What next in Arsenal's search for a director of football?
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech stands in the flare smoke engulfing The Emirates during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Arsenal and Stade Rennais at Emirates Stadium on March 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images)

What next in Arsenal's search for a director of football?

The highly-rated Sven Mislintat left his post in February, and Arsenal have been frustrated in their search for his successor

David Comerford

On the field, it seems all is well for Arsenal. Before the international break, the Gunners followed up a 2-0 victory against top-four rivals Manchester United, their biggest win of the season, with a comeback against Stade Rennais which saw them safely into the last eight of the Europa League. Whether through the domestic or continental route, there is an increasing chance they will return to the Champions League next season.

Off the pitch, though, the club has a problem. Earlier this year, it was announced that Sven Mislintat, football’s most revered talent-spotter, would be leaving his post as head of recruitment scarcely a year after his arrival. It is understood that the German was concerned by the club’s change of direction following the departure of chief executive Ivan Gazidis in September.

Gazidis’ exit prompted a top-level reshuffle at The Emirates, with Raul Sanllehi becoming head of football and Vinai Venkatesham shifting from chief commercial officer to managing director.

“The ambition we have for this club is completely possible to be achieved in the business model that we've got,” Venkatesham said in October.

But now that business model has a glaring flaw. The void left by Mislintat’s departure has yet to be filled, with the end of the season, and the subsequent transfer window, approaching fast. Executives are under mounting pressure to appoint a replacement.

The importance of a director of football

The role varies from club to club, but generally-speaking a director of football is in charge of the ins and outs. Many also seek to streamline the academy with the senior team to ensure as smooth a transition as possible for young talents. Some are more businessmen than transfer gurus: they hire, fire and set out a long-term vision.

In all, they are best seen as an intermediary between the manager and the board.

If the director of football can maintain an effective working relationship with the first-team manager, then the system can yield great success. Perhaps the best example is Liverpool, Arsenal’s Premier League rivals. There, Michael Edwards will meet with manager Jurgen Klopp, discuss which positions need to be strengthened and then draw up a shortlist of well-suited candidates. Only those equipped to thrive in Klopp's unique side are targeted, as opposed to the biggest names, and sure enough, Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson are among those to have unlocked another level at Anfield.

At Manchester City, Txiki Begiristain has overseen the acquisitions of the likes of Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Ederson, while Michael Emeanalo was instrumental in bringing Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante and Juan Mata to Chelsea.

The last two Premier League champions, and the current league leaders, have reaped the benefits of a director of football. It’s no surprise, then, that Manchester United, as well as Arsenal, are looking to add one to their ranks.

Failed pursuits

Arsenal’s first supposed target to replace Mislintat was their former midfielder Edu Gaspar, but the 40-year-old swiftly put speculation to bed by choosing to stay on as general coordinator of the Brazilian national team.

Attention then turned to renowned transfer specialist Monchi, who had worked with Unai Emery at Sevilla. The Spaniard was able to identify and acquire talented youngsters before selling them on for immense profit. He brought Ivan Rakitic, Dani Alves, Carlos Bacca, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Grzegorz Krychowiak through the doors for around €16m combined then generated a total of €122m from their sales. He truly is a master of his trade.

He was also able to rebuild the club’s scouting systems to great effect. Most notably, Sergio Ramos, who would go to become one of the most prolific winners in the game, was picked out and developed by the youth staff.

His CV was close to perfect. And there was a great deal of confidence at Arsenal that he would accept their offer.

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However, when Sevilla were dumped out of the Europa League at the hands of Slavia Prague, manager Pablo Machin was sacked and incumbent director of football Joaquin Caparros was placed in charge, leaving a vacancy which Monchi agreed to fill.

“I thank Arsenal for their interest,” he said. "It has been the club that has shown the most interest in me, but in the end, I evaluated all the offers I had on the table and I chose the one that convinced me most.”

In the end, unforeseen circumstances, and Monchi’s personal attachment to Sevilla  - “the heart never forgets the path where it left its best beats,” he tweeted at the time – foiled Arsenal.

So perfect was Monchi and so confident were Arsenal of his arrival that difficulties were bound to follow. Next, they turned to their former player Marc Overmars, but soon after their interest emerged he chose to extend his Ajax contract.

Their sensational Champions League victory over Real Madrid may well have encouraged the Dutchman to see out the exciting project.

Arsenal themselves reportedly had doubts about his suitability and pedigree. They are clearly shooting for the best and that strategy, though of course justified, is creating a potentially costly delay.

What now?

As it stands, Sanllehi and former lawyer Huss Fahmy, director of football operations, are in charge of the search and, if no successor to Mislintat is found, they will oversee recruitment in the summer.

Arsenal will want an experienced and recognised name if they are to make an external appointment, but perhaps they will choose to go internal if the search continues to frustrate.

Sanllehi may well be entrusted with the task, having served as director of football at Barcelona.

It is worth noting, though, that it was not his job to find players for the Catalan giants. Instead, he was tasked with finalising negotiations. Arsenal appointed him to work alongside Mislintat as part of an elite recruitment unit, but his task was altogether different. 

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The noise around the issue has died down this week, but a resolution can be expected soon to ensure the club can put the necessary mechanisms in place for an important transfer window.

As long as Stan Kroenke stays put, it seems Arsenal’s transfer budget will be sourced predominantly from their profits. A great degree of shrewdness is required if they are to keep pace with their big-spending competition.

Mislintat brought exactly that. Lucas Torreira for £25million stands as one of the signings of the summer, while Matteo Guendouzi and, in his limited appearances, Konstantinos Mavropanos look to be great value for money. But how will they address their remaining weaknesses?

Arsenal may well battle to fourth place this season, but if they are to sustain that progress and produce a good showing in the Champions League, quality defensive reinforcements are essential this summer, as is a replacement for the outgoing Aaron Ramsey.

Who’s to say more top players won’t follow the Welshman out the door if they feel the club aren’t being given the tools to compete?

The hierarchical reshuffle is acceptable at the beginning of a new era. But soon Arsenal will be expected to progress from this period of transition and to develop into a cohesive footballing machine which can restore the club’s great name.

They simply must get this decision right if they are to build on the promise of this campaign.

Indeed, Arsenal’s hunt for a transfer expert who can work the requisite wonders with a limited budget may well prove just as important as their search for Arsene Wenger’s successor less than a year ago.