Another summer is here and that means another Ivan Gazidis Q & A was upon us - Tim Stillman was there for Arseblog News.
These events have become notably larger over the last few years. Both in terms of attendees inside the plush Club Level Woolwich Suite and of course, with social media running over the event with a digital comb, you get the sense that all Arsenal eyes are on this high ceilinged room in North London.
Upon entry, attendees are given a voucher for a free drink and 30 minutes to quaff it whilst renewing acquaintances. It’s actually a rather short time for a pint and a natter and you suspect that’s intentional. If the club are about to throw open the floor to supporters intent on grilling the CEO, they probably want those in charge of the microphone to be judiciously sober whilst doing so.
The account below isn’t quite verbatim because, well, there are only so many muscles in the human hand and I went into battle wielding only a ballpoint and a bound notebook. So the answers are a tad (but not enormously) paraphrased and slightly shortened. I’m confident that I haven’t compromised any of the meanings of Ivan Gazidis’ answers; however, I’ve just tried to transmit the key messages, clarify what the questions were and thrown some of my own opinion in for good measure. Think of it like a set of minutes at one of your work meetings. Only with greater emphasis on multi-million pound transactions and less on the contents of your canteen’s vending machine.
As you’d expect from Gazidis, it was a polished performance, every word was deliberated and measured and the answers tended to have a thread running through them. He continued to clarify that the manager had resources available to him and that his job was to make sure those resources were as considerable as possible. He was consistent with the message that he was responsible for off the pitch matters and supporting Arsene Wenger as much as possible, but that Wenger makes the football decisions and is trusted to do so.
Gazidis is savvy enough to know what the most commonly aired criticisms of the club are. Arsenal consider the criticisms made of them on the net and in the media and social networking and you can see that they move to address some of those in their messaging. For instance, there’s a common perception that the club and the CEO have thrown all of their eggs into the Financial Fair Play basket. Whereas, at this event last year, Gazidis extolled the virtues of FFP and hailed the fact that “Football is moving towards us, not vice versa” this year he was much more circumspect, this time saying that, whilst Arsenal have pushed for and encouraged FFP, that “It will depend on the will of UEFA and the Premier League, we can’t control that.”
This tweet from @Detective82 sums up Gazidis’s quandary quite nicely, he’s caught between respecting the manager’s autonomy in the transfer market and pressuring Arsene Wenger to spend the money the club has generated. I detect the sense that Gazidis wants to make it clear that the cash has never been held back from Arsene Wenger, but he wants to stop short of looking as though he is pointing the finger. It’s interesting that the question about the manager’s contract came from the compeer Dan Roebuck, it didn’t come from any of the supporters’ clubs present. At least not in the way it was phrased. Gazidis was rather emphatic in his assertion that the club wanted to renew Wenger’s contract. One can infer that that was a message Gazidis wanted in the public domain and it came right at the start of the meeting.
He also reiterated that the “flat” or “socialist” wage structure was no more. He confirmed exactly the same last summer but was perhaps less assertive in his language. Last June, he spoke cautiously (and reasonably) about the flat wage structure gradually being in the process of phasing out with unwanted players. This time, he switched the focus and talked about paying top money for top players, he referred more to incomings than outgoings, which always fires the fan’s imagination and tickles the fancy of memory a little more.
Anyway, here is largely how the evening went down. As usual, proceedings began with the slow-mo highlights reel from the 2012-13 season. (Gazidis was still self aware enough to be sardonic about that later in the evening, remarking, “It’s all very well us watching a video of us finishing 4th in the last moments of the season again.”) Once the collages (which mainly featured Cazorla and Wilshere) with their militaristic Terminator-esque music had elapsed, there was a disarming “thank you” message for the supporters from Arsene Wenger.
Looking at the season past, Gazidis was a touch lugubrious, describing the season as, “Not a classic. We were disappointed that we weren’t competing for trophies and we were deeply disappointed with the domestic cup competitions. As for the league, we never really got into it, we had a poor start but finished strongly that retrieved our position and it ended satisfactorily, nothing more. I don’t think anybody is celebrating or considering the season a massive achievement, we’re pleased we got over the line into the Champions League, but nothing more. That’s not all we’re trying to do.”
He went onto point out that, “It’s a big summer. We’ve been working very, very hard to gain the kind of financial capability we need as a football club to be at the very top end of the game. The ambition that me, Stan Kroenke, Arsene Wenger, the players, our staff and I know all of the fans have is to be competing to win the Premier League and Champions League. If we’re at that level, the trophies will come. Those long term commercial deals have come up for renewal. You know about the Emirates deal, I can’t talk about the kit deal yet but we’re confident of a good result there too. It’s all about giving us the capability to go to the manager and to say ‘here is the money for you to compete. That’s why we’re in this stadium and that’s what we want to do.”
