to north London and plans were underway for his imminent arrival.

However, much as Arsenal turned their backs on Mikel Arteta at the final hour, Monchi did the same with Arsenal and moved back to former-club Sevilla. In fact, things were so advanced that Arsenal genuinely believed Monchi was joking when he informed them of his change of heart.

Marc Overmars was the club’s second-choice, however, after much umming and ahing, the former-Arsenal winger stayed put at Ajax.

Eventually, Arsenal were able to appoint Edu to the role and Sanllehí’s structure was finally complete.

Edu Gaspar became the club’s first-ever technical director.

With the “final piece of the puzzle” sorted, Arsenal could look to the future with optimism.

His arrival is the final and very important part of the jigsaw in our development of a new football infrastructure to take us forward. He will be working closely with Unai Emery and the first-team coaches, and will play a relevant role leading our football vision and ensuring we have – and follow – a solid philosophy through all our football activities

Raúl Sanllehí on Edu’s appointment as technical director.

However, another fly in the ointment appeared.

Part of the reason Arsenal had been so attracted to Unai Emery, had been his uncanny knack for winning the Europa League. Winning the competition automatically qualifies the holders for next season’s UEFA Champions League and Emery had been brought in as something of a specialist in the competition.

However, while Emery’s team superbly navigated their way to the final in Baku, Azerbaijan, they were resoundingly thrashed by Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea in the final.

On paper, Emery’s performances had looked like an impressive first season. The club finished a point off of the top four, had enjoyed an impressive run of 22 matches unbeaten in all competitions at the start of the season and were just 45 minutes away from regaining Champions League football once more.

For Sanllehí, this was enough to justify a new and improved contract for Emery. However, the Arsenal board and Jaeson Rosenfeld, Arsenal’s head of data analytics strongly advised against it.

Despite the relatively positive end to the season, Emery’s underlying metrics were worrying.

While Emery’s performances had looked good in isolation, the reality was that Arsenal had been largely riding their luck. The underlying data showed that Emery’s side were underperforming and were perhaps a little fortuitous to finish where they did, aided no doubt by the fine form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

Crestfallen, Sanllehí turned his attentions to the transfer market, as Arsenal fans got a taste of the Spaniard’s “little black book of contacts”.

Whatever can be said of the summer window that ensued, it’s fair to say that Sanllehí played something of a blinder when it came to misdirecting the media.

Arsenal informed their usual band of journalists that spending would need to be curbed that summer. The club had been anticipating qualifying for the Champions League and the expected revenue that came with qualification would have made up much of the club’s budget, in the end the club would only have around £45m to spend.

Come August 31st, Arsenal had spent a whopping £138m.

Nicolas Pépé cost an eye-wartering £72m.

Perhaps the finest feather in Sanllehí’s cap had been the signing of Nicolas Pépé from Lille, who joined for a staggering £72m fee, eclipsing the club’s previous transfer record.

Sanllehí’s close ties with super-agent Jorge Mendes and Lille president Gérard López proved to be especially useful in closing the deal and his friendship with Kia Joorabchian ensured that Arsenal were able to sign David Luiz from Chelsea following Laurent Koscielny’s deaprture to Bordeaux two days earlier.

Pépé was one of Europe’s most exciting stars at the time and largely believed to only be behind Neymar at PSG as Ligue 1’s best player.

However, it seemed as though Sanllehí’s eagerness to complete a deal had been at odds with Unai Emery.

Emery had preferred that the club move for Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Thomas Partey at Atlético Madrid. Sanllehí tried to sign the former, but was unsuccessful and disregarded the latter.

Emery had wanted Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha.

It was clear that Pépé was not a player that Emery was too invested in playing and the Ivorian failed to capture the imagination in the way that Arsenal had hoped upon signing. The £72m fee paid for the winger raised eyebrows across Europe, especially as many clubs had been quoted far lower prices than that.

Soon enough, Emery’s team began to stutter and fail.

The constant chopping and changing of the first-team, coupled with a public falling out with Mesut Özil resulted in inconsistent performances and eventually culminated with Granit Xhaka’s tumultuous exit from the pitch in a 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace, in which he had sworn at the fans, removed his shirt and walked straight down the tunnel after gesturing to the fans to keep booing him as he walked off.

Team morale was at an all-time low and eventually, Emery’s position became untenable and he was sacked.

