Jost Kroenke talking to his managing director, Vinai Venkatesham.
Josh Kroenke pictured with Vinai Venkatesham at the Emirates stadium (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Josh Kroenke: A man on a mission

Stan Kroenke has seemingly given the reins to his son Josh in terms of the operation of Arsenal FC. Supporters have seen this transition and treated it with mistrust, citing the lack of success for the past decade. I am starting to change my mind due to changes I have seen in the last 2 seasons. Josh is much more involved in the running of the club. He actually seems to want to understand what this club stands for and what it needs to be.

A Fanbase Starving For Success

Firstly, let’s look at the problems at Arsenal. For years, fans of Arsenal FC have been starving. On the pitch, the team has declined. Domestically, the lack of success is frustrating. The European success never materialised. Fans have become fed up, looking to the board and calling for the Kroenkes’ heads to roll. Where is the success promised to the fans after leaving Highbury? Why have Arsenal gone from a team that went invincible to a team that finished 8th in the Premier League twice in a row?

Arsenal is a club with a long and successful history. 13 league titles. 14 FA Cups. The Invincibles of 2004. Its a club steeped in a culture of community, of doing things the right way and most importantly of all, success. A global brand that has gone from being centre stage in European football to not being in Europe at all.

A Power Struggle

The initial purchase of shares from Kroenke involved Grenada Ventures (aka. ITV) in 2007. With this came a seat on the board in September of 2008, with a takeover seemingly done in 2011. With Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov holding 26% of the club and seemingly not willing to budge a cold war started.

Usmanov constantly spoke up about the problems caused by KSE and Stan Kroenke. That it was the majority shareholders fault for the steady decline in the early 2010s, and he was correct. The decision making at the club has to fall on the heads of the majority shareholders at the end of the day. The board level issues created an environment of toxicity around the club. This often played out in the media. With performances on the pitch declining too, fans became restless.

Transfer Policy Issues

In November 2008, Ivan Gazidis accepted the post of chief executive of Arsenal. He formally took up from 1 January 2009. As the successor to David Dein, he made Arsenal into a more global brand. In spite of this, the club was unable to keep key assets in key moments. Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas all left. The culture of a selling club started to manifest.

Arsenal also changed the profile of players they signed. Gone were the days of signing physically dominant players that were also able to be technically secure. The emergence of Cesc Fabregas changed everything. The physical dominance that Arsenal sides used to display was replaced by more diminutive players that could be shoved around on the pitch. This led to squads that showed brilliance at times but injuries and inconsistencies always caught up to them.

The signings would often seem ridiculous at times. From Shkodran Mustafi being bought for £35 Million, to choosing Granit Xhaka (who is no slouch himself) over N’golo Kante who was valued as one of the most prized assets in European football. The team often lacked in vital areas. Either it was a shaky defence, or not enough power in midfield, or both. Something was always lacking.

Fans pointed to a lack of a Director of football. Their reasoning was that the manager in Arsene Wenger needed someone to help him run the club so he keep his focus on the results on the pitch. The likes of Sven Mislintat came and went. They tried everything to get the side back to where it needed to be. The right balance was just never found. With the pressure building from what fans rightly called out to be broken promises, the Kroenke’s sought to drive the issues themselves.

Growing Pains After Arsene Wenger

In June 2018, KSE bough out Usmanov and therefore reached the 90% threshold to trigger the rest of the shares to fall into their hands. They were the sole owners. They then got to work, Unai Emery was the choice that Ivan Gazidis picked to succeed Arsene Wenger, and KSE started to try and rebuild. With Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham taking over as the head of football and managing director respectively after Gazidis left his role, the pressure was on. The club was floundering in the Europa League.

Bringing in the likes of Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzzi, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Bernd Leno in the 1st window it felt like a window that was hard to judge. The potential was there, but a lot of people were unsure. A lot of people looked to Lichtsteiner and thought it was a weird signing, an aging right back bought in to be a back up at the time wasn’t the marquee signing people we vying for.

A 5th place finish and a European final followed. An aging squad with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Sokratis with players that frankly just weren’t good enough like Saed Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi were so close to getting back to the Champions league but missed out on both top 4 and the Europa League. Losing to Chelsea 4-1 to the final in a very humbling performance was a turning point in the tenure of Unai Emery

Josh Takes Control And Emery Loses Control

Josh Kroenke started to take more of a control on the club in the summer of 19/20, publicly telling the fans to “be excited”. Then came a cash injection and faith. Nicolas Pepe for £72 Million, Kieran Tierney for £24 Million, William Saliba for £27 Million and David Luiz for £7 Million.

Unai Emery started to fade. A poor start to the season, constant tinkering and the freezing out of Mesut Ozil led to a very hostile environment around the club. Conceding above 30 shots to Watford was a turning point for a lot of fans. The dressing room were making fun of the manager. The attitude of the players was just unacceptable. Players performing with poor discipline on and off the pitch. Things needed to change.

