The title of this headline is exactly what is wrong at Arsenal FC. Nothing sums up the imbalance of power or the lack of leadership and vision quite like the flow of people telling you that this ‘Mini Arsene’ term is bandied around in the unkindest of ways.
Arsene Wenger was a monster of a leader for the first 14 years of his tenure. He controlled the club with an iron fist because he had deep battle scars and a tremendous body of victories under his belt. When David Dein left the club, he took control because he could, and the club wanted him to.
That was a dangerous model to embrace regardless of his talents. The power of ‘one man’ control is only good for as long as the talent is fresh. If the person has a decline in ideas or starts to lose the curiosity that drove them to success, your system fails, and usually… dictators surround themselves with sycophants, so you end up being the emperor with no clothes on, with no one to tell you your saggy backside in the kitchen is unacceptable.
Usually, good businesses learn and put systems in place to avoid history repeating. Lots of businesses don’t have succession plans, then a CEO dies, and all hell breaks loose. That mistake happens once. I suspect Steve Jobs death inspired a whole industry of consultants to help mega-corps with that issue. Countries elect flamboyant charismatic leaders who promise the world, then fail to deliver, so the next few times they opt for something far more boring and bureaucratic. Wall Street had a moment after Adam Neuman convinced the world his office rental firm was not a technology company worth £49b. Big tech stocks tanked, it was harder to raise capital, and the books were scrutinized for real numbers. There are always lessons to be learned… unless you are Arsenal FC.
No club makes more consistent mistakes in leadership than Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta is a persuasive man and transactional in the extreme. He is the Donald Trump of football management. That doesn’t mean he isn’t talented on the coaching field, despite what we’ve seen this season, most will tell you his ideas are compelling. The club knew Arteta was a pain when he was at Arsenal the first time around, he was aggressive and fought hard for his teammates and himself. I was very pointedly told at the time he was ‘a bit of a shit’ when he was a player, and there was a worry his nasty side would carry through.
Now, the player and the coach can be different. People can change and often do. Arsene Wenger in his book admits his authoritarian stage at Monaco softened in Japan as he learned to deal with different cultures. However, what you do with young leaders in big jobs is you surround them with an infrastructure that softens their sharp weaknesses.
There are some really simple things you can do in football and any business to make that transition easier and ensure the club always has control.
- Limit power to the specifics of the job. Arteta was hired as a coach, he should have remained a coach. ‘Manager’ should never have been put on the table. My last boss was obsessed with balancing the power of departments in our agency because if the power dynamic is off, bad decisions are made, morale is shaken, and the work suffers. It’s a simple notion, ‘do what you are good at/paid to do’ but we have all worked in businesses where others encroach on territory that is not theirs because it’s nice to have power. Just look at Don Raul thinking he knew better than Sven Mislintat. The better talent left, we are left with the wreckage of that departmental power imbalance.
- Create a simple hierarchy that empowers experienced leaders to manage, coach, and overrule if necessary. If you go for a young tyrant, you absolutely have to have an experienced Technical Director ruling over them. I tell this story every time: after Nagelsmann lost the Champions League semi with Leipzig, he jokingly complained he wanted an older profile of player, but ‘Ralph says no.’ The best young manager in the world was about 30 years old, to succeed, he needed a wiser head to tell him no and to work within the structure he had been given. Now that manager is at Bayern. Do you think he’d be at Bayern if he’d taken the job at Arsenal? No chance.
- Limit the hires and control the important ones to avoid echo chambers and fiefdom building. Someone tweeted a picture of about 62 (exaggeration) coaches coming out of the tunnel yesterday. A striking image. 62 people watched Arteta put Kolasinac into central defence and no one suggested an intervention. No one questioned a rejected players mental state, no one questioned his commitment, no one spoke about the implications for the fans, they just let it happen. The equivalent of seeing a plane engine on fire and assuming someone else will flag it. Young managers don’t know what’s best. Arsenal should have controlled who Arteta was allowed to hire and they should have brought in someone who had a reputation that wasn’t dependent on Arteta himself. What have we got now? A mix of journeymen and kids who are dependent. That’s how you get to sycophancy and a one voice top down culture. That’s not good in football or any business.
- Do as Netflix does. Build-in feedback loops. The basic premise of always-on feedback is that you create a culture of honesty. The quicker the feedback comes into you, the quicker you can rectify erroneous behavior. Has anyone sat down with Arteta and told him how his behaviour impacts players, staff, and fans? No one is born a good leader. You learn through experience. Hearing harsh truths is painful, but it allows you to grow. Does it look like Arteta is growing into the role, or regressing into something different?
If people are leaking against you and calling you a Mini-Arsene, it means you have too much power, with too little credit to back that power.
What does all of this tell you?
There’s no leadership at Arsenal. There are no consequences for failure, incoherrance, or wastage.
It is 100% clear that Vinai has no feel for the football side of things, no understanding when it comes to staff morale at Arsenal, and no guts for making tough decisions.
Let’s look at some of the decisions that have been made over the last two years.
Vinai fired 50 staff at Arsenal, pleading poverty. Then signed Willian for £250k a week. Then held back a few weeks until the story died down, then he sacked the club mascot. The story was so bad, Mesut Ozil ran with it to bury the club even harder.
Let’s talk about Willian. Vinai was at the club when we dished out a £350k a week contract for Mesut Ozil. He saw the decline in performance, he saw the fan angst over the deal, he saw the bottom line cost. Just as we were moving him out the door, what did he sign off on? Willian on £250k a week for 3 years. He did this deal with an agent that was toxicly involved in club affairs, had already started loading us up with shite players, and had ties to an exec we had moved on. In fact, I think the contract announcement was photographed at the house of the said agent.
