Raul Sanllehi lights up a cigar. It’s the evening of Aug. 9. Arsenal’s head of football has spent the whole day at the club’s training ground in London Colney. He arrived extremely early on site and will almost certainly be one of the last one to leave.
Aug. 9 was, for those concerned, another successful day in Arsenal’s transfer window. On deadline day, and right at the wire, the Gunners signed two more players who illustrate perfectly the talent of the man the club hope can be their long-term football mastermind.
The first one was a target for a long time. To recruit Celtic and Scotland left-back Kieran Tierney, Sanllehi and his team, consisting of chief negotiator Huss Fahmy and sporting director Edu, had to work really hard. It was a long courting process that lasted all summer, with multiple offers, a lot of conversations with Celtic and a lot of brainstorming to find the right way of convincing the Scottish giants to let their best player leave. With the window hours from closing, Arsenal finally made a breakthrough, emerging with a well-structured deal and the feeling of a job well done.
By contrast, the second one was a short, well-drilled coup. Arsenal had been looking for a centre-back all summer. They secured the signing of French prodigy William Saliba but loaned him back to Saint-Etienne. They pursued various options, some more intensely (Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig, Juve’s young defender Daniele Rugani) than others. They were offered some players before learning that David Luiz could be available.
Despite Chelsea’s reluctance to let him join an immediate rival, Sanllehi used all his negotiating skills to get the deal done in little over 24 hours. Tierney and Luiz joined Brazilian forward Gabriel Martinelli, Saliba, Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe as the new players in the squad.
Six incoming players for a grand total of £45m spent.
Arsenal didn’t have much money to spend — the owner’s son and Arsenal director Josh Kroenke even quipped in July that Arsenal “have a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget” — but they budgeted their money wisely. “Sanllehi is a very intelligent man. His social skills, his charisma, his ability to be liked by people wherever they come from or whatever their background or role is are amazing. He has the gift of the gab,” explains one influential French agent who engaged with Arsenal this summer. “He makes you feel at ease. You warm to him, in confidence, and you trust him very quickly.”
Sanllehi is indeed a great talker with a commanding presence. He’s also a football man. He spent 11 years at Nike, then left to go to Barcelona as a marketing director in 2003, before being promoted to director of football in 2008. He joined Arsenal in February 2018 and became CEO in charge of football after Ivan Gazidis left for AC Milan in October 2018, with Vinai Venkatesham taking on the CEO role specifically in charge of running the club.
But more than charisma, Sanllehi’s biggest asset is his address book. Arsenal has been crying out for someone like him in recent years. Players, agents, sporting directors, CEOs: he has an incredible network of contacts. For the Pépé deal, he had a big advantage over every other club because he knew Marc Ingla, the Lille CEO, so well. They had worked together at Barcelona and Ingla’s friendship with Sanllehi meant that he was able to engineer the conditions necessary for Arsenal to successfully recruit the Ivorian international over other suitors around Europe.
Furthermore, his excellent relationship with Petr Cech since their time together at Arsenal helped him signed David Luiz from Chelsea. There was never any panic — or at least none he was showing outwardly — even with only a few hours to go before the end of the transfer window and the moves for Tierney and Luiz still not completed.
Arsenal had a very clear idea of the kind of players they wanted this summer but the genesis of this very successful transfer goes back to a few months earlier.
During a regularly scheduled meeting, manager Unai Emery and Sanllehi identified the profiles of the men they needed to attract to Arsenal: young, with the ability to increase in value over time and with the right combination pace and ball skills to play on the counterattack away from home. Dani Ceballos and Pepe satisfied those requirements to the extent that Emery and Sanllehi believe they are much better equipped to challenge the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool
No club can work all their miracles in one transfer window, of course, but Arsenal seem to have rediscovered their touch when it comes to making shrewd signings, just like they did in the early years of the Arsene Wenger era. But this is only the beginning: Sanllehi already has plans for the January and next-summer windows.
Back in March, for his 50th birthday, Raul Sanllehi could not have wished for a better year in terms of recruitment. Five months later, a cigar has never felt as sweet to him as the one he enjoyed at the training ground on Aug. 9.