At this point, Dan Roebuck interjected and asked about the manager’s contract situation, which Gazidis gave a rather emphatic answer, “It’s no secret that we think he has done a fantastic job and we think we can give him the tools he needs. We want to extend his deal, but I don’t want to do that via the media, we’ll do it in private. He’s fit, he’s healthy, he’s driven and he still wants to be at the top of the game. When we’re thinking about trusting someone with the type of money we will have, we can think of nobody better than Arsene. It’ll be done quietly and announced at the right time, like it always has been.”
There followed some questions from the floor, submitted in advance to Ivan Gazidis.
Q: Since you’ve (Gazidis) been at the club, I think we’ve descended into a second rate team. I don’t think we can attract top class players like we did when we signed Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp. What evidence can you give us that we can sign that class of player?
IG, once again showing a cute self awareness; started by acknowledging that “I know my answers are usually too long so I’ll try to shorten them this time! The landscape has changed significantly in the last decade and again in the last few years, but we have a vision not to put our football club into the pockets of a wealthy owner. The key for us is to be able to generate enough resources to be able to compete. We think we can extend our revenues to around the £300m mark in the next couple of years, which is about what Bayern Munich make and they have a similar philosophy to us, they rely on their own resources. Nobody would suggest that Bayern Munich aren’t able to compete for the top talent in the transfer market.
If we make the right decisions, there is no reason why we can’t compete at the same level as them. We will continue to trust the judgement of the manager on our talent and the decisions he makes. It’s impossible to predict the future, we wouldn’t have predicted 5 years ago that Abu Dhabi would pump the money in that they have, we haven’t seen yet quite how FFP will work out. But with that £300m turnover, we will be able to compete with other top clubs and the way that other top clubs do.”
Q: Why did we give Manchester United the title by selling them Robin van Persie?
IG: It’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make. I understand the people that say we should have let his contract run down and I accept that what happened is difficult to agree with. Our motivation was not to pocket £24m, it was a decision about how best to develop our team’s potential with the choices that we had- all of which were bad. It hurts me to see him score goals and win the league with Manchester United, of course I don’t feel happy or good about myself seeing that.
Retaining players in the current environment has been one of our biggest challenges. I don’t want to say it would have been impossible to keep him for the last year of his deal. I’ve been involved in player contracts for over 20 years and I’ve seen that work and I’ve seen it not work. So I don’t want to lie and say it would have been impossible. But none of our choices with Robin were good ones.
Q: Yes, but why didn’t the club incentivise him to stay? Whether it be through goal bonuses or bonuses for winning trophies?
IG: Financial incentives are not always the issue. Robin van Persie is a guy who always gave his best, both for Arsenal and now for Manchester United. Financial incentives weren’t all that was important to him.
Q: Arsene Wenger says, in his words, that he’s only interested in super quality players. Yet we’ve seen some far from super quality players arrive. You’ve spoken about the money available to him. Is Arsene Wenger committed to spending it and spending it on more expensive, better quality players?
IG: Arsene is committed to top class that he believes in. That’s not always necessarily the most expensive. Santi Cazorla wasn’t that expensive but he is top class. Now I’m not sending a message that all deals will be like Cazorla so everything will be alright. But any deal starts with the talent with the manager believes in. We believe in his judgement, if we didn’t, we’d have the wrong man. We think he has done an outstanding job in this environment.
We have always made the money we generate available to him to spend, it’s a very simple philosophy. That hasn’t been enough to compete with a club like Manchester United and Chelsea and Manchester City. Where Arsene has done an outstanding job is to stay in the mix of the top teams, not where we want to be, but in the mix, on a relatively limited budget. He is not scared to spend money but he has to believe he is getting a top class player. The parameters in which he has to operate is to spend what the club can afford and my job is to make that as big as possible and Arsene’s job is to think about which talent he wants to spend that on in the best way possible.
It’s absolutely a joint mission between myself, Arsene and Stan Kroenke to put Arsenal at the top of world football. We haven’t gone forwards, but we haven’t gone backwards either. Now we have to go forwards. You’re asking me to guarantee that money will all be spent. But it also depends on what talent is available. If we only find one player that we like, we won’t spend twice as much on him just so we can say we spent all of the money. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The key will be to buy the players Arsene Wenger believes in.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that the club has to reconsider the flat wage structure in order to pay the best players the best salaries. Yet just a few weeks ago Arsene Wenger said he decides what players are paid and that he prefers a ‘socialist’ wage structure. Can you confirm that player salaries are your responsibility?
IG: Where we start is assessment of talent before we even think about the wages. Arsene assesses the talent. Once he makes that assessment we look at how to fit it in. We’re going to have to pay market rates and we’re going to have to evolve. I think the situation will evolve so that top players will earn more and players in the middle will stay about the same. So our structure will have to evolve.
