‘We made very decisive and aggressive decisions’
In an in-depth interview, Josh Kroenke, the vice chairman of our owners, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, and an Arsenal board director, discusses the aftermath of Baku, the summer transfer window, Unai Emery, his hopes for this season and the future.
He sat down with the BBC’s David Ornstein to discuss it all and you can read the full transcript below - and watch the video interview here.
The new season is here and you seem excited?
I tell our group - across all of our organisations, all of our teams - you’re only as good as your last game. Unfortunately those last 45 minutes in Baku were not our best. In the moment, there was a lot of frustration - but there was a collective resolve to not have this feeling again anytime soon. We had some great meetings and set out to try to better ourselves this summer and I think we’ve come back to a new season as a stronger club.
How wounded were you and your father by that night?
It’s very tough to describe. You never want to put all of your eggs in one basket or have all of your feelings reside on one match - but when you reach a European final like we did, that’s exactly the feeling you have. So when you finish the way that we did and come up short, it’s frustration; absolute frustration, disappointment. But I was positive that night as well. I remember coming off the pitch, I remember grabbing Unai, telling him that ‘We’ll be back’... and to a few of our players to ‘Remember the feeling’, to use that as motivation as they headed into their summer training. I’m always a guy that’s going to try to find positives out of certain situations and, once I got over the initial wave of disappointment, I knew that my job as a leader was to try to pull everybody back up. I think we’ve rebounded well out of that and we’re really excited about the new season.
You seem to welcome that leadership role...
It’s something that I’m comfortable with. I think you can’t be a leader without having great people around you. We’ve had a lot of transition at the club, over the last 12 to 14 months especially. There have been more than 50 new appointments just in football operations alone. I said ‘be excited’ earlier this summer and I genuinely meant that. Not anything with short-term signings, but be excited about the future of the club because I think we’ve got some great people in strong places of leadership and are allowing them to do their jobs and do their jobs well.
Did Baku sharpen the need for change?
I think that we were always going to be - and we will always be - aggressive in trying to improve however we can, whether that’s on or off the pitch. But as the second half unfolded of the match, understanding the position that we were in and some of the targets as we headed into the summer from a transfer standpoint, we had to rethink some of our strategy based on that last 45 minutes. We knew we wouldn’t have Champions League football and certain clubs who attract those type of talents... that’s what they’re after. We had to rethink just a few of our things, but my main message to Vinai and Raul coming back from Baku on the plane, which was a very long flight after that match, and then throughout meetings all day the following day with Vinai, Raul and Unai, was ‘Let’s head into the summer, let’s be aggressive and let’s find out what’s possible’. These guys went out into the marketplace and, through their contacts and through our fantastic new team behind the scenes at Arsenal, were able to find some talented players who are really excited about playing for Arsenal Football Club.
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I joked with a few of our colleagues back in the States about this topic and as much as I want to win the conversations in July, I really want to win the matches come May and June. So I think it’s important to have that type of conversation - but whether we’re going to be lauded for our efforts or perceived in a negative light, we want to be doing what we think is right for the club and I think we had a very strong summer. We addressed certain areas on the pitch for this season and in the years ahead. We had certain age profiles that we were after. Without Champions League football we weren’t exactly sure, but I encouraged our football operations department to be aggressive and when Arsenal Football Club knocks on a player’s door it’s a different knock. This summer, even though we weren’t in a position of strength coming out of Baku, I think there were a few people caught off guard that Arsenal Football Club still has the aura that it does. We’re excited to keep pushing that now and into the future.
How did you do it on such a restricted budget?
I’m not going to go into too much detail, but I think the main message was simply to be aggressive. I know I’ve repeated that a couple of different times, but ‘be aggressive’ meant a lot of different things. It meant going out and finding out what was possible, because after the match in Baku we had to rethink a few things. I’m not going to share any details but going into the summer we knew we were going to have instruments in place that were going to allow us to be aggressive and they weren’t going to be dependent on sales. These guys went out, they worked their magic and I’m happy to have them on our side.
Was there any investment from KSE or all within the self-sustaining model?
I’m not going to go into too much detail - people can read between the lines of being aggressive and what that might mean. That’s kind of how I would answer that question - it’s going to be a private matter for us here at the club, but I hope our fans understand that by being aggressive that’s exactly what we were.
Did fan unrest cause you to act in the market?
