So you probably know how these events go by now, right? A cross section of supporters clubs and fan groups (around 350 in attendance in total on this occasion) are allocated seats in one of Arsenal’s plush Club Level environs to listen to Ivan Gazidis give a retrospective on the season that was. A video compilation precedes Ivan’s arrival onto the stage, chronicling the best parts of the campaign.
Compere Tom Watt sits and speaks with the CEO for around 35 minutes, with 15 or so minutes at the end given over for unvetted questions from the floor. The occasion is well stage managed of course. While nobody should be under any illusions that Gazidis is not well prepped for the peppering of questions that Watt delivers, they aren’t complete patsies. On this occasion, Watt prefixes events by requesting a sustained round of applause for Arsenal Ladies’ recent FA Cup victory.
Watt and Gazidis sit across a table from one another on the stage, obligatory water bottles between them and the evening gets underway. What follows is a verbatim account of all that was said while Ivan was on stage.
Note for media/blogs: Please feel free to use this for stories, but a link back to the original post would be greatly appreciated.
Tom Watt: Ivan, obviously we’re not fools, we all read the newspapers. We see pictures, stuff turns up in newspapers. One question you won’t be surprised that I have got to ask you. Errrm…Aaron Ramsey’s hair. Are we in a position to fine him even though he’s on international duty?
Ivan Gazidis: I’ll be very surprised if he turns up to pre-season looking like that! Is there a Samir Nasri influence there?
TW: No, no, Samir Nasri will have no influence, guarantee it……He’s got a stupid haircut, but he’s not a stupid boy. He knows right from wrong.
We’ve got to start with our season. You’d have thought we had run out of ways to finish above Tottenham. We’ve done lasagne (applause)…we keep finding these ways. But, for all that that was a fantastic afternoon, and it was, I just wish people that claim to know about football could understand that as much as we were happy about that day, yet know we went away from the season feeling like we’d failed. It’s the strangest thing because that Sunday afternoon was perfect, but we know even finishing 2nd, we know that we came up short. How can you have a day like that and feel like that? You must have felt the same?
IG: Yeah, I do. I feel it. It was a really strange thing, we come out of it fundamentally really frustrated, the team does, I do, everyone does, Arsene certainly does. We had chances and we had them given back to us, even when we hadn’t taken those chances and we still didn’t take them so there is a big sense of frustration around the overall season.
It wasn’t all bad, you look back and there are moments there but we weren’t able to take that extra step that we want to take. So it was strange really, because at the end there wasn’t anyone connected to Arsenal in that stadium who didn’t have that curved mouth coming out.
TW: It was more than that I think….
But when you come off the back of that season and the players are all off and some are on international duty and they’re onto the next thing. Do we sit down as a football club and say, ‘what’s gone wrong there?’ Leicester were unbelievable, but we battered them twice.
IG: I don’t think we battered them in fairness.
TW: If Jamie Vardy hadn’t bought himself a penalty we would have battered them. How did we not finish ahead of them in the league?
IG: There was a combination of things that happened there. The first thing to understand is that a lot of the thinking is going on during the season, there’s a huge amount of work going on during the season working out where we’ve been successful, where we’ve not been so successful and how we can improve. So by that last game, a lot of that thinking has been done about what you think you’re going to need to do.
So the preparation starts right at the beginning of the season and goes right through continually monitoring and planning for the transfer window. Other things too, what’s happening with all these different areas, technical, fitness, analytics, all of that, scouting. You’re also trying to understand what’s happening with the league. Some people were saying this was a weak league this year, I don’t agree with that, it was an incredibly competitive league.
If you are on the edge, it is very easy to finish as Chelsea did, down the league. Even teams with modest history in the Premier League, all have money, resources, they all have top class people baking up their manager. So every game there are players on the pitch that can hurt you and if you are not on top of your game you will get punished, as we did too often. So we try to take all of the lessons from the season.
For us, there’s no break, we’re straight, straight into it. You try to work out what lessons you’ve learned, not just from your club, but from other clubs.
TW: Are there lessons from Leicester then?
IG: Yes, there are.
TW: What are they? There’s only so many Thai billionaires in the world….
