When Raul Sanllehi arrived at Arsenal Football Club, our wage bill was a mess, numerous contracts were running down and we needed huge reinvestment in the squad to even consider the possibility of a top four finish. However, since replacing the departing Ivan Gazidis in September 2018, the Spaniard has made huge efforts to eradicate these issues. Admittedly, there are still problems which need addressing, but the improvements that he has made in just 12 months are remarkable. Throughout this article, I will examine the three main areas in which he has made a notable difference during his tenure thus far.
- Recruitment. When we were defeated in Baku last season, my hopes of a successful transfer window were dashed. Rumours were circulating from various reliable sources that our budget would lie in the region of £40-45m. In today’s inflated market, this is barely enough to sign three players that will strengthen the bench of a top club, let alone help a side in need of a complete rebuild return to challenging for Champions League football. However, as the window came to a close in mid-August, we found ourselves with six new additions - including loan deals. Martinelli as a long-term investment, Pépé as our marquee signing, Ceballos as a short-term Ramsey replacement, Tierney & Saliba to try and bolster our defence, with Luiz as a stop gap in the meantime, whilst the young Frenchman spends the year back at Saint-Étienne. This makes me very optimistic for the future. I love the profile of the players. Apart from Luiz, everyone who joined is 24 or under, with their prime years ahead of them. Also, it means that their salaries are relatively low when you compare it to those of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who were both signed when approaching 30 years of age. For me, this shows a conscious effort to prevent any potential wage bill issues in the years to come, which is great to see. In terms of the players themselves, I’m over the moon. Martinelli is a low risk - high reward deal. Realistically, the £6m fee is minimal in today’s footballing economy, and the young Brazilian has shown signs of promise throughout pre-season. Hopefully, he will prove to be a steal in the years to come. As for Saliba, I honestly haven’t been able to watch that much of him myself. However, he is one of France’s most promising defenders according to those who have been privileged enough to observe him more closely. In my opinion, this is more telling about his ability than a 2:20 Twitter compilation, as we learnt the hard way with Gabriel Paulista and Shkodran Mustafi. Dani Ceballos is incredibly talented. It’s a shame that the deal is realistically only for the season, but hopefully the likes of Guendouzi/Willock will have developed more and can take over from the Spaniard by the time he returns to Madrid in July. Nicolas Pépé, what can you say? One of Europe’s most sought-after players. Frankly, I still can’t believe we managed to secure the deal. He hasn’t hit the ground running, but remain patient and we’ll see just how good he can be in the coming years. David Luiz is realistically the most underwhelming signing of the six mentioned, but I am personally content with the deal. It’s clear that he isn’t in Unai’s long-term plans, but we also weren’t willing to enter the season with an unproven Chambers, a mistake-prone Mustafi, a returning Holding & Sokratis as our only first team centre-back options. I can completely understand this, and also believe that he will help us to build from the back, as we saw in the early months of last season, prior to Rob’s lengthy injury. Also, he is a leader who will have a very positive impact on the dressing-room, particularly with both Koscielny and Monreal departing. Finally, I believe that Kieran Tierney is a huge addition. Young, hungry with potential to develop even more. The deal took a long time to finalize, but I believe it will prove to be worth it throughout this season and into the future.
- Departures. Whilst Aaron Ramsey leaving for free was a huge blow, the damage was largely done prior to Raul’s appointment, so I’m willing to give him a pass on that one. Apart from that, the only major first team stars whose Arsenal careers came to a close were Nacho Monreal & Alex Iwobi. The former was a magnificent servant for the club, and one of Arsène Wenger’s most underappreciated signings, in my opinion. His best years were behind him, but he was a key figure in the dressing room. However, with the presence of Sead Kolašinac and the arrival of Kieran Tierney from Celtic, it was hard to justify his £70,000 weekly salary. Although we only received £250,000 from his sale to Real Sociedad, according to some reports, we have first refusal when the Spanish side are selling players in the future. This could prove to be very useful and shows great initiative for the long-term success of the club. Alex Iwobi had stagnated over recent years, but I still believe he has the potential to become a top player. Out of all of our departures this summer, he was the one that hurt me the most. However, the £34m plus add-ons fee which we received was too much to turn down. While I’d have preferred to keep him in an ideal world, losing him in order to bring in Tierney seems like a move in the right direction, especially when you compare the abundance of attacking talent at our disposal to the defensive woes which we were subjected to throughout last season. We made a grand total of £57.85m from all of our sales, and saved a whopping £990,000 per week, which I’ll come to later.
- The wage bill and approach to contracts. Arsenal’s inability to effectively manage contracts has been our achilles heel over the past ten years. Time after time, we’ve seen key players run down their deals before leaving for pennies. As well as this, over the past 18 months, many of our players have signed deals which see them earn a ridiculously high wage in comparison to the assets that they add to the team. Similarly to the Ramsey situation, most of the damage was done in this regard prior to Sanllehi’s arrival, and his appointment has certainly been a step in the right direction. Just one summer window into his tenure, he has managed to get rid of £990,000 from our weekly wage bill. Over the space of a year, that comes to approximately £50,000,000. To put it into perspective, that is a similar fee to the amount that we signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for in January 2018. When you consider that the only guaranteed starter that we lost was Aaron Ramsey, this is a huge figure. Not only has Raul managed to decrease our weekly wage bill, the approach to contracts themselves has been very different to what we experienced under his predecessor, Ivan Gazidis. There are two main ways with which we can see the difference in approach. The first of these is the departure of Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman wanted to leave the club for free, due to what he described as a contract mix-up. In the past, we may have given in to his demands as he has made a sizable contribution to Arsenal Football Club. However, Raul had other ideas. The club comes first. There is no room for sentiment if it will have a detrimental effect on our future. Our captain was demoted to the youth team training and was told firmly that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave for free. We ended up securing £5m for his services from Bordeaux. This additional £5m plus wages essentially paid off the Martinelli deal. We essentially swapped a want-away captain, with one year left on his deal and a bad history with injuries for a youth prospect with the potential to be a star. This demonstrates that Sanllehi has no plans on leaving any time soon. The second way in which his mindset differs regarding contracts is the extension of existing key players’ deals. This summer, we apparently offered new deals to Aubameyang, Lacazette and Guendouzi. Aubameyang signed 18 months ago, Lacazette still has almost three years left on his deal and Guendouzi only arrived last summer. While some might consider this attitude premature, I see it as planning ahead. We’ve seen with the likes of Ramsey, Alexis, Van Persie, etc. that leaving a potential contract until the final year of a player’s deal can lead to problems. To avoid this reoccurring in the future, I think that extending players’ deals well in advance of a potential clash of interest will maximise our chances of success. If an agreement can’t be agreed, we can sell the player involved. The fees received will be much higher as there is still a lengthy amount of time remaining on their contract. Raul’s motto seems to be ‘sign or be sold’. This ruthless approach will only benefit Arsenal Football Club, in my opinion.
Overall, it has been an incredibly satisfactory first year in charge for Raul Sanllehi. We’re far from perfect but, for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that those in positions of power at the club will successfully manage to eradicate the issues as time passes. To put it mildly, I can’t wait to see what the future holds under his guidance.