On 29th November 2019, after a run of poor results culminating with a 2-1 loss to Eintract Frankfurt, Emery left Arsenal. Freddie Ljungberg took charge while Kroenke and his team started their search for a replacement.

Mikel Arteta Starts His Rebuild

Arsenal announced the appointment of Mikel Arteta on 20th December 2019. Josh Kroenke personally was integral to the interview process. A “process” was the term that was on everyone’s lips. Next came a quiet winter transfer window with the likes of Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares coming in to provide cover. A rescue mission was a step too far for the current season though. Finishing 8th in the league with a Europa League exit to Olympiakos in the Round of 32 is just not deemed good enough.

There was hope though. The FA Cup. Firstly, beating lower league teams or teams in the lower half of the Premier league table. Then came the semi final. A test from the best domestic side of this decade. Manchester City. Mikel played a 3-4-3 and displayed a style of football. Building from the back, overloading on the right to shift to the left and finish, a compact 5-4-1 block. Some of the build up play was lovely to watch.

Then came the final. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea had just finished in the top 4 and this was a battle of two former players for their respective clubs. In a tense final, Arteta and his team managed to triumph and win the competition. This was so crucial, mainly because it gave the manager one thing: time.

Shifting The Transfer Policy

The main reason I have some form of faith in Josh Kroenke and his vision is the actions over the last 2 seasons. Firstly, the terminations. Realising that Arsenal had to take losses on certain players was an indication of intent. Players like Mustafi and Sokratis were allowed to walk. Mesut Ozil went to Fernerbache. Lately, Willian got his move away. It shows a willingness to progress the squad without a worry of financial repercussions.

Importantly, there seems to be a streamlining of the behind the scenes personnel. A scouting upheaval from the club seems to be paying off. Arsenal used to be a club to recruit the best young talent and make them into super stars. That tradition had been lost in the last decade. Freshening up that process and allowing the manager to have more of a say in what he wanted from the club allowed for a coherent transfer strategy.

The profile is clear. Young, physical players that demonstrate leadership qualities. Players like Aaron Ramsdale and Gabriel Magalhães are evident of that. The emphasis on creating a defence that is able to compete is clear. Next is getting together a midfield that is able to sustain pressure for long periods of time on the opposition. The plan has been clear and evident.

Fixing The Background Issues

Raul Sanllehi was a problem. Reasons include paying £72 million for Pepe, the want for older players that would be a short term fix like David Luiz and the overall shadiness of his dealings was just not what was needed. This led to Edu Gaspar being added to the background team. A legend of the club, he had performed a similar role with Corinthians and the Brazilian National Team. In the summer of 2020, he took over Sanllehi’s job.

Richard Garlick is another savvy addition. Garlick, with a background in law and is a qualified solicitor worked as the director of football administration at West Bromwich Albion between 2010-2018. He liaised with players and agents, handled contracts and is seen as a proper negotiator for the club.

Tim Lewis, with his corporate background, has close ties to Josh Kroenke. He’s there to make sure there is regular communication between Josh and the rest of the board. A main improvement that has been evident this season is a much more open dialogue between all facets of the club.

Clarity. Unity. This is the Arsenal of 2021.

Focusing On Youth

Another point that has been evident is the shift to the youth of the club. Firstly, hiring Per Mertesacker as Academy Director has paid off plenty. The restructuring of the academy, from hiring Kevin Betsy as U23 to a more comprehensive academy youth scouting process has been clear. The signing of Mika Biereth from Fulham, a goal machine who has hit the ground running is the perfect example.

Also, the loan system has been revamped. Hiring Ben Knapper as the loan manager to work with young players like Joe Willock last season really helped their development. Teams now have to interview for the privilege to take Arsenal players on loan. It will allow for Arsenal to really take advantage of the loan system.

With so many exciting youth prospects like Folarin Balogun, Charlie Patino, Kido Taylor-Hart, Omari Hutchinson as well as so many more coming through the future is bright. Bringing in Kevin Betsy from the England youth set up is a good move. A trusted coach with a pedigree in developing youth is vital to this current crop of youngsters.

Final Thoughts

It’s been a rocky ride. Obstacles will continue to come as this club grows. When you have owners that are willing to invest capital and effort into the club, the future does look promising. Yes, I have missed a lot of things. Mesut Ozil was a major misstep. Another one is the handling of ESL. It has been tough at times, and I don’t trust Josh implicitly. They should’ve done more. I am not absolving them of their prior issues.

Since taking 100% control there is a distinct change in culture though. That is a positive. If you attribute that to Mikel or Edu that is your decision. Personally, I see football people hired in key positions. That shows a club that is being run well. There has to be some recognition in that regard.

And that is why I am willing to give Josh Kroenke a chance.

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