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For many years, one of the major criticisms of Arsenal has been an inability to seal deals. Potential superstars have come within their range only to join rivals, transfers have fallen through on account of poor timing, and a lack of foresight has often led to fruitless deadline day scrambles.
All of that should soon change, however, now that they have hired Raúl Sanllehi. Indeed, recruiting talent within football is about more than simply signing the best players. It’s at least equally important to have the right people undertaking the actual player-signing process, and this is where the Gunners’ latest addition specialises.
Having worked for Barcelona in multiple roles over the past decade, Sanllehi brings with him a wealth of experience and information, as well as a long list of contacts. And, excitingly for Arsenal fans who desperately wanted the club to change their approach in the transfer market, he comes as one piece in a progressive re-structuring puzzle.
Here Football Whispers takes a look at Sanllehi: Why Arsenal have signed him, what he will add, and who he will work with.
ARSENAL’S MISGUIDED TRANSFER POLICY
The Premier League is evolving in terms of the way its teams are being run. For years the concept of the sporting director was baulked at, even though it had worked in other major footballing nations such as Italy, Germany and Spain, but this attitude has changed of late.
Now most clubs in the English top flight have a sporting director, or someone undertaking a similar role under a different title. Manchester City have Txiki Begiristain; Everton have Steve Walsh; Chelsea had Michael Emenalo. The idea is to foster continuity and sustainability, so that if and when the manager or head coach departs – which is an increasing inevitability in today’s game – the club as a whole do not take a destructive hit.
Arsenal’s continuity has come from the dugout, however. In an era when the manager’s role is increasingly diminished, with the focus now more centred than ever before on coaching and tactics, Arséne Wenger has remained defiantly old-school. Few in his position can claim to have so much power within their place of employment, and he has generally refused to compromise on this until recently.
However, while the Frenchman has, over the course of his long reign, earned praise at different times for youth development, bargain signings and long-term thinking, his calls in the transfer market have come under scrutiny over the last decade.
Regularly, Arsenal have been found wanting in this particular aspect. They have left it until after the season has started, and points have been dropped, to sign key players. They have undervalued potential additions – see Luis Suárez – and missed out as a result. They haven’t ensured their stars are retained, with Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil likely to be the latest examples of this failing.
There have been calls for change from within and from without, from supporters and neutrals, for quite some time. And, finally, Arsenal appear to have received the message.
WHO IS RAÚL SANLLEHI?
Sanllehi comes from a marketing and sales background. Having studied economics, marketing and finance he joined Nike in 1996 and worked there for several years before arriving at Barcelona. Officially the first title he held with the Catalan club was that of ‘Director of Relations with Sports Bodies’, though he quickly was appointed as their director of football.
He started the latter role in 2008, meaning he has worked for three different club presidents: Joan Laporta, Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu. For many this staying power is a good sign – three different presidents decided it was vital to retain his services.
During his time as Barcelona Director of Football, Sanllehi played a key role in the signature of many era-defining players. He led the negotiations that brought Neymar to the club in 2013 and Suárez from Liverpool one year later. Earlier this year, with the club in need of a quality right-back, it was he that flew to Lisbon to secure a deal for Benfica’s Nélson Semedo.
Renowned for his negotiation skills and a contact list undoubtedly grown during his time working as a director with the European Club Association, the 48-year-old essentially acted as a deal-maker for one of the world’s biggest sporting enterprises for nine years. He did so successfully, though it would be wrong to cast him as an identifier of talent. Indeed, at Barca that particular task was undertaken by Begiristain.
Recently, Wenger stated that: “Dick Law is retiring, and is going back to the States. He is still with us for a while, but we look for somebody as well who has experience in negotiations.” The ‘somebody’ Wenger referred to is Sanllehi.
ARSENAL’S NEW STRUCTURE
Sanllehi isn’t the only major staffing arrival at Arsenal this season. It was recently announced that Sven Mislintat would be leaving his post as Borussia Dortmund’s Head of Professional Football to succeed Steve Rowley as the Gunners’ chief scout.
The move was big news, particularly in Germany, where Mislintat has built a strong reputation for finding exceptional young talent at relatively low cost.
He has been credited as the man behind the signings of Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowksi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Christian Pulisic, among many others. Most of the players he identified joined Dortmund from outside of Europe’s top five leagues, or at least Europe’s top clubs, and went on to become international superstars.
The consensus is that Mislintat will be in charge of scouring and selecting the players Arsenal should sign, working with Wenger to ensure those signed fit the bill. Sanllehi, as head of football relations, will then be entrusted with moving to close deals for said players, bringing them to the Emirates.
If Mislintat’s signing was a luxury, Sanllehi’s was a necessity. The Gunners have often been able to identify gems and attract some of the best young players around, but they haven’t been quite so effective in acquiring and retaining that talent. The former Barcelona man’s appointment should help to form a more coherent transfer policy.