Arsene is completely on board with that. He is not afraid to pay world class money for world class talent. We have never said that there was an absolute structure and I’m not sure I know which comments from Arsene you were referring to. We’ve competed against clubs that have spent much more than us and overall- I know that’s a word Arsene likes to use a lot- we think he has done a good job.
Q: Why do Arsenal labour in the process of buying players? We don’t seem to ever get business done early or quickly?
IG: The last couple of windows haven’t been easy. We’ve lost players which has made planning difficult. If you have an unlimited budget, it’s easier to do. I wouldn’t choose to go through what happened two summers ago again when we bought a lot of players towards the end of the window, some of whom didn’t work out, some of whom did work out. Last summer we did most of our business early, we knew we wanted Cazorla but had to wait for the situation at Malaga to ripen.
For this window, we don’t have the same uncertainty as the last few. Though it’s another strange window this year with a lot of managers changing, the influence of financial restrictions are being seen now. But there has to be agreement with his player and his club. Obviously our aim is to do business as early as possible. The Champions League qualifier in August won’t affect our plans. It’s never been an issue when we’ve discussed with players before and it doesn’t affect our planning.”
Q: How long before the Financial Fair Play regulations take effect and do you think they will make any difference?
IG: UEFA have set out to assess the last two seasons, this being the last season before decisions are made and the first round of enforcements. Most financial results aren’t published until October, so next summer we’ll begin to see that. The wage cap is already in where clubs cannot raise their salary spend compared to the previous summer, unless they have significant commercial money coming through. We’re well placed for that, but nobody really knows how this will play out yet. It will depend on the will of UEFA and the Premier League and we don’t control that.
Q: What are the specific roles of yourself, Dick Law and Stan Kroenke and what would you say are your successes on the playing side?
IG: I have been asked what it is I do before but much less politely than that, so thank you! We have an owner that hasn’t put any debt on the club, who hasn’t taken any management fees, he doesn’t treat the club as his own personal fiefdom or as his plaything. He’s respectful of the club’s freedom. We’re lucky to have an owner with a vast experience in sports and sports ownership, with significant contacts and he’s supported the club very tangibly. A lot of our commercial successes are down to his knowledge.
My job is off the field, to represent the club and supporting the manager and his footballing conditions. Dick Law works with me and Arsene in negotiation of player deals, he has vast experience in that, he speaks 5 different languages and flies all around the world to negotiate deals. Arsene is in charge of the talent and myself and Dick Law give him support.
Q: Many have turned against you and the manager this season, inside and outside the ground. How does that reverberate around the club? How does it influence you and your planning? Does it make you doubt yourself?
IG: Many work around the club and I don’t just see myself as an individual here, and we give everything we have got every day. We are all motivated by elevating this club to the top of world football. This is not a job or club you come into without a passion for it. Everybody here has a passion, they give their lives and live for our results. It saddens me that people don’t understand that and it’s my failing that I haven’t communicated that well enough.
We are weaker when we are not united as a club with the fans. The criticism hurts us and it doesn’t do the players any good. But I don’t criticise it, I understand it because we are all frustrated. If you think I come away from a game like Bradford or Blackburn and feel good about myself I can tell you I don’t. We all care about the same things. We are building the football club, we’re doing it the hard way but believe me, we are making progress. But I think over the last couple of years, in the really difficult moments, the fans have come together. I think of the 8-2 against United which was a horrible day and I think of the second half of the last two seasons and I think the fans have really pulled together for us. That unity can push us over the line.
Q: I’m sure you’d agree, Ivan, that Arsenal have some of the most loyal and passionate away support in the country. We routinely sell out our away allocations domestically and in Europe. Yet in the Premier League, away support is continually taken for granted. Arsenal fans are charged category A prices everywhere we go and often face poor conditions. The AST have talked with fans from other supporters’ trusts about pressuring the Premier League to deal with this centrally. Can you and the club throw your weight behind this?
IG: I think you’re right. The fans are brilliant, everywhere we go. Home and away as you say, we always have huge numbers. We have been encouraging and pushing the Premier League to look at the issue of away tickets and we’re supportive of finding a solution. It’s complex, not least because of the sensitivities of how you treat home fans versus how you treat away fans. But we’re fully supportive of the process of reviewing this and of any recommendations that come from that review.
Q: Has the club reviewed the situation in the boardroom in terms of succession planning?
IG: I have seen the AST suggestion and spoken with the AST about the report they commissioned into the boardroom which we are grateful for. We are in the process of reviewing that. It’s no secret that we have an ageing board, they understand and acknowledge that too. But this is something that we are currently reviewing.
Q: Clubs such as Aston Villa, Sunderland and West Ham United have publicly supported safe standing. Is there any chance that you and Arsenal will do too?