He was also at the table when Arsene was fussing over the wattage of bulbs in the Arsenal canteen. He saw what an all-powerful coach could do to a club. So after it looked like he’d made a sharp decision with Arteta, what did he do? Let a 37-year-old launch a land grab for a promotion. He made Arteta the manager, then demoted Edu, and worse… he made Edu sit on his lawn and tell the world he was happy to be demoted.
What makes this even worse? He was basically co-CEO with Raul who ran the club so badly, he was fired 5 weeks into an audit by Tim Lewis. Vinai literally experienced the nightmare that is co-leadership, yet he bestowed it on the two most important people on the football side of things, after years of average structure.
Then we roll into this summer after our worst season in living memory… and what changed?
Arteta kept his coaching staff largely intact, despite big problems in the keeping department. He kept Edu in his job, despite overseeing a vast amount of wastage in the system. He didn’t change a single thing. We are in ‘let’s have another go’ territory.
Name a CEO at a major club that would operate that way? That is rudderless leadership.
Then let’s move onto the Technical Director. If I were him, I’d smell blood in the water with Arteta, I’d be in the press setting expectations, I’d be talking up the player recruitment vision, I’d be trying to connect with the fans.
What is he doing?
He’s spent the summer sharing his vacations like he’s a 22-year-old on a trust fund gap year.
People call this line of attack petty, but I guarantee you that those views never come from people that work in serious jobs where optics are important. When you ‘lead’ a department, how you are perceived with your customers is of the highest importance, especially in an industry where your customers are very emotional. Vacation snaps are for private, it’s bad judgement to be having fun when your club is burning. If you are going on a yacht trip, do not share pictures of the agent that lumped the club with Willian and Soares in the picture, and for god’s sake, do not share with the world that you are still in contact with a grim ex-exec that was sacked for grim things. BBQ post-Brentford? I mean, come on. This is the level of acumen we are dealing with, but my question, once again, is where is Vinai in all of this?
When I worked for an American agency, one of my pals I worked with slandered a jewellery brand at 9pm London time. The New York CEO shot her a text almost instantly and told her the jewellry brand was a client, to take it down, and to never do something so stupid again. You shouldn’t have to be told at Edu’s level, but the fact Vinai has no control over it tells a story.
Then you move onto Mikel Arteta. The concept of a young manager was an interesting one, but now, I have to accept, one that has failed miserably on many levels. The problem now is the metaphorical fuse has been lit, his rep with the fans is dead because of his arrogance, and let’s be real… the way he treats people has left a bitter taste in the mouth.
… but it didn’t need to be that way and good leadership could have averted the disaster unfolding now.
Just look at the behaviours that have been allowed to pass. The Brentford press conference was a disgrace and it set the tone for a dismal game. Win that, we’re 4 points off the top of the league after playing the two best teams. He sunk that game with his attitude.
Look at what happened at Manchester City. He rolled out a Kia right back who dropped a 40% pass completion rate and contribute almost nothing defensively a week after we saw him drop a stinker against Chelsea. He was allowed to galaxy brain the central defence with a player he has absolutely humiliated with average loan spells and a summer of ‘we would like you to do one’ talks over deal termination.
You earn the right to galaxy brain. He has not earned the right to do things like that. Where was his team? Where was the Technical Director? Where is Vinai now?
Mikel Arteta doesn’t have a feel for the fans and he doesn’t have a feel for people in general. But that’s ok, lots of talented people have weaknesses. But who is there to help him? Steve Round? Clearly not. If you or I were at the club we could explain to him how his decisions affect the fanbase.
If you are going to bomb Saliba off on loan without looking at him again, you have to be sure that Pablo Mari, a man who couldn’t get a deal in Europe before Brazil, is at the right level.
If we are going to lose the City game, you absolutely have to put a likeable team out there, because Soares is going to make distrust you even more. Kolasinac is a direct hit to your non-negotiables. Xhaka pining a midfield on his own despite the fans watching him struggle with speed for 5 years is going to be a problem.
No one is there to stop a tyrant from behaving like a brat, so he keeps on doing the same thing.
There is no more than 10 games to save this disaster of a season and if he gets the sack, it is more than deserved. But what I cannot emphasize enough is the silver bullet we are looking for does not exist in a system this broken. Great managers need controls, why do you think Conte never lasts more than 3 years? He tries to make a play for the steering wheel and he’s told no. BIg clubs need vision, structure, and someone who can make the big calls. Technical Directors need a level of maturity we lack, and if they have no power, why do you have one at all?
Big changes needs to happen. There needs to be consequences for the start to season we’ve had and how last season rolled out. But it can’t be token, it needs to be a change that has a strategic lens over it. What we have doesn’t work. What we have won’t work for anyone. If Wenger, Emery, Sven and Arteta can’t survive this system… no one can.
Before I leave, I want to point to some positives. We’re not in a relegation fight this season. We have not signed 6 bums this window. When our best players come back after the break, there will be a big improvement in the football. We’ll get a right back, we’ll move on a bunch of players, and the spine of our team will repair. This squad is not a bag of mess, the right coach will take it to higher levels, the strategy of this summer might look odd now, but it was mostly done properly. You might read this line and say ‘but you just hammered the club’… yes, I did, a functional club goes so much deeper than the squad… 5 wins on the bounce won’t change the truth. Nor would 10. The club lacks leadership and until that’s fixed, we’ll always be searching for the silver bullet that doesn’t exist, and we’ll always feel like there’s no stability.
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