IG: They didn’t do it because of their Thai billions. They had exceptional scouting, great fitness work all the way through the year- they had advantages there but it was great work. Tremendous psychology work, there’s a lot of work that goes into that. Good stability and continuity, there are a lot of different elements that you can learn from. In particular, smart player acquisition. Seeing players from the French second division it means that we’ve got to broaden our perspective on where we can get good players from. These are things that we need to work on.
TW: When you say ‘we’, when you talk about this collective at Arsenal. Just give us an idea of who that is, who is involved in that process? I’m not sure we do know how we go about scouting players, how we monitor players’ fitness. Lord knows that if anything has cost us over the course of the last 7-8 years injuries have cost us. What are we doing to change that, Ivan?
IG: Well, one of the reasons I am talking about this, when you have a manager that has been there for so long, has been so consistent, and he is the face and voice of the club, people more or less think that it’s a one man club. The reality is that there is a team behind that, that works with incredible passion and knowledge and expertise to make sure we’re improving all the time.
Over the last few years there have been dramatic changes in terms of what we are doing behind the scenes. There is a whole team of people that work on fitness and conditioning and physios and all of that has expanded beyond recognition. New ways of training, new ways of monitoring players. Data analytics is another area that is growing and we have an enormous team of people that work on and analyse the game.
Mohammed Elnenny is a good example of that, that wasn’t a player that was on everyone’s radar. But our scouts did a very good job in pointing him out, the analysts had a look at him. We have scouts all around the world that work full time and part time and we have a scouting database that we have been building over time. So when we sign someone that is 22-23, we have been watching them since they were 14 years old, playing in France, or Switzerland or Serbia or wherever it may be.
So we’ve got an enormous amount of people, lots of different sets of eyes looking at that, data analysts who are looking at this not just here, but all across the world. They put it together to come up with player recommendations. We also use that data to analyse opposition, before every game we have reams and reams of knowledge about the opponents that we’re playing. The after the game we use it.
We’re on a rollercoaster all season, we all are. I think I nearly broke my hand when Joe Allen equalised in the last minute at Anfield, thumping the steel bar in front of me. But we can’t afford to do that, what we have to do is get away from the emotional review of the game and get back to what really happened and data can help you do that, it can help you get back to the reality. Sometimes the emotion affects how you think.
The Bayern games are a great example. We beat them at home and in the away game they absolutely battered us, but actually when you strip it away and get underneath the bonnet of what happened there, the games were not dissimilar. Their finishing at their place was completely unbelievable and ours was bad, but we had chances. Here, we more or less converted all of our chances.
We review our performances along the way. I know people want me to keep my answers short and I am aware of that, but we monitor our own performance and as we go through the season, we’re always conscious of where we need to improve.
TW: So when you get to the end of the season, you must already know what has got to happen between now and August. Obviously already one player has already come. But you know what lies ahead between now and August. Feel free to name names! (Laughter). You’re among friends here! It will stay in the room…Those decisions, whether off the back of data analytics, off the back of scouting reports, or just looking at what happened last season, what happens now?
IG: One thing to understand, I know all of the focus goes onto the transfer window and I understand why, and that’s a big business now, almost another entertainment in itself. A big thing is working out where we make improvements in all the things around us, the things I have mentioned. Strength and conditioning, data analytics, scouting, all of that. Actually, we are looking at the way the Premier League is developing and money is not going to be as important, because everyone has money now.
Spending cleverly and well and efficiently, on players that are available and spending well, those things are more and more important. It’s less and less easy to just use money to dominate the league. We do a lot of work in those areas. We have a pretty good idea, we get to the last week of the season and some of the things are already in train. We get them as early as we can, if we can get it moving in March then we’ll do it.
There are reasons why we can’t always conclude these deals early, there are other clubs involved and all kind of situations. The other thing is, we have a lot of insight which is not really public information about what we have in the club and the young players we have here. So it’s not necessarily always what people think. The squad has strengthened a lot over the last few years now.
Frankly, and I think this is where a lot of frustration comes from, 4-5 years ago I don’t think people were looking at our squad and thinking that we were title contenders. Now I think the frustration is that we do believe that we have a squad that can contend and we didn’t quite manage to do it.