IG: Both myself and Arsene have gone on record as being open to the idea. There’s a lot of work to be done in the area and there are a lot of complex issues and emotional issues around it too. If the government shows a willingness to open that door, we’d definitely look at that. We’re open minded about it. But I have to be candid and say that, at the moment, there’s no suggestion that the government will open that door.
At this stage, unvetted questions were invited from the floor.
Q: I’m surprised that there has been no reference to Red & White Holdings tonight, everybody’s been very quiet about it. If they’re talking about putting money in, why don’t we take it?
IG: We’ve supported financial restrictions and they would prohibit the sort of cash injection you suggest. So it wouldn’t do us much good. Not sure an explosion of spending on salaries and transfer fees is healthy for the game overall. Arsenal Football Club will always do well, but it’s bigger than just Arsenal, it’s about the whole of football too. It saddens me to see great clubs having to compete for outside investment, we want to broaden good ownership in the game. If that doesn’t happen, Arsenal will still go on and do well.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about Bayern this evening. Is there any chance we’ll ever hear you say what Uli Hoeness said recently about ticket pricing?
IG: They are in a different environment in the Bundesliga. You look at this year’s Champions League final between two great clubs and two great teams. I think there’s a lot we can learn from the Bundesliga. I’ve been a big fan for more than a decade. Their model on ticket pricing is very different and the way they make their money is very different. They have relatively low ticket pricing and very high commercial revenues.
One of things coming into Arsenal that was very clear to me was that we were too dependent on local revenue streams and now we’re moving towards ‘spreading the burden’ if you like and diversifying those revenue streams. We hadn’t really grasped the international value of our brand and commercialised that. We’ve relied hugely on our ticket revenue streams, but as our commercial revenues grow and actually, as our broadcast revenues grow, it balances our revenue in a better way and it takes some of the pressure off. I cannot tell you that we’re going to go the whole way of the Bundesliga, because their model is very different, but if we develop our commercial revenue streams, it takes the pressure off of local revenues.
Q: What does the club do if the financial restrictions aren’t applied?
IG: We’re in favour of it, but it doesn’t mean it’s part of our strategy. We don’t control it so we can’t rely on it. What would we do differently? Nothing. We’d do the same things in both worlds, just like Bayern are doing. They have revenues of around £300m and we’re nearly there. We’ve every chance of competing in an unregulated world like they do.
Q: Since 2005, the defensive side of the squad hasn’t been good enough. It seemed to take the manager until around March this year to put his mind to it and it showed he can do it when he tries. Do other coaches have enough influence?
IG: We had the second best defence in the league this season, now that may be down to personnel and form. I think certainly having players in the midfield that helped protect their defence helped. Players grew into their roles and became more confident as a unit. We had a lot of new players, there’s been a lot of change at the club over the last few summers. If you want my opinion, I think we looked more cohesive as the season went on.
Of course Arsene listens to his staff and they are not shy about coming forward, believe me. They have added their own dynamic to the set up. Arsene takes overall responsibility, but yes they contribute and he listens.
Q: A few years ago, you spoke about applying your ‘laser focus’ to some of the players in the squad that weren’t contributing. The club have released three players this week that weren’t contributing. Will you be applying your ‘laser focus’ to the remaining deadwood?
IG: This is the sort of question that terrifies me! I don’t want to get into a discussion on individuals, some players haven’t been able to contribute as we would have liked, we all know that. We need to make sure we address that as an absolute priority. Overall, our spend is very strong and much better than other clubs. That’s not to say we can’t improve, we need to get better.
Q: The underlying atmosphere of these questions tonight has been that the transfer deals and the performances haven’t been good enough, which is why the questions have been phrased as they have. Have we already missed a trick this summer by not getting deals done quickly and catching Mourinho, Pellegrini and Moyes with their pants down?
IG: No, I don’t think we’ve missed a trick. We need the agreements of clubs and players to do deals. We deal in a relatively small group of players at the top level of the game. We’re working very hard but in every case, I know the reasons why the deals for players we’re talking to haven’t happened yet.
Q: Is there any prospect of a stadium capacity increase and what are the club doing to encourage a better atmosphere in the ground?
IG: We’re in a good place with capacity and due to the stadium design, it’s not easy to extend anyway. We think 60,000 is about right for us. With regards to atmosphere, we’ve looked at things inside the stadium and made some changes to make it more welcoming. It’s been challenging to get like minded fans together, which certainly contributes to a better atmosphere inside. I know there’s a long tradition of fans going to the pub before games and we don’t want to stop that, that’s how I went to football before I worked here. But we have worked to make the place more welcoming. If we can get food at the right prices- and I think I’m right in saying we have some of the cheapest pies in the league here now (said with wry smile), then we hope we can help create a more welcoming environment.
We were thanked for attending but told in no uncertain terms that the bar was now
shit shut. Welcoming indeed! Anyway, those were the words. Let’s see what action the summer brings. LD.
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