It’s not often the departure of a CEO from a football club becomes such a talking point, but Ivan Gazidis has bucked that trend. Does it matter that he’s left Arsenal? Will it disrupt the new post-Wenger era? Some fans have commented that it would be a blow if Ivan were to leave the club rudderless with an untried new team in place. I’d argue the new team can probably manage okay until a replacement is found, and there’s no need to worry – after all, Gazidis has never scored a goal or won a point, so how much effect is his departure going to have on what happens on the pitch?
Football, as has been observed before, is a funny old game. You can have a wonderful business plan and behind-the-scenes team in place and still make a right royal balls up of the on-pitch activity, or you can have a clueless set of berks in the boardroom while the team enjoys success under a maverick genius of a manager. But I think we can agree that to maximise the chance of success it helps to have the business side running smoothly and able to provide help to the football manager in the form of a fat budget for wages and transfers – which is the single most important ingredient in success – minimal interference in team matters, but the ability to get deals done on players quickly and efficiently. Those are the three big-ticket items, and after that you’re into marginal gains from facilities, travel arrangements, a stats team, supporter engagement and so on – all important in their way, but not usually difficult to get right given a reasonably competent management team for the business.
So as Gazidis heads off to Milan, which of these ingredients in the Arsenal success stew will be spoilt? Not the number one item, the budget – this season’s income is already in the bag. Next season’s money will be affected mostly by progress in the Europa League, based on performance in that competition. Otherwise unless Arsenal tank so badly in the league that relegation threatens, we can predict the rest of the income fairly accurately even 12-24 months ahead, and the likelihood is it won’t be much different to the last 12 months. The kit deal is being negotiated, but losing Ivan won’t affect that, and even if it did it’s a year away anyway. And if anything the total gained from commercial deals has been below par in the ten years Ivan has been at Arsenal, so there’s room for improvement. Who can forget the way he gave the stadium naming rights away for nothing for another 15 years, saying they were essentially worthless because everyone knows the stadium by its sponsored name now? I certainly can’t, which is why I keep repeating it. He’s obviously never noticed that many other stadiums have been renamed in recent years and everyone quickly adopts the new name and forgets the old one; that’s how it works.
So budget: fine, no change. The next two interlinked items: letting the manager manage, but doing deals for him when needed. Well Ivan never did a football-side deal for anything bigger than a new shipment of Deep Heat and some Gatorade as long as Arsène was in charge, so what actual experience has he got in the last ten years? In any case he’s put a team in place to do this, and while he was talking up his own position as decision-maker, what he really meant was that he just had possession of the rubber stamp that gets put on deals, by the delegated authority of Stan Kroenke. Clearly Kroenke will have to delegate to someone else to apply the rubber stamp on big deals until another CEO is found, but the transfer window is now shut so the number of deals is going to be limited for a few months. And I’m sure Josh Kroenke can be prevailed upon to cast his MBA-trained eye over the legal paperwork and figures on a new Ramsey contract if needed.
Meanwhile Unai Emery is an experienced manager who won’t need his hand held by Ivan or anyone else. He’s got his backroom team in place, most of the dead wood has been chopped from the coaching staff and others around the team who were previously unsackable favourites of Arsène, and everything looks nicely set up for smooth running. Arsenal have already announced that Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham will jointly lead the club as Head of Football and Managing Director, splitting some of Gazidis’s tasks.
So I just don’t see it as a big issue that Gazidis has gone or if it takes six months to appoint a new CEO. Kroenke, whatever else he is, is a businessman and understands what is needed for the role. If it was left to Chips, Lord Harris and Ken Friar I would not be confident of hiring a new tea lady, but the Kroenkes do at least have business nous. Believe me, I have many other issues with them, but I’d trust them to find a CEO. If Gazidis had left while Wenger was still running everything football-related – ie before last season – I think the problem would have been much bigger. For one thing you’d need a CEO who wouldn’t really be a CEO, as Wenger would still take precedence. But now? New structure in place, roles back in line with the traditional approach, dead wood gone – everything looking hunky dory.
And it’s a chance for a new man to come in and do a job from day one, rather than wait nine years before really starting. Gazidis followed Keith Edelman, who had sorted the stadium debt into a very manageable package, so Ivan had nothing to do there, and with David Dein gone Arsène had already taken over everything else. It’s a different world now; a structured world that Ivan has largely put in place over the last year – the one thing for which I will applaud him. I believe the foundations are strong enough to stand the loss of any single person without interrupting anything. So off you go, Ivan. Have fun, and I for one will not miss being coated in the snake oil you’ve so enthusiastically sold us over the years.
(A version of this article appeared in The Gooner fanzine in August.)