The sporting director role, it just doesn’t work in English football does it? Except it does, well did; very recently in fact. Chelsea’s double winning side of 2009/10 had a sporting director and his name is Frank Arnesen, the only other man besides Roman Abramovic a Chelsea employee dare not cross. Arnesen has been at Chelsea since a contentious move between city rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. The Dane has been part of the Chelsea hierarchy since overseeing two Premier League titles, two F.A Cups and a Champions League final, though all this success is tainted by the rumours that it is clashes with Arnesen that has seen the departure of two of Chelsea’s most popular figure in José Mourinho and Ray Wilkins. With press speculation rife that Carlo Ancelotti is considering his position, why is it the Sporting Director who is untouchable?
Frank Arnesen is held in high esteem at Chelsea and in truth in Europe as well. As a player he was special, winning the European Cup with PSV and had a remarkable scoring record for a Midfielder, capped over 50 times by his country. He then took up coaching working underneath Bobby Robson at PSV he later moved out of the direct coaching side and became the Director of Football at PSV. This is where he had the most success in his primary role, finding and developing players. Frank Arnesen can be directly attributed to the transfers of Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Jaap Stam and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. With these players on his CV there can be little dispute of his pedigree, however it is his relationship beyond players that leads to my doubts over his career.
Since Frank Arnesen’s arrival in England from PSV, where the Sporting Director role was highly successful, there have been several high profile clashes at both Tottenham and Chelsea. It began with Spurs as their manager Jaques Santini left after the shortest period in charge for a manger of the North London club. Officially it was due to ‘personal reasons’ but unofficially it was because the club had appointed Frank Arnesen and the Dane had appointed the assistant coach. Santini left and the assistant manager took over, his name? Martin Jol, Jol then went on to manage the club for 3 years enjoying relative success. Arnesen did not last as long moving to Chelsea after a £5 million pound settlement was agreed with Spurs.
At Chelsea, Arnesen was placed in charge of Youth Development; however it seemed more like he was to be put in charge of player recruitment. Chelsea’s transfer policy then seemed to be removed from the talismanic manager. Mourinho is not known for his lack of confidence and his transfer policy had worked at Porto and initially with Chelsea. It was after Arnesen’s arrival that the transfer policy became fractious with an almost ‘one for me – one for you’ arrangement. In the same summer that Michael Essien arrived so did Lassana Diarra. In the next summer it was Salomon Kalou for Michael Ballack and the infamous Andriy Shevchenko (more likely an Abramovic signing) and Ashley Cole. However the truce did not last long as Mourinho – as ever – enigmatically left, taking the time to stroll amongst the press and fans alike upon departure. The departure of one of the best coaches in Europe left Chelsea in a twist; first appointing Avram Grant (who had been sporting director) and eventually Luis Phillipe Scolari. Scolari left soon afterwards having also criticised the transfer policy at the club; Guus Hiddink provided a welcome temporary stewardship before current boss Carlo Ancelotti took the job.
Ancelotti was supposedly a long-term target of the Chelsea owner, taken from an AC Milan team in decline, rumours were rife that the Italian would want to bring Andrea Pirlo in reality the only money spent was on Yury Zhirkov a Russian left-back/midfielder who has not featured prominently. Actually since Mourinho’s departure Chelsea have been relatively frugal (by their/Man City’s standards), only spending large money on young players and bringing in youth from other teams. It was in the summer of Ancelotti’s appointment that Arnesen took his role as sporting director and it has become evident since that he has significant influence over the first team.
It has been rumoured that Ray Wilkins controversial departure was due to a run-in with the new director of football. Wilkins was an important part of the Chelsea set-up and was integral to the early days of the Ancelotti era. His knowledge of football in England was used to prepare for games much like Steve Clarkes was, however unlike Clarke, Wilkins was not as involved in training. The balance of power had shifted in Chelsea from the Mourinho era. Mourinho was not at the training pitch every minute. Ancelotti is a more hands on coach and as such as he grew in knowledge, Wilkins’ role diminished to the point where if he did indeed upset Arnesen his time was up.
The follow on from this though has been the (surprise) appointment of a scout to role of Assistant manager, which follows an oddly symmetrical line from Arnesen’s days at Tottenham. Ancelotti is of course more secure than Jacques Santini but if recent history is anything to go by, Carlo should be very careful about how he interacts with the Sporting Director.
Having been at the club for an unparalleled era of success, how much can be attributed to Frank Arnesen? It has been a long time since the great scout has uncovered the latest Arjen Robben let alone the latest Ronaldo. Whilst I praised Chelsea’s youth in my season preview it has become apparent that they are not of the level required to fill in the gaps of a title-winning side. If we look at Arnesen’s record in England it doesn’t (yet) stand up to scrutiny. After arriving in London in May 2004, his first transfer window saw the signings of Andy Reid, Pedro Mendes, Sean Davis, Michael Carrick, Callum Davenport & Michael Dawson (in January). Of those only Dawson and Carrick stand out but neither were game changers and have since become uninspiring but functional top 4 players. At Chelsea there is more moderate success, Salomon Kalou and Lassana Diarra have had continued top flight football and Branislav Ivanovic has been a pleasant success. In the same time his successor at Tottenham signed Gareth Bale and Luka Modric not to mention the massive profit turned on Dimitar Berbatov. For Arnesen, however it will be the next crop of players that determine his legacy at the club. Jack Cork, Michael Mancienne, Nemanja Matic, Gael Kakuta, Gokhan Tore and Josh McEachran have all been bought or developed under his tenure.
However even this silver lining has a cloud as several clubs have successfully challenged the aggressive transfer policy of Frank Arnesen’s Chelsea, even going so far as to incur a transfer ban (which has since been lifted by CAS). Chelsea have therefore incurred the wrath of FIFA, the clubs of Europe and the Premier League over their transfer policy something which has been demonstrably the remit of Frank Arnesen. Bring in the disputes with Managers and staff alike and you are left wondering are Chelsea any better for having appointed Frank Arnesen? Although Chelsea have shown admirable fore-sight in this recruitment process because even though their youth-team is multi-national it will soon be made up of ‘Home-grown’ players but how much longer can Arnesen lean on the promise of youth before it has to show itself in the first-team.
Finally, Arnesens trophy tally has been achieved on the shoulders of giants such as Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti but despite this he is the untouchable man of Stamford Bridge. Roman Abramovic has the right to do as he pleases with his club but there is not a top-class manager for every time that his Sporting Director falls out with them.
UPDATE: Arnesen is to step down at the end of the season given that Chelsea will not be renewing his contract. Much like Ray Wilkins. Mr Abramovic, if you are reading (which you clearly are) well done. Now if you want some help replacing him I’m obviously the person to speak to as you respect my opinions so much. (Ahem)