Arsenal once again held their annual supporters’ clubs Q & A with Vinai Venkateshem, Raul Sanllehi and Edu on Thursday, 25th July. Consider this write-up an ‘extended highlights’ package. It’s not every single word, but it’s very much the meat.
Vinai and Raul took the stage first, for a conversation with compere Nigel Mitchell. Some highlights from that part.
Raul Sanllehi: “The young players were very good (on the recent US tour), but this is like a long cook, you cannot rush it. It’s great that they did well, but we need to protect them. But we’re very pleased with them, not just their performance, but their attitude on the training ground.”
Vinai Venkatesham: “The commercial highlight of the tour was launching our partnership with adidas in Denver and launching the new away kit in LA. These are our best-selling kits for many years, so that was a real highlight.”
RS: “We’re very, very pleased with the two announcements from today. They’re very different in nature and expectation. We’re very pleased and proud to get Ceballos done, many top clubs in Europe wanted this player. We like the player because of the position he plays and the way he comes out with the ball.
“Saliba was different, part of the deal is for him to be on loan for one year with his club. We are pleased about that because the level of intensity and the level of demand in the Premier League is very strong. He’s probably too young for that yet, as I said, we need to protect our young talent. We think it will be good for him to be in a less demanding league to continue his formative period, so we’ll have a top defender for a decade. He saw for his career path, the perfect solution for him.
“Cabellos is one of the top young players in Europe. He is a Real Madrid player and I say that with pain, because when I was at Barca I tried to sign him. He wasn’t getting enough game time with Zidane, but we have a good relationship with the club and I knew the player, so we saw this as a win-win for us and Real Madrid.
“He is fanatical about football. I can tell you that for the last two weeks he has been studying Arsenal and every player and this was part of why we brought him in. He is a loan player but he has a big commitment.”
VV: “We know we are not where we want to be as a club. If we had finished 3rd and won the Europa League last season, we would be saying the same thing. We have to find a way to compete for the biggest trophies and we aren’t doing that at the moment. There has been a huge amount of change at the club over the last 14 months in pretty much every single area.
“We have moved from the traditional manager model to a model where we have a Head Coach. There have probably been more than 40 ins and outs on the football side in that time. Per Mertesacker is head of the academy, Freddie Ljungberg and Steve Bould have changed roles, Edu joined us a few days ago. So that’s a big change with people that know this club.
“We’ve got a new commercial director, people director, Edu and Huss Fahmy have joined, Raul and I are in new roles. There is a new transition team in place on how we manage players from the U-23 team to the first team. So much of the change has been because we’re not where we want or need to be and we need to get better and to improve. The results won’t come straight away, it will take some time.”
At this point, Vinai and Raul explain the football structure of the club, much of which, by their own admission, was covered in the interview they undertook with Arsenal.com in May.
RS: “The academy is very important, not just financially, because we cannot just buy all the talent. But also because we want people in the dressing room who can teach what the badge is for and what Arsenal stands for. Why certain traditions are important.
“We are very happy with the appointment of Edu, not just because of his proven knowledge of football, he has been very successful as a Technical Director at Corinthians and with the Brazilian national team. It wasn’t just his knowledge, we needed him to fit at Arsenal and who better than an Invincible to do that?
“We first met when Brazil played Uruguay [at the Emirates last November]. We had a good conversation, but it was hard to have the conversation because every two minutes someone would come and interrupt to say hello. He knew everyone at Colney, so he was already part of the club. We started talking about the possibility of him joining and his face changed, his eyes lit up.
“He was very excited. He was in a very stable job, he was at the top of the pyramid because he was in the Brazilian national team, but he really wanted to come here. He needs to have a strong relationship with the first team, he needs to know the squad in and out, he needs to know the Head Coach. They need to talk football all day, they need to plan ahead, he needs to plan ahead.
“Unai is the coach and his job is very results oriented. Edu is not the opposite of that but the complement of that, he needs to think medium and long-term. He needs to know the academy, he needs to know the coordination of the talent we have coming up. He also needs to know all of the scouts and to coordinate them, in England and internationally. His football knowledge is high, his Arsenal identity is total and he has a connection with the coach.”
Edu joins Vinai and Raul on stage.
Edu: “It’s always good to be back home and I feel really at home here. When I walk around and see photos and people and some of the staff who were still here when I was playing, I feel at home and I hope to continue like that. I missed being here and I still talk to many of the guys I played with. I know the job is not easy.
“I had been talking with Raul and Vinai about taking this job since about December and I am looking forward to do the best I can, like I did on the pitch. I closed a book when I stopped playing and I opened another one as a sporting director, so I want to write another chapter here. I have been following the squad and the team and their system.
“Unai has been here for one year and he has done very well, but I am excited to see what he can do with a similar squad with a couple of signings. When we see how the players get used to the system of the coach for longer, it makes much more sense to me. Raul has worked very hard to find more players, but I am excited also to work with the players we have.
“I have to look after ‘the base’ the people at the training ground. The staff all have to work in the same way. That is very important for the players. Data and analysis is a big area for us too, to make sure we have good people and information to help us. But I have to look after, not just today, but the medium term and the long term.