I would say that if you’re reacting and doing club record signings based on public opinion, you’re not going to go very far as a club. We weren’t reactive this summer, we were actually proactive. It was unfortunate that the summer unfolded publicly the way it did with some of the supporters groups. I tried to answer some of their concerns to the best of our ability, but we had instruments in place behind the scenes heading into the window where we knew we were going to be aggressive and we weren’t going to be reactive to anything, we were going to be proactive. The transfer market is an evolving, living, breathing thing. There are certain moments in time; sometimes those moments are sooner, sometimes those moments are later in the window. We identified a few key targets, worked on those deals and over time we were able to execute them. I hope that our fans are just as excited as I am about the upcoming season, because I think we’ve got some talented new players in, at an age profile where they’re going to grow and improve on the pitch over the next eight to 10 months or so and well into the future. It’s an exciting time to be an Arsenal supporter.
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It was one thing saying ‘be excited’, another to deliver...
We were fortunate to be able to close on a few deals. It’s never fun to be left at the altar, per se. When I made that statement about being excited, there were a few things that were starting to come about. While we didn’t know if we were going to be able to fully execute - you never know until the deal is completely one - I thought we had a good chance if we acted aggressively in those moments. Fortunately, we were able to execute it and that’s hopefully just a sign of encouragement for Arsenal fans that when we’re out in the marketplace you might never know what we’re thinking and you could be surprised by some of the names that come up, but we’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to be thinking both short-term and long-term in everything that we’re doing.
Criticised in past for not filling needed positions - now seeing a more decisive Arsenal?
I wouldn’t say we were more decisive, I think it’s just a different structure. I’ve been a part of meetings that were with Arsene Wenger and I’ve been a part of meetings now that include our head of football, our managing director, our head coach, our new technical director. It’s a different approach. It’s not doing anything different to what we’ve done in the past, but I think when you have different opinions and you share those opinions in a very direct manner... you might disagree over things in the room, but as soon as the door opens and you walk out and you’re back as a unified front, I think that allows you to make very decisive and aggressive decisions like you saw this summer.
More departures before foreign windows close?
I would defer to our football operations staff but I know there are a few names that have come up who might not see as much playing time this season, so whether that’s via loan or permanent transfer I know there are discussions going on. I’ll leave that to our football operations staff.
Is your father happy with the summer business and direction of the club?
He is thrilled. As we’ve had a chance to get to know some of the new faces more and more behind the scenes and he’s had a chance to be around them individually, he’s only excited. I know that term has probably been worn out this summer, especially from myself, but we’re all very excited. The hard part is staying patient and understanding that we’re putting plans in place that are going to unfold over the next several years. We’ve done it with our north American teams and we’re trying to implement those type of people and decision-makers here at Arsenal. I think this summer is a great example of the quality of people that we have.
There are some key players going into the final two years of contracts - decision time?
That’s 100 per cent on our football operations department, but I would say whatever we’re doing we’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to be decisive, and we’re going to communicate well and honestly through it all. So from a player’s perspective, whether it’s good or bad news I think the best thing you can do is be honest with the player because they’ve only got a limited window where they can be at their physical peak. I would defer to all the [football operations staff] on all the contract decisions because I think they’re pretty good at it.”
One contract that needs addressing is Unai Emery’s - how happy are you with him?
I think he’s doing a great job, has done a great job and is doing a great job. Turning the page from such a legendary manager and figure as Arsene - not only at Arsenal but in European football - was always going to be a difficult page to turn and as a club I think we’ve turned it as elegantly as we could. I think Unai’s daily approach is fantastic. He’s out there on the pitch, he’s working, he’s watching video, he’s communicating and his daily energy and devotion to his work is fantastic, it’s exactly what we need.
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What would constitute success this season?
Challenging for the Premier League title is always our goal, that’s what we talk about constantly. Based on the strength of our league, which is the greatest in the world, if you’re competing for the Premier League title, you’re competing elsewhere for other silverware as well - whether that’s the Premier League title, whether that's the FA Cup, whether that’s European silverware... we want to go for it all. But we know it’s not a process that’s going to be easy and we know it’s going to require a lot of work - our work has already started and I’m thrilled to be with the group that we are, pursuing the goals that we are.
Is this squad capable of challenging this season?
We’re going to have our work cut out. There are some very strong teams ahead of us, starting with the defending champions and the Champions League winners. We know what we need to do; we know there are squads ahead of us that are very strong. We’ve come back with a stronger squad than we finished with in May in Baku and I’m excited to see what this group can do because I think they’ve got a mentality as well that is... they’re ready to get to work and they know what they need to do on behalf of all of us.