TW: So we have Granit and that’s one, Ivan. Tell me when to stop. *Tom begins to reveal fingers one by one*
IG: I will say that I have been over 20 years in football, all of my background in the US was on the football side, not the commercial side. My background is in football, so I think about these things quite a lot. My two sons give me plenty of advice and whatever is happening on social media, please believe me when I tell you that nobody is as abusive as my two sons!
TW: I’m very pleased to hear that, shows they’re being brought up right!
IG: Arsene speaks for the club every week, multiple times, adding in a lot more voices isn’t helpful. I don’t like having lots of talking, it isn’t very helpful in a transfer window to start talking about how many players, what sort of positions and we know people are curious to know. But our most important thing is that in August we have the best possible squad and give us the best possible chance of signing players.
The less we show our hand in public, the better it is for us. I know that’s a source of disconnect because people think, because we’re not talking, we aren’t listening or we don’t understand, that we don’t have expertise and all of these different things. Please believe me when I say that is not the case. There are reasons why we don’t talk about it.
TW: It’s only a little part of the game (laughter). Next season is going to be memorable for all sorts of reasons, I’m sure. I never thought I would hear myself asking this question, but is it possible that next season will be our manager’s last season managing Arsenal?
IG: Anything is possible in football. All I’m going to say is that I don’t get the sense that we are losing confidence in him. The board have always been fully behind him and that’s the right way for us to be. We are not driven by the last 20 years when we say that, believe me. We are more than capable of making difficult decisions if we have to.
We look at the club and we still think we are making progress. We are not where we want to be, but we wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t make difficult decisions. We do see on field progress, we do see progress in the squad, we see progress in all of those other areas that I was talking about. With Arsene, I see progress and change and challenge and development.
I know at times he can appear to be impervious and unchangeable, that’s not actually the case. He’s a highly intelligent guy who asks himself a lot of difficult questions and he hates losing and he wants to win. And all of us are deeply invested in this. I give my life for this.
TW: Us too. (Applause)
IG: I know, I know. One of the things that makes me feel sad sometimes, is that I feel there is a disconnect there that actually isn’t there. All of that passion, all of that love, all of that desire, that I know you have, we have too. We do. When I come out as CEO, when Arsene comes out, when the board comes out, we have that passion too. And I can tell you the most challenging person of Arsene is Arsene.
I’ve seen it, people have this image that we’re happy sitting there, we’re in the top 4, we’re in the Champions League everything is great. That isn’t Arsenal, we wouldn’t do the things we are doing if we felt that way. You wouldn’t sign Özil, you wouldn’t sign Alexis, you wouldn’t sign Xhaka now, there is so much behind getting this club where we want it to be. We know we’re not there, and that’s a frustration.
Coming back to Arsene, we’re not thinking about the end, at all. We’re thinking about moving forward, we’re thinking about next season and we’re making decisions with him about the longer term. We’re spending a lot of money on our academy, at Hale End and London Colney and that’s a 10, 15, 20 year investment and Arsene is deeply involved with that, helping us to work it out, how he develop those sites and those facilities and what we want. So we’re just not in that mode. I know the question will come up again and again and again because of Arsene’s age and the rest of it. I just hope we are not going to have a season where that is the whole discussion.
TW: But is that discussion and whether it dominates the season, or whether it is seen to dominate the season, is that entirely to do with how we do. Everything you say about Arsene looking forward, I’m sure that this is something that everyone recognises and admires and understands about him. But when Arsene leaves, in a year’s time, 5 years, 10 years’ time, whatever it is. People will recognise that he has gotten this club ready for the next 50 or 60 years.
You see the old boy leave at Old Trafford and the place is a shambles. They’re a mile off recovery, they can bring in who they like as manager. That long term stuff we know, but it puts a lot of pressure on this coming season doesn’t it? People know this is the last year of Arsene’s contract, we will honour that contract, he will honour that contract. Surely everyone respects that. Does it hang on what happens next season though?