While Freddie Ljungberg took over interim responsibilities, Sanllehí and Venkatesham scrambled to find the Spaniard’s replacement. In the end, Arsenal reverted back to their initial choice for the role, Mikel Arteta.

The January window saw Sanllehí once again rely on his contacts book as the club’s second Joorabchian client (third if you include Edu) joined the club, Cédric Soares.

The influence of Kia Joorabchian did not sit well with the Arsenal board.

With six months remaining on his deal and Southampton unwilling to keep the Portuguese full-back, it looked all the more baffling that Arsenal were prepared to pay a £1m loan fee for the player. At the end of the season, the player was handed a four-year contract.

While Arsenal won their 14th FA Cup in that time, it wasn’t a pretty season, with an 8th placed finish following a pretty dismal run-in at the end of the season, one that had been ripped apart by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The difficulty with Sanllehí’s transfer approach began to rear it’s head once more. His close ties to Kia Joorabchian meant that Arsenal were able to sign Chelsea winger Willian on a free transfer.

On paper, this too looked a good signing. The signing had Arteta’s seal of approval, a rival was slightly weakened, the player had won just about everything there was to win in football, was a full international and had Premier League experience.

To everyone else, it looked to be a statistically uninspiring signing and one that all signs seemed to point to being an older player chasing one last big contract before retirement.

The signing of Willian was very controversial.

This was the time that the club made their aforementioned redundancies public.

At a time when much of Arsenal’s staff would be laid off, the announcement of an ageing player receiving a £10m-a-year contract did not not go down well.

While Arsenal dismissed the redundancies as simply being a streamlining of the club’s operating staff, very few seemed to believe them.

Not long after, Sanllehí himself was relieved of his duties.

The exact reason for Sanllehí’s departure is not widely known.

The official line is that Arsenal saw “…this as a way of streamlining their executive model in light of COVID-19”.

In reality, there could be any number of reasons why Sanllehí was dismissed.

Sanllehí did not have the blessing of the Arsenal board to explore a new contract for Emery.

Sanllehí’s eagerness to extend the contract of Unai Emery was not first discussed with either Stan or Josh Kroenke, which cause friction at board-level.

Sanllehí’s relations with the board had not always been cordial even before then.

Having finally assumed controlling power of the club, Stan Kroenke wished to have a footballing presence on the board, proposing the idea of appointing club legend David O’Leary. Sanllehí disagreed. This coupled with his approach to the transfer window caused considerable friction.

Indeed, the final four signings that Sanllehí made for the club, were clients of close personal friends.

David Luiz, Cédric Soares and Willian were all clients of Kia Joorbchian, while Pablo Marí, also signed in the January window alongside Cédric, was a client of Arturo Canales.

Sanllehí’s closeness to both agents proved particularly devisive among the Arsenal hierarchy, with the official contract signing for Willian taking place at Joorabchian’s house, rather than at the usual Highbury House or London Colney bases.

Willian’s contract was not signed at Highbury House, but at the house of super-agent, Kia Joorabchian.

The relationship with Canales proved equally contentious.

While the appointment of Unai Emery had looked to be a unanimous decision between Sven Mislintat, Sanllehí and Ivan Gazidis, it looked to be the first bit of evidence that Sanllehí was looking to curry favour with agents, as Emery was represented in negotiations by Canales and likely contributed to the reason Emery was appointed ahead of Mikel Arteta.

Further scrutiny was placed on the signings Sanllehí made.

Tim Lewis, was appointed as non-executive director to the club a few weeks before Sanllehí was dismissed and reportedly led an investigation into many of the club’s dealings.

The findings will not have looked good for Sanllehí.

The signings of Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira and Nicolas Pépé were cited as being examples of unnecessary overpaying.

Torreira was signed from Sampdoria for a fee believed to be as much as €5m above his release clause, while rumours abounded that Pépé had been offered to clubs for as much as half of what Arsenal eventually paid for him. ayear prior to his move.

Questions were raised over the money paid for Lucas Torreira.

Of course, an argument can be made that both situations were different cases.

The deal to bring Torreira to the club was reportedly completed as it allowed a more favourable payment structure for the club, while Pépé’s impressive form for Lille would have greatly enhanced his price tag.

