Yesterday’s onslaught of Edu didn’t drop in time for the blog, but it’s worth mentioning today. It’s rare that a Technical Director at a football club the size of Arsenal fronts up to the media the way he did, and as someone who has long sought more open communication from the club, I think it was quite interesting.
Obviously, timing is a factor here. Pre-season has gone well, we’ve just beaten Chelsea 4-0, signed a new player while on tour, to add to the four players we’ve already brought in – one of whom, Gabriel Jesus, looks like a great big bargain when you consider the prices forwards are going for in this market. The mood is good, people are excited, and it’s as good a time as you can possibly get to talk. Whether Edu was willing to or not, the same message wouldn’t have been so openly received if he’d decided to do it after the Newcastle game, for example, but then that’s blindingly obvious.
As I think most people would in a position like his, you try balance the openness and honesty with your own version of events. I think here are things that don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. He spoke about the difficulty of recruiting for the previous head coach, saying:
If you have a coach and it’s difficult to read how he plays — in terms of system, characteristics, etc — it makes our life super complicated. And then we can make a lot of mistakes on recruitment because we don’t really understand and it’s not easy to find the right player for the right system for the right coach.
Which is fine, and I’m not here to defend Unai Emery in the slightest, but there were things he made quite clear about players he wanted. For example, Wilfried Zaha was his choice, a right-footed, Premier League experienced winger to play on the left; Arsenal signed Nicolas Pepe, a left-footed winger with no Premier League experience who plays on the right. That’s not on the coach, that’s on the recruitment side of things.
Edu’s complaints about how difficult it is to move under-performing players resonate:
When the player is 26-plus, big salary and he’s not performing? He’s killing you, that kind of player. Because you don’t have a valuation to sell the player, the player is comfortable — Arsenal, London, beautiful, everything is fantastic — and has a good salary. How do you move this player?
He estimated 80% (!!) of the squad was made up of players like that, which is genuinely awful, and we all know that the club had some deeply-ingrained issues of culture and poor decision making, but then why do you sign someone like Willian? Edu’s explanation that someone like that can help you in the short-term isn’t ridiculous in itself, but giving a waning 32 year old a three year deal certainly is. Ultimately, despite the spin, Willian was another player we paid to leave.
The one thing we have to point out though, is that those decisions – while made when Edu was Technical Director – also came when Raul Sanllehi was Head of Football. Given what has happened since, in terms of what we’ve done and the way we’ve done it, I guess Edu should get the benefit of the doubt, but it was not at all unreasonable for people to have had concerns that our business was far more agent-led than it should have been, and he was right in the middle of all that.
In truth, the departure of Sanllehi feels like a line in the sand when it comes to our recruitment. Since he left, the incoming deals have been much better. We’re not seeing Cedrics and Willians and David Luizs and Pablo Maris; we’ve brought in Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard, Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Fabio Vieira etc etc.
Last summer felt like the first time there was a definite plan. An acceptance that the sticking plaster signings who were there to give us a short-term boost were causing more problems than they fixed. Buy young, grow together, develop a team. Similarly, this summer’s business seems entirely tied into that strategy, adding more quality and experience but still at a relatively young age. Some of them may not work out, and while there may well be some residual players who could be part of that 80%, the make-up of the squad is much, much better.
Where I think he comes across best is talking about what he wants for this club, and how we compete in this current landscape:
I want to win. A club like Arsenal, at our size, is not building to be fighting for fourth place. I’m sorry. We have to realistic — there’s City, Liverpool, etc — that’s fine, I accept that. But also, you cannot accept that. Here, when you join this club, when you see our size, we cannot accept it.
“That’s why I was really, really hurt when I arrived. I said, ‘That’s not the mentality of this football club. What’s happening? Everybody’s comfortable, everybody’s OK…’.
It’s easy to be cynical about some of the stuff we’ve done as a club. Paying off players, essentially giving them their bag of cash a carriage clock to go away, it’s not an efficient way to do business. However, there’s no question that some of them were problematic and that the mood around the training ground is better and more positive without them. The ability to sell players in a mid-pandemic market, when clubs have been financially impacted and the disparity between the Premier League and other European leagues is greater than ever, is another factor which isn’t a unique problem for Arsenal but one we still have to deal with.
However, as we head towards the new campaign, I can sense an excitement and anticipation that I haven’t felt for some time. I can only speak for myself, but discussions and debates about the team, the squad and the club are generally much more positive than they have been in the not too distant past. Football fans will always worry, there’s always a desire for something more in the transfer market, but it does feel like we’re going in the right direction – and for his part in that Edu deserves some credit. We know Man City and Liverpool are some distance ahead of us at this point and there’s a lot of ground to make up, but unless that’s our actual target we’ll never do it. So, I like that.
Ultimately though, it’s easier for someone in his position to talk openly to the press (and for the club to allow it), when there’s something you can really stand behind. A well-thought out plan which involves smart recruitment and improvement in the style of football your team plays is much easier to talk about publicly than one which makes little sense and involves deals which, being diplomatic, raise eyebrows because they don’t stand up to any great scrutiny.
Like everyone, Edu has made mistakes, the football club has made mistakes too, but part of why I feel excited at the moment is that I feel like we’ve acknowledged them – perhaps not tacitly – but you can see it in how we do things now. There’s still a long way to go, but the fact we’ve quite obviously gone in a different direction to try and build something sustainable is a real step in the right direction, and hopefully that’s something that will continue as we make greater progress on the pitch this season.