IG: Everything in football depends on what happens. When we talk of honouring the contract, that’s not the reason Arsene will be with us next year. It’s not about honouring the contract, it’s about understanding the work that that guy does and how we feel on the development of the club and the reasons that we feel the club is going to be able to mount a challenge next year. If we didn’t think we were moving in the right direction, we would sit down and have that conversation. That is not where we are at. I understand that this is going to be a point of speculation, but we are thinking about progressing the club and Arsene remains an intrinsic part of that.
TW: How is he with it? That season when we won the cup against Hull, it put years on all of us, the final put years on all of us. But you almost get the feeling looking at Arsene in press conferences that the fella has about had it.
IG: I have to tell you that I have known Arsene really well for the last 8 years now. I have never seen him more engaged and more excited than I see him now- or frustrated. Because I think he knows we are building something special and we fell short in delivering what we wanted to last season. But we’ve got some really top class people in the team aligned with Arsene. Behind the scenes what we have, it doesn’t come to the surface a lot, but we have a lot of dynamism, a lot of change and I think we have got progress.
I think you can see that in the quality of the squad, if you look over the last 4-5 years and you look at the transformation of this squad over that time, we were losing big players but you look at the kind of squad we have today and compare that with our rivals with great spending power, I think it stands up.
TW: Arsene is obviously the public face of Arsenal Football Club, someone that is hugely significant. But there is someone else, someone that isn’t a public face. The majority shareholder. It winds me up when people say ‘owner.’ *stands up and shouts* I’M THE OWNER, WE’RE THE OWNERS!
Our majority shareholder Mr. Kroenke, just seems to be this kind of nebulous figure that people latch onto and say whatever is wrong is probably to do with him. What is his involvement with the club, Ivan? What are we getting for our money? (Laughter)
IG: What you’re getting for your money is mainly what you see on the pitch, but also he upholds our club values. I understand that when we are frustrated, maybe we want to kick the dog, it’s difficult for me to understand the disconnect that appears to exist. What we have is an owner who has been nothing but supportive, for me, for Arsene. Has encouraged us to spend, encouraged us to invest, on the training centre, on the long term things, on buying Mesut Özil.
That’s what he wants, he wants us to win, he wants us to progress. If this was just about money, this is a nonsensical investment. By the way, if you have shares in Arsenal, I’m not discouraging you from investing and buying some more, but it’s not financial investment, there are better ways to make money than to invest in a football club.
TW: Ivan, you and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I’ve got to say there is no better way to make money than Arsenal shares! Absolute solid gold, economically, spiritually.
IG: I believe in Arsenal as well, but ask Randy Lerner at Aston Villa.
TW: But we ain’t Aston Villa.
IG: He loves talking about Arsenal, he comes to a lot of games. You’re not going to see Stan Kroenke talking, he doesn’t consider himself a soccer expert. Soccer! He doesn’t want to give interviews, he’s not a TV personality he’s not someone that wants to be in the public eye. Equally he’s not someone that interferes. He came into the club as a now majority shareholder and he kept independent directors on the board.
They are lifelong Arsenal fans, Sir Chips Keswick our chairman, corporate governance is very big with Chips. Lord Harris, these are lifelong Arsenal fans who were involved long before Stan Kroenke came in. Most owners come in and take that away, ‘let me put my people in and now we’re in charge.’ To Stan’s credit, what he has done is kept that independent oversight, that independent voice.
Those people are not beholden to Stan Kroenke, they’ve been twenty years on the board. That’s not what they’re there for. They want us to win and for the club to progress and Stan, to his credit, has kept them around. I know we all might want to have the local boy made good, loved Arsenal since he was a kid, engages with us emotionally, the ups and the downs and all the rest of it.
But we’ve got someone who is steady, through all the ups and downs and who doesn’t interfere on the football side and we’ve got a lot from him. We don’t have maybe the accent that we want, maybe we don’t have the same feel for the game, or at least a guy that doesn’t believe that he has got a feel for the game and wants to get involved and talking about how we’re going to tip things upside down.
Questions from the floor. (I have abbreviated some of the questions for the sake of our collective sanity and because my typing fingers are beginning to feel like worms under an electric hammer).
Q: Last year here, Ivan, you spoke about cohesion (he didn’t) and Arsenal were the one club in the top 5 leagues in Europe not to sign an outfield player, time has shown this to be incorrect. Was there an error in judgement, have lessons been learned from last year and is there any regret on the focus on cohesion rather than player additions?
