Last August, just as Arsenal were looking forward to a new era without Arsene Wenger at the helm, Stan Kroenke completed the most underwhelming takeover in Premier League history. The American owned 67% of the north London club, but by buying out Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s shares he became sole proprietor.
This was the culmination of a boardroom power struggle that had been building for years. While Usmanov had been vocal in his belief that Arsenal should be spending more, aiming higher, Kroenke was the status quo candidate. A club that had already been lacking direction somehow managed to blur the way forward even further.
Indeed, even as Unai Emery has started to unravel the tangles of the Wenger era, Arsenal have struggled for an identity. Having hired a number of key backroom figures, including a head of recruitment, head of football operations, a contract negotiator, a performance nutritionist and a lead sports scientist, chief executive Ivan Gazidis himself left for AC Milan in September, leaving a leadership void at the top of the club.
From that a familiar sense of malaise festered, culminating in the exit of Sven Mislintat in February. The German talent-spotter, whose luring from Borussia Dortmund had been considered quite the coup for the Gunners, was left frustrated at the lack of freedom afforded to him and the reneging of a promise to eventually move him into a more prominent Director of Football position. That said a lot about the state of the north London outfit behind the scenes.
Nobody at Arsenal appears willing to take a grip of things. Kroenke might have completed a stock market takeover of the club just eight months ago, but the American has always operated in the shadows, only ever giving a handful of interviews about his involvement at the Emirates Stadium. Even those interviews were given through a sense of begrudging obligation rather than any sense of duty to the Arsenal support.
At Manchester United, their owners are similarly shy, but they have Ed Woodward as a public figurehead. Of course, many question whether Woodward is qualified to hold such a role, but at least they have an identifiable public front. Without such a figure, Arsenal are desperately lacking in guidance, in character and in ambition.
Their fans might not appreciate the suggestion, but Arsenal need a Daniel Levy. The Tottenham Hotspur chairman has, over the course of his tenure, been a much maligned figure. Spurs fans have, at various times, called for his head to roll, for a replacement more willing to open the chequebook to be found.
But while there won’t be a statue of Levy erected outside New White Hart Lane any time soon, there should be. Sentiment towards the chairman has softened in recent times now that he has a shimmering, spaceship of a stadium to point to as his legacy, but there remains an underlying sense that Levy is holding Tottenham back.
That might be true in a sense, but the role of Levy in propelling Spurs into the elite level of the English game, into the Champions League as a perennial fixture, cannot, and should not, be understated. The only reason the argument over transfer spending, or a lack thereof, holds any weight is because Levy has raised them so high.
If Arsenal want to make shrewd scouting and prudent transfer spending a cornerstone of their new era philosophy, as has been suggested many times, then Levy presents them with the ideal example to follow. Since the summer of 2014, Spurs’ net spend stands at just £29 million. For context, Liverpool’s is £183 million, Chelsea’s £200 million, Arsenal’s £225 million, Manchester United’s £466 million and Manchester City’s a whopping £518 million.
For further context… Stoke City’s net spend in the same time period stands at £65 million and West Brom’s £85 million. Ordinarily, such overachievement would be written off as a fluke (see Leicester City) or the result of a golden generation (see Ajax or Monaco), but Tottenham’s success feels more calculated. More deliberate.
Of course, the true test of Spurs’ approach would come if Pochettino were ever to leave the club, and there has been no shortage of speculation linking the Argentinean with a move away. It’s not so long ago that the north London outfit were floundering with Tim Sherwood on the touchline, so there is no room for complacency.
So holistic is Spurs’ approach, however, it’s reasonable to assume they would find someone to build on what Pochettino has done rather than someone to dismantle it. The system should sustain them, in much the same way that used to be the case at Southampton, and this is what Arsenal should be aiming for.
The hope was that Emery’s appointment, along with the hiring of several other backroom staff, would be a shift towards this. Since then, though, Arsenal have lost their way again. What do they stand for? What is a quintessential Arsenal player? If anything that term, ‘Arsenal player,’ is now used in a derogatory way.
Levy has a clear idea of what a Spurs player is and from that comes an identity for the team and the club as a whole. It’s not dependent on competing with Premier League rivals in the transfer market, as many Arsenal fans implore their club to do. There’s no guarantee that were Spurs to splash the cash they wouldn’t become just another West Ham, a club with more money than coherent thought.
In January, Arsenal only targeted players available for loan, eventually signing Denis Suarez from Barcelona until the end of the season. The Gunners are a restricted club in the transfer market and so if they are to truly punch above their weight, as is the aim, they must nail down what their principles and values are.
He is not Spurs owner, but Levy has been just as influential in moulding the club in its modern form as any Premier League owner out there. Arsenal, whose owner can’t be counted on for any sort of leadership or direction, need someone who can take things on in a similar way, someone who makes every penny work that little bit harder, but in a very specific way.
David Dein was, in many ways, Arsenal’s Levy. He too was criticised for not spending more, for not matching the ambition of rivals and for mortgaging the future of the club against the construction of a new stadium. But Dein moulded Arsenal into the most distinctive football team in the country. He was Arsenal’s Levy before Levy even pitched up at Spurs. Whether it’s a new Dein or a Levy, Arsenal need someone in this mould.