It is not unusual to hear Kia Joorabchian offering his thoughts via TalkSport but, when he began discussing David Luiz’s future 10 days ago, ears pricked up among many who deal regularly with Arsenal. One particular line from the agent served as a flashing light. The Premier League’s contract deadline of 23 June was fast approaching and Joorabchian believed there was plenty of work to do. “There are several issues within the whole structure that will be resolved,” he said, before returning to the theme of his high-profile client.
Joorabchian’s working relationship with the Arsenal hierarchy is no secret, and he was perfectly entitled to provide a commentary. But for some who have harboured reservations about his influence it was, as one puts it, the final straw. However it was intended, the statement felt overly familiar with the club’s internal concerns. The events that followed have shed light on the identity crisis evolving within Arsenal, which has caused dismay among former and existing staff.
The worry is that Arsenal, once famously resourceful, have entrusted too much responsibility for recruitment to a narrow list of associates that includes Joorabchian, a super-agent with a storied past in helping broker big deals and a long-time friend of the technical director, Edu.
There is, of course, nothing to stop them working together, and there are many ways to address squad-building requirements. But eyebrows were raised on Tuesday when the 33-year-old David Luiz, one of the club’s highest earners at a time when Covid-19 and a poor season have forced some difficult financial decisions, was enlisted for a further year.
Perhaps more jarring was the fact Cédric Soares, the 28-year-old who had been prevented by injury from making his debut since joining on loan from Southampton, was tied down on a long-term deal that effectively makes him the deputy right-back.
Both players are represented by Joorabchian and his company, Sports Invest UK.
Transfers of that nature would, while entirely legitimate, have been anathema under Arsène Wenger. He generally shied away from deals with bigger-name agents and had little time for heavy investments in older players. But Joorabchian’s hand has been evident in a clutch of moves involving Arsenal in the past year, the first being a move that was completed on 8 August, a month after Edu, a former player, returned to Arsenal. The Football Association’s list of intermediary transactions, released this week, shows Sports Invest UK represented Arsenal in Alex Iwobi’s £35m move to Everton.
Iwobi’s and Everton’s side of the deal was, according to the list, overseen separately by the agency that represents the player. It is not unusual for different parties to work on the different ends of a transfer, even more so when involving moves from abroad, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing. Some experienced industry figures simply point out that given Arsenal and Everton are familiar rivals and worked together 18 months previously when Theo Walcott made the same move it appears a convoluted way to have done business.
David Luiz arrived from Chelsea on the same day and Soares followed in January. Willian, another Joorabchian client, has been linked with a summer arrival although the Observer understands that while there is strong interest on Arsenal’s part no final decision has been made on his future.
The fear in certain quarters is that Arsenal’s executive team are wed to a select set of voices and marginalising those with an alternative view, particularly when it comes to transfers and planning. Nobody doubted the club’s approach needed modernising in the post-Wenger era and that is why there was surprise when Sven Mislintat, the head of recruitment, moved on in February 2019.
Since then, the suggestion is that Arsenal have surrendered a coherent approach to player-spotting and handed too much power to the contacts books of Edu and the head of football, Raúl Sanllehi. Some members of staff are believed to feel frozen out and there is particular angst that Arsenal, who also conducted a revamp of their academy staff in November, may be losing ground in any chase for the best young players. One former employee claims the club’s approach no longer fitted their values and the high-performance culture fostered under Wenger has been allowed to ebb away.
There is a view that Arsenal’s hierarchy are awkward customers. It has not gone unnoticed among certain club personnel over the past two seasons that certain agents and contacts do not return calls as frequently. One player representative says he sighs inwardly when an Arsenal number shows up on his phone; another is strongly critical of their communication skills.
It goes without saying that everyone in the picture has their own agenda and that every agent has clients’ interests to look after. That is all part of the game but it becomes more problematic when, as some suggest has occurred, potential deals begin to falter.
For all the structural issues the biggest problem is, another source says, a “lack of relevant brains”. Arsenal are well known, as per the words of their director Josh Kroenke, to be operating a “Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget”, and given their league position that will not change unless Mikel Arteta is given the squad clearout he desires this summer. That means they ideally require value – and preferably resale value – in the market, operating more like Borussia Dortmund or RB Salzburg than Barcelona or Real Madrid.
“Finally Arsenal have people who really understand football and are footballing people in the back-room staff,” Joorabchian said in a separate TalkSport interview last July, referencing Sanllehi and Edu. “But the question is whether or not the finances will be made available.”
If not, then what? The bigger issue appears to be whether Sanllehi, who helped bring Neymar to Barcelona, and the former Brazil general manager Edu have the expertise to run Arsenal in a lean, streamlined fashion according to those parameters. Another figure familiar with their way of working does not believe so, suggesting Arsenal risk being a “mid-table team within three to four years” if nothing changes.
There remains enough promise to remove such doomsday scenarios. The acquisitions of Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba a year ago showed that elements are still in place for Arsenal to find players with a genuine chance of becoming high-class performers. Match-winning contributions by Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock at Southampton on Thursday were reminders the academy, can still turn up wonders. To realise all that potential, though, the sense is that Arsenal need to remember exactly how those things became true.