COMMENT: Finally, the recognition arrives. 17 years on and in a foreign land. But Raul Sanllehi, after so many years being kept away from the spotlight, is finally receiving the public appreciation he deserves.
Kings of the summer market? It’s hard to argue otherwise. Particularly when talking just Premier League clubs. Sanllehi and his little black book producing a transfer window campaign perhaps never before seen at Arsenal. And all achieved with a free cash budget of less than £45m.
With just £20m cash down, Napoli were burned off in the race for former Lille striker Nicolas Pepe. William Saliba’s deal achieved on similar terms as only £3m went immediately into St Etienne’s coffers. Kieran Tierney and David Luiz arrived from Celtic and Chelsea respectively on deadline day. And then there’s the loan deal for Dani Ceballos. An arrangement that cost the club £15m – and with no permanent option. But as this column stated before the Prem window slammed shut, this clause wasn’t included on the player’s request. And the belief inside London Colney was that Ceballos could be talked round into staying. Given his reaction after just two games in an Arsenal shirt, would anyone bet against him inking a long-term Gunners deal before the season’s out?
Sanllehi knew what he was doing with this Ceballos deal. As he has with all these arrivals he’s overseen. And for this column, it’s good to see Barca’s former marketing exec getting the football recognition his work deserves.
At Barca, for the 15 years he was with the club, he was the fixer. The dealmaker. From the days of former president Joan Laporta and Manchester City’s power pair, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, through to current incumbent Josep Maria Bartomeu and ex-sports director Robert Fernandez, Sanllehi was a permanent fixture. In Madrid, they acknowledge without the work of Sanllehi, Neymar would never have ended up at Barca. While on Merseyside, it’s recalled it was Sanllehi, more than anyone connected to the Catalans, who drove the Luis Suarez deal. The now Arsenal mover-and-shaker refusing to be cowed in the aftermath of Brazil and Giorgio Chiellini. His faith and judgement in the player more than repaid over these last five years.
But it was work done always in the background. Not in the shadows – there was a recognition. But Sanllehi would always have to step aside for the higher ups when it came to signing ceremonies and presentations. He did the groundwork. The convincing. The persuading. But it would be others who would share the headlines with Barca’s latest signing.
“He never played for the club,” one La Masia source told this column two years ago upon Sanllehi’s switch to Arsenal. “So he was never going to get the top job (sporting director). But don’t underestimate his influence here.”
Indeed, it was significant that Marco Reus, of Borussia Dortmund, dropped Sanllehi’s name just last month when revealing how close he came to signing for Barca: “In the summer of 2015, my boss Dirk Hebel was in the Dusseldorf airport hotel with Raul Sanllehi. Six months later members of the club sent me a message to bring me to Spain.”
These were the early days of Robert’s reign. But again, it was Sanllehi carrying the water.
As he is now with Arsenal, only it’s as the club’s biggest decision maker. The Spaniard, after the success of his recommendation of Unai Emery as Arsene Wenger’s successor, securing complete trust from Arsenal’s owners, the Kroenke family.
Indeed, director Josh Kroenke acknowledged that ‘hands off’ confidence in Sanllehi just this week in an extended interview. Celebrating the success of their transfer campaign, Kroenke admitted it was about the owners giving Sanllehi and managing director Vinai Venkatesham some guidelines before “letting them work their magic”.
“These guys went out into the market place and – through their contacts and our fantastic new team behind the scenes – were able to find some talented players who are really excited about playing for Arsenal Football Club,” declared Kroenke.
Contacts. Legwork. And some persuading. It’s been what has driven Sanllehi since switching from a marketing job with Nike to getting on the ground floor at Barca.
And 17 years on, all that experience and know-how has just helped Arsenal produce their best summer market in modern times. Sanllehi deserves this recognition, it’s been a long time coming.