IG: We make mistakes along the way. I don’t want to say that was a mistake, I think that there are reasons for the way things happen and they are often more complex than just a one reason that we weren’t successful and that’s what cost us. Did we find the right combination of players last summer that we felt would progress us, we had the money to do that? That’s not the way it went. In this situation, all of our confirmation biases kick in.
If you think that it’s all about squad depth, that’ll be your issue. If you think it’s all about keeping our players fit enough, that’s gonna be the issue. If you think it’s all about players missing chances, that will be the issue. If you think it’s because of referees, that’s going to be your issue. It’s a combination of so many different things.
What I will say to you is that we ask ourselves the difficult questions, we don’t think we’re perfect. We sit and we ask the difficult questions and what we are trying to do is work out where we made mistakes and where we can improve. We’ve signed Granit this summer, I still don’t know if that’s going to work out or not. Nobody does, you’re always trying to make judgements the best way you can.
In the end, on the football side, it’s with Arsene because he will make that final call. I don’t believe in pushing players at managers that they don’t want. We also have insight that is not public on players that are coming through. Arsene has been talking about Alex Iwobi for quite a while. We take the criticism and every time we don’t win, you have to take it on the chin. All I can tell you is that we do look at it and ask ourselves difficult questions.
Q: At one of these events a few years ago you described every empty seat as a tragedy and you were right because we know how many people there are that want to get in that can’t get in. But more importantly Arsene Wenger has talked about the atmosphere and the effect on the team, and you spoke about marginal gains; scouting, psychology, fitness. Having a stadium that is full every week could be the difference between 1-2 points that win us the league. Can you do something about it, invest in a better ticket exchange, introduce home credits, because it’s getting worse and worse and it drags the atmosphere down. Maybe spend £3m (!) on a better ticket exchange?
IG: Our ticket exchange is one of the most used in Europe, more than 70k tickets were sold through ticket exchange last year and it’s something we’ve spent an enormous amount of time and money on and put internal resource behind. There’s probably somewhere between 10 and 15 different initiatives online now, there’s cashback which means you’ll get the money straight away, rather than having to wait for renewal times, so there are work streams behind that that are tremendous and are very, very draining on resources and we do it because we agree with you, we don’t want a single empty seat.
We are also tied in with ticketmaster, so the technological issues we face are not simple, it’s not just a question of throwing £3m at a fantastic system that solves all the issues. This is another thing we are working on, we are getting there, we have the best one in football and we are trying to make it better and there are more things coming online all the time, better and better improvements.
Some of the ideas we are given, I don’t think are solutions. A lot of people ask why we can’t have a ticket exchange that can go until the last minute. But that has a counter, because then people do wait and then people aren’t ready to pick those tickets up on the day of the game, then the people that put those tickets on the exchange, don’t sell them, so they have less propensity to use ticket exchange.
It’s complicated, but we are learning as we go along how to make it the most effective and it is a high objective. Obviously, all of us want to have a full stadium with all of those seats occupied, we want to fill those seats. Something else is ticket exchange for people that are not members, ticket exchange to give your seat to charity, all of these things, in response to suggestions and also in response to research we are doing, are under consideration. It’s a great system.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot tonight about the vision and strategy for the club and the “majority shareholder”, we’ve got a manager on a very high salary. What does the board set as the objective to the management team at Arsenal and all those people in the background that you mentioned?
IG: There is a broad question here about where we want to be as a football club. I’m not prepared to say everything is bad, and this is projected by those that have a confirmation bias that we’re happy with top 4, that we are not trying to win. All I can tell you is I give my life for this football club and I want us to win. I want us to win the Premier League and I want us to be one of the top teams in Europe. That’s what it’s about for me, that is what I am involved in this football club for (applause).
It’s frustrating that we are not quite where we want to be, but we have a chance to get there. A lot of clubs that haven’t made those difficult decisions, made transformational decisions along the way, been hesitant or had a clear vision and didn’t have the patience to see it through, a lot of those clubs along the way are falling by the wayside.