While Sanllehí’s performance at the time was looked on rather excitedly by Arsenal fans, the prevailing consensus on his tenure with the club is not especially positive, and he is largely remembered as someone who saddled the club with more deadwood and who was more interested in currying favour with big name agents than doing right by the club.

The structure that Sanllehí left behind has undergone yet more changes in that time.

Huss Fahmy left the club barely two months after Sanllehí, while Francis Cagigao was part of the controversial redundancy initiative.

Mikel Arteta and Edu oversee a much less bloated executive model.

These days, Arsenal have a far less bloated model than before.

Edu is the club’s technical director and offers support to Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and women’s head coach Jonas Eidevall.

Richard Garlick, head of football operations, is responsible for matchday logistics and is considered to be something of a legal and contracts expert.

In many ways, its difficult to judge Sanllehí’s model favourably or otherwise as it can be argued that it never really got going.

While questions will be asked of Sanllehí himself and the way he conducted business, his operational model was victim to constant upheaval and the unprecedented conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ivan Gazidis’ departure was arguably a major blow to the club in general. Gazidis’ departure meant that the bulk of his footballing responsibilities now fell to Sanllehí, meaning the strucure he had put in place had, inadvertently, given him more power than he was accustomed to, allowing him to overrule specific people.

Sanllehí’s original executive model.

Sven Mislintat’s role was not one that Sanllehí saw fitting into his overall model.

The model he had used at Barcelona incorporated scouting, but there was never a position for a “head of recruitment” and Mislintat was largely seen as an over-qualified chief scout.

Mislintat’s role was further compromised over the technical director role, which not only removed him further from the decision-making process, but was also one that Sanllehí had not wanted to hand to him. Had Mislintat been content with his recruitment role, he may well have lasted longer at the club, even if many of his signings never really had the required impact.

There is also the undeniable fact that Sanllehí’s ideas were just as new to England as they were to Arsenal.

England has only recently begun to adopt the so-called “continental model”, with Manchester City and Liverpool the most high-profile examples.

Prior to this, the example set by Arsène Wenger and Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, coupled with both men’s reluctance to have their power diluted, meant that English teams would often follow in a similar vain, arguably expecting too much from talented coaches. Wenger and Ferguson were both highly-regarded coaches and tacticians, but were also considered to be efficient executives as well.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger were outliers, rather than trendsetters.

So Emery was appointed, it was tough to see what Emery had ownership of and what he did not.

Many reported that Emery had a say in the recruitment process, but it can be argued that the Spaniard should also have had control in many respects, with the signing of Nicolas Pépé looking more like a Sanllehí agreement than an Emery request.

Sanllehí’s fraternisation with intermediaries and agents was frowned upon in England, but is considered a necessary evil in his native Spain. Indeed, Sanllehí’s connections have afforded Barcelona greater pull in the modern game and arguably helped them to sign players like Neymar ahead of other European clubs.

Dealing with agents is of course a necessary part of the game, but it can be argued that Sanllehí’s relationships looked remarkably like doing favours for friends, than operating with the best interests of the club at heart.

Jorge Mendes played a big part in the signing of Nicolas Pépé.

Sanllehí’s recent comments regarding the change of Mikel Arteta’s job title, are not entirely as degrading as many have suggested.

In many ways, Arsenal have indeed abandoned the model that Sanllehí initially proposed, however, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Arsenal’s more streamlined approach and Arteta’s greater influence over decisions means that Arsenal have less obstacles to overcome when making decisions. Potential signings are no longer having to go through the data team, the director of football, the head coach, the technical director, the scouts and then the chief negotiator, and are now far more centralised.

There is also the fact that, while Arteta is now the club’s “manager”, he does not have the same remit as Arsène Wenger did.

Mikel Arteta does not wield as much power as Arsène Wenger.

The departure of David Dein and a lack of footballing expertise in the executive structure at the time, meant that Wenger had to assume many responsibilities himself. While Arteta does have a big influence at the club, he is not at the top of the decision-making process and has far less influence over the board.

All in all, Arsenal’s current structure looks to be working well. Edu and Richard Garlick have shown a willingness to accept mistakes and attempt to correct them, even it means incurring a cost to the club and Mikel Arteta has been afforded a lot more resources to improve his playing squad as a result.

Sanllehí is relatively new to his role at Real Zaragoza, but his approach to management may well be greater appreciated in Spain than in England.

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