“We also have to look after today and what we have now. This is very important and the players have to feel that, they have to feel important. Signings are about the future, but you also have to take care of what you have now, they have to feel comfortable. They [the current players] are the most important people, I need to invest my time to be close to them. I have to make them stronger. Playing here [at the Emirates] is beautiful, our training ground is wonderful, we have to enjoy that and be happy.”
At this point, the Q & A from the floor starts.
A question from the floor about whether Arsenal plan to sign a centre-half for this season.
RS: “I cannot say a name because I wouldn’t be doing my job. If I say a name, I walk out the door tonight and he’s £10m more expensive. The transfer window is a moving target, I have been doing this for 16 years now and I know that some windows are harder than others. This is a particularly hard window. When I talk with other clubs, this is a common knowledge.
“There is a bit of stagnation in the market and you don’t see the number of signings you normally see just yet. I don’t know exactly how things will turn out, but I can assure you we are working every hour of every day. I think it’s a bit like school, where you evaluate your grade at the end of the school year and not in the middle.
“What is most important is to talk with the coach, about how he is feeling about the team, what system he wants to play. He knows more than anyone, more than me, about what he wants. We’re going to do our best and we will keep working, but I will not mention any names.
“Edu joined us recently and is doing great work, but he is not going to be responsible for this window, I want to make this very clear. His real job is going to start in September and he will start planning and working with scouts then. Having said that, he is helping us now, but it would be unfair to say this window is him.”
A very long rambling question from the floor, which can be summed up as, “why have we only got £40m to spend on transfers?”
VV: “I don’t recognise this £40m figure, I have read it a lot. That doesn’t come from us, that doesn’t come from the club. The numbers never come from us. We never ever, ever, ever talk about how much money we have to spend because that’s the least helpful thing you can do. Raul’s job is hard enough, if you go into a negotiation and everyone knows how much money you’ve got, it doesn’t really help.
“It is true that our funds are more limited after three years in the Europa League, but the budget isn’t £40m. We have the budget to make a difference, but as Raul says, this is a particularly tough window and we’re in the middle of it. I sense and understand the frustration, but there is a huge amount of misinformation out there in the market.
“I read and am sent articles about players we’re supposed to have missed out on and they’re players we’ve never even talked about. I get why sometimes it’s hard for fans to understand what we’re doing, but I’d say that’s because about 85% of what you read just isn’t true.”
A question about safe standing at the Emirates.
VV: “The government are going to consider the rules as to whether they will allow safe standing or not. I don’t know how long that will take. Yes we are in favour of safe standing, in principle. The Emirates wasn’t built for safe standing because it was built prior to 2006, so implementing safe standing is quite complicated.
“You can only do safe standing in the lower tier and the lower tier here has a very shallow rake. So there is a risk of a whole load of seat kills, because you have to take lots of seats out. So what we’re trying to work out now is what the impact would be on attendance if we took seats out and had safe standing. We’re in favour in principle, but until we understand the impact on capacity, it’s difficult for us to say we are definitely going to do it.”
A question about the club’s short-termism over the last 10-15 years.
RS: “I get the frustration, really I do. If we keep saying we are terrible we won’t get anywhere. The last fans’ forum, the fourth or fifth time someone asked me why I left Barcelona to join Arsenal, I had to stop and say I have been congratulated all over the football world for coming here. I used to represent Barca at UEFA and the ECA, all the top clubs congratulated me for joining Arsenal.
“I am still very excited when I see what this club stands for, what it means, its dimensions. These facilities, this stadium. This stadium is fantastic and the training ground at Colney is outstanding. I look at our players, they are good players. They’re very good players and they are getting into a system, but it’s going to take them time.
“Please don’t get me wrong, I cannot sleep when my team is not winning, I am not happy. Without that passion we cannot go anywhere, but please let’s be objective and have a little bit of patience. This project over the last 14 months has seen incredible changes, if we expect results in just one season, it’s impossible. But if we kill it now, we will have to start all over again. Last season we scored more goals, we fought for 3rd place until the final game, we got to a European final.
“We didn’t do it, but it was an improvement. I hear lots of people talk here about supporting with their fathers and their grandfathers and that is great, without history, legends, statues, pictures, you don’t have a club, you don’t have Arsenal. There are clubs out there who would kill to have that. They are richer now and they are winning trophies, but they still don’t have what we have here, so let’s use it in positive but not the negative.”
VV: “We totally get the frustration, we are not where we want to be. We know people want to see actions and not hear words, unfortunately, this is a Q & A so we can only give you words tonight. There has been a lot of change over the last 14 months and it’s all pointed to getting back to where we need to be and we have a much better chance of doing that with our fans behind us.
“The ultimate objective is to get back to competing for the Premier League and the Champions League. The first step in that objective is getting back into the Champions League, that’s our short term objective, but it’s not where we want to go long-term. We need to be realistic, we’re probably not going to get from where we are to winning the Premier League next season, what we’re trying to do first is get back into the Champions League, but that’s not the ultimate objective.”
At this point, Raul, Edu and Vinai leave and Arsenal Women boss Joe Montemurro takes the stage, I will write up his comments in a separate article.