We’re the ones that have got a chance to do it and we’ve got a chance because we’ve got passion, we’ve got vision and we’ve got the discipline to see it through. We make mistakes along the way, I don’t pretend at all that we are perfect and I don’t pretend that we haven’t fallen short of what we want. But that is what we want.
We want to be at the top of football and that is the direction that we’re heading in. Within the Premier League, we continue to grow, we continue to get bigger. The Premier League continues to grow too, because of clubs like us. To me, that is beginning to put us on the cusp of being at the top of football and I think that is a magical position. I’m really excited about it.
Q: Why are the board so against giving Alisher Usmanov a place on the board?
IG: The board has a good relationship with Alisher Usmanov, we had a meeting with him just a few weeks ago, so there is an ongoing dialogue there. But we feel like we are in a good position, in terms of our position as a football club. We feel like we’ve got a unity behind that vision.
I think the one of the things we are conscious of is that we need more diversity on the board. In terms of bringing Mr. Usmanov onto the board, that is not on our agenda at the moment and it’s certainly not going to happen imminently.
TW: Is it on Mr. Usmanov’s agenda?
IG: I don’t think it is. It’s not an ongoing discussion.
Q: 5 years ago at this event, you said Arsene was accountable to the supporters. Given the recent supporter unrest I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.
IG: I said something 5 years ago that I thought was relatively uncontroversial, because I feel like we are all accountable to the fans. Because what is a football club without fans? Who makes the decision about the manager? Self-evidently, it is the board. So there is that accountability built in. But in a broader sense, we’re all accountable to the fans.
My best experience with this football club was on the open top bus tour after the 2014 FA Cup. Forget about globally, just looking locally, here, on the streets of Islington, what that meant to people. Seeing how that day, everybody just came together and enjoyed that moment, uncritically, just being in the moment. That’s what I want to create more of.
So one of the things that makes me really sad, really, really, is seeing these divisions and this argument that goes on and on and on. I wish, I hope that we can all come together and understand that we all have the same objective here. Whether we agree about whether Arsene is the right man as our manager, or whether it should be someone else. That debate goes on all the time at every football club in the world.
That shouldn’t be causing divisions between us where we are questioning one another’s love for the club. Where we’re questioning what it is we want from this club, we all want the same thing. So to me it is incredibly sad to see those things, but still the board has to focus on the things that it believes are best for the club to progress us to where we want to get to. It continues to make decisions it believes are in the best interest of the club and that is what it’s doing. I want us to come together and understand that we want the same thing.
Q: I would like to know what kind of information you get from data analytics. I haven’t seen any benefit so far, for £45 I can get a copy of FIFA 16 and get lots of data. (I think this gentleman was kind of joking, but kind of not joking at the same time, if you catch my drift).
IG: If I would have known we could get that for £45, I honestly wouldn’t have done what we did! We identified this company and we acquired them because we believed we needed to be at the forefront of data analysis in football and we think that this was the best thing. So, “we” that is me and Arsene, decided to go with it.
It has been incredibly valuable and I would point to our transfer activity 6 or 7 years ago, if somebody sits down and analyses that it would be interesting (WHY NOT HAVE YOUR DATA ANALYTICS COMPANY DO IT FOR YOU IVAN? WE’RE ALL VERY BUSY) I think you would see more mixed success then. There are far less, adverse, bad surprises since we acquired that data company.
We’re spending tens of millions on players and it’s really important we get that right, we can’t afford to make mistakes like Manchester City can, I didn’t mean they make lots of mistakes! I mean they can more easily correct their mistakes by throwing money at it. We can’t afford to make mistakes like that, so it has been a really important acquisition.
TW: Also, I’ve got to say, you’ve never seen Ivan play FIFA!
Tom Watt draws events to a close to applause, not before Ivan dished out a verbal bouquet to the audience.
IG: This is a Friday night and there are a lot more people that would like to have been here, but we’ve got around 350 people here who have given up a Friday night to come and be engaged and passionate about our football club. I appreciate you guys caring about this club and I want to promise you that I and the team that work here feel the same way about it as you do, we feel the same as you do and I’m convinced that we can bring it on even more. So thank you for coming.
(Applause followed by mad dash to the toilets).