Especially with the uplift in spending, do Arsenal need to return to the Champions League?
That’s obviously something we talk about. There are six great clubs in the Premier League and unfortunately only four spots that are guaranteed [for Champions League qualification]. That’s a goal of ours. The economics involved - to be able to reinvest back into the club, attract different players who only want Champions League football... but our goal is to get back and win the Premier League.
The relationship between Arsenal fans and ownership/club has at times been strained, how beneficial could it be if they united behind the team?
It would be one of the most powerful things that I probably would have... probably the most powerful thing that I ever would have witnessed. Passion can go a couple of different ways and from a fan's perspective you’re only as good as your last match. But knowing the passion of the Arsenal supporter community, it would be an incredible sight to behold. Being here on matchdays, it gives me the chills even just thinking about it. But to know that the supporters were united behind our group would be a very powerful thing and I think this is a group they can really get behind.
At times it feels like your father has been public enemy number one. Is it an aim of yours to build that relationship between the ownership and fanbase?
That’s important. They need to understand who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s important for them to try to understand our personalities as people, because at the end of the day we’re fans - we want to win and it makes our job a lot easier when we win. It’s important for them to know how passionate we are. When I met with some of the fan groups last season, I didn’t ask them for their trust but I told them that trust is earned over time and I would love for you to trust me now but unfortunately that trust has to play out over the next several years. We’re just getting started and hopefully we’ll start to earn more and more trust with the more and more work we put in.
Is KSE here to stay, are you looking to drive Arsenal forward in the long term?
Absolutely, absolutely. I’m thrilled to be involved with the club, thrilled to be involved with all these great people. On the weekends here... just the environment is something that you can’t really duplicate anywhere else, I don’t think. When I tell my friends that are from the States, if they’re traveling through Europe, I automatically try to get them to the Emirates because they need to experience it. It’s really a wonderful place and I think that for footballers around the world, as we move forward as a club, I think the Emirates is a place that is always going to be special to me, it’s going to be special to my family and I’m excited about being here, hopefully for what’s a long time.
Do you intend to continue investing in January and beyond, and what is your vision?
We have the highest of ambitions. In north America, we are trying to win. The Rams were in the Super Bowl last year. I can only imagine what a Champions League final is like after being over in Baku. Our ambitions are the same as the fans. We want to win and we want to win as much and as often as possible. And doing it in a fun way, where they’re seeing some really entertaining football as well. I think we’ve got the group to do it. As for January, I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to evaluate some things in the short term and figure out where we might need to address areas going forward, so when January does roll around we’re going to be proactive again.
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Any regrets as owners, anything you would have done differently?
I don’t have any regrets. If you have any regrets, I think it’s just simply over match results - you always wish you could go back and change certain things. Probably the lowest point since I’ve been involved with the club was over in Baku. Because you work so hard for that moment and then to come short at the very last minute, it leaves a feeling and for me that feeling is motivation. That’s what we’ve had as a club all summer and I think it’s going to serve us well as we continue to work in the future.
How passionate are you about Arsenal - what does your fandom look like when you’re not at the match?
It depends on the time of game - if it’s an early afternoon kick-off here in London and I’m in Los Angeles, I’ll usually at least go downstairs because my girlfriend will kill me if I turn that game on at 4.30 in the morning. But whether it’s 4.30am, 6am, 10am or early afternoon for an evening kick-off here [in the UK], I’m usually pretty vocal - my dogs get a little scared! If something goes wrong, I yell a little bit. When I’m here at the Emirates, I’m a little more reserved - that’s a good thing to show! But the passion comes out in all different ways. I think our group here on the football operations side, they’ll tell you that I get a little animated. But when I sit with them during matches, I’m also curious about what we’re doing tactically. I ask questions, I want to understand and it makes for me just a lot of fun because I love the game, I played it as a young man growing up until basically I became too tall and then I started playing basketball unfortunately. But soccer, football, was my first love. I was a right winger and our best player was our left winger, so he would sprint down the left side and I would score all the goals with my head. It was a lot of fun to be a part of that group as a kid, learning to love the game and now to be over here at the highest level and to be involved with it is... I have to pinch myself sometimes.
What’s your final message to the supporters?
I would say be excited, but I’ve already worn that one out over the summer. But I would just say to our supporters: it’s going to be a fun year, we’ve got some talented new players for them to cheer on the pitch and we’re only going to keep working hard on their behalf.
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