The Sanllehi effect: Aaron Ramsey’s contract withdrawal is evidence of a new-found ruthlessness at Arsenal

On September 18th, Arsenal confirmed long-serving CEO Ivan Gazidis’ departure in order to take up a role at AC Milan. Vinai Venkatesham, formerly the chief commercial officer at the club, and Raul Sanllehi were officially announced as Gazidis’ successors.

Given his background, it can be safely assumed that Venkatesham will have little to no input into footballing matters at the club. Sanllehi, meanwhile, is almost certain to have a say over future goings on on the pitch.

On September 27th, the BBC reported that the Gunners had withdrawn their contract offer to Aaron Ramsey, despite an agreement over terms having apparently been in place. Ramsey is now almost certain to leave the Emirates Stadium as a free agent when his current contract with the club expires at the end of the season.

These two high profile events occurring at the club within ten days of each other could be coincidental, but that is unlikely. Rather, the effects of Sanllehi’s instalment at the top of the club’s UK-based hierarchy already appear to be being felt. 

Sanllehi is a new figure in North London. Arsenal announced his arrival, to take up the role of ‘head of football relations’ (a roundabout way of calling him a director of football, probably imposed in light of Arsene Wenger’s previously publicly expressed distaste for the position), on November 28th 2017.

Given that the last 12 months has been a period of intense change at Arsenal, the Spaniard’s appointment may have flown somewhat under the radar. In fact, at the time of writing, a search of his name on the Gunners’ own website returns just eight entries, of which just two are really about him – a poor return for perhaps now the most powerful man at the club on a day to day basis. 

As it is, little is known about Sanllehi amongst many Arsenal fans. Prior to his arrival in England, the 49-year-old was director of football at Barcelona for a decade, and spent around 15 years with the Blaugrana in total. 

In Spain, Sanllehi played a key role in bringing Neymar to the Camp Nou. His presence was also heavily felt in the transfers of Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ivan Rakitic. In his 10 years as director of football, in which time he worked under three club presidents – Joan Laporta, Sandro Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu – Sanllehi saw Barcelona achieve unprecedented success in both domestic and European competitions. 

Central to Barca’s golden period in this time was their headstrong attitude towards maintaining and prioritising the club’s best interests when it came to negotiating transfer and contract policy. These ideals have been sorely lacking at Arsenal for a number of years.

The long-running contract sagas concerning the futures of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (amongst others), the loss of key figures like Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri to direct domestic rivals, and an inability to demand the highest price in return for their most attractive assets have all damaged the Premier League club as both a brand and a footballing entity. 

For a long time change was needed and change has now come. Arsene Wenger was replaced this summer by Unai Emery – a decision Sanllehi is known to have had a say in as part of a three-man panel alongside Gazidis and Sven Mislintat.

Earlier in 2017, Arsenal appointed a renowned contract negotiator, Huss Fahmy. In September, American businessman Stan Kroenke became the first 100% owner in the club’s history. Gazidis’ exit completed the overhaul and hailed the full realisation of a new era at Arsenal; a very new, very modern, very different Arsenal.

One of the few surviving recognisable features was the presence of a high-profile and extended contract saga. An overhang from the old regime, the Gunners were once again facing the prospect of losing one their star players as a free agent or else giving in to his contract demands. In these circumstances, all of the negotiating power is in the player’s court. 

Exact details of Ramsey’s contract demands have not been made public. However, given his powerful bargaining position, his quality, age profile and status at the club as longest-serving player and two-time FA Cup final hero, the terms being requested will certainly have been significant. 

In January, Ozil was handed a new long-term contract by the club – who found themselves in desperate circumstances – worth around £350,000 a week, as reported by the BBC. The knock-on effect of this agreement will be a raising of the bar in terms of expected wages by first team players at Arsenal, especially big stars such as Ramsey.

However, whilst Ramsey is undoubtedly a quality footballer, his importance to Arsenal is debatable. Capable as he is of magic moments and strong performances in big matches, there are elements of the Welshman’s game that frustrate and leave much to be desired.

What’s more, there does not appear to be a natural place for the 27-year-old in Emery’s starting XI alongside Ozil. When playing together, both Ramsey and the German strive to take up the same positions and dictate the game themselves – this is not conducive to a cohesive, effective attack.

Both Ramsey and Ozil expect to be starters at Arsenal. Ozil is certainly paid to be. In a one-or-the-other situation, which may well have now actually arisen, the club would be foolish to back the man with no long-term contract ahead of their highest-ever paid player who has agreed to stay until 2021. In light of this, for the good of the club –  both financially and in terms of squad harmony – Ramsey is unfortunately expendable.

Despite this, following extended negotiations under the watch of Gazidis, the club had agreed certainly lucrative new terms with the ex-Cardiff City midfielder. Until that is, in the aftermath of Sanllehi succeeding the former CEO, the offer was rescinded. 

Finally, Arsenal appear to be making the hard decisions. Caving to Ramsey’s demands would have been easy and would have undoubtedly satisfied a large portion of the fanbase. It would not, however, have moved the club forward, and would potentially have lumbered Emery with two big name, highly-paid playmakers both vying for the same spot in the team. 

Saying no to Ramsey, and electing to instead move forward in a new direction without him was a ruthless, calculated call made with the good of the club taking precedence over the wishes of the individual player. It’s been a long time coming, but Arsenal look to have at last developed the thick skinned, self-preserving mentality that is the driving force behind all successful, elite clubs.

They almost certainly have Sanllehi to thank for that.