Arsenal director Josh Kroenke has revealed conceding four goals in the second half of the Europa League final transformed the Gunners’ approach to recruitment this summer and praised club staff for “working their magic” in the transfer market.
The Gunners lost 4-1 to Chelsea in Azerbaijan in May, consigning them to a third consecutive season outside the Champions League and limiting their spending power.
But speaking to BBC Sport, Kroenke said the disappointment of Baku was a turning point that led Arsenal to become one of the Premier League’s biggest spenders this summer and raise expectations about their prospects for the campaign ahead.
“As the second half of the match unfolded, understanding the position 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,” said Kroenke.
The club, owned by Kroenke’s billionaire father Stan, was criticized early in the summer by supporters’ groups who called on directors to “reinvigorate” the Premier League side with a new approach to player transfers.
Speaking about the aftermath of the Europa League final and the change in transfer targets, Kroenke said: “We knew we wouldn’t have Champions League football and that’s what those types of talents are after. My main message to Vinai [Venkatesham, managing director] and Raul [Sanllehi, head of football] coming back from Baku on the plane and then throughout meetings all day the following day with them and Unai [Emery, head coach], was: ‘Let’s be aggressive and find out what’s possible’.
“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.
“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.”
It was understood that missing out on Champions League qualification would leave Arsenal with a transfer budget of roughly £45m in addition to any income they could generate.
Although the signings of Gabriel Martinelli, Dani Ceballos (loan), William Saliba, Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney, and David Luiz cost well in excess of £100m, much of that outlay will be paid by way of installments over the course of their contracts.
Meanwhile, money was recouped via the sales of Alex Iwobi, Krystian Bielik, Laurent Koscielny, David Ospina, Dominic Thompson, Xavier Amaechi and Carl Jenkinson, Eddie Nketiah’s loan and sell-on clauses related to Ismael Bennacer and Jeff Reine-Adelaide.
When asked whether Arsenal adhered to their self-sustaining model or if finance was injected by their owners Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (KSE), of whom Josh Kroenke is deputy chairman to his father Stan, the 39-year-old said:
“I’m not going to go into too much detail – people can read between the lines of being aggressive and what that might mean.
“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.
“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. The guys went out, worked their magic and I’m happy to have them on our side.”
Reacting to fan pressure?
Kroenke said the protests from fans this summer was not the reason that the club spent more than £100m on players.
“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,” he said. “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.
“The transfer market is an evolving, living, breathing thing. We identified key targets, worked on those deals and over time we were able to execute them.
“That’s hopefully a sign of encouragement for Arsenal fans that, when we’re out in the market place, you might never know what we’re thinking and you could be surprised by some of the names that come up.
“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 going forward, so when January does roll around we’re going to be proactive again.”
When asked what his father’s reaction had been, Kroenke added:
“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 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 types of people and decision-makers here at Arsenal.
I think this summer is a great example of the quality of people that we have.”
‘Emery is exactly what we need’
Arsenal manager Emery succeeded Arsene Wenger on a three-year contract in May 2018 and is charged with improving on last season’s fifth-place finish in the Premier League and being runners-up in the Europa League.
“I think he’s doing a great job – has done a great job and is doing a great job,” Kroenke said. “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 the video, he’s communicating and his daily energy and devotion to his work are fantastic – it’s exactly what we need.
“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 FA Cup, whether that’s European silverware. We want to go for it all.”
Arsenal has won their opening two Premier League games – away to Newcastle and at home against Burnley – but next up is a trip to Liverpool on Saturday and then the visit of Tottenham on 1 September. Could the Gunners materialize as unlikely contenders for the title?
“We’re going to have our work cut out,” Kroenke said. “There are some very strong teams ahead of us, starting with the defending champions [Manchester City] and the Champions League champions [Liverpool].
“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 within 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.”
‘We want to win the Premier League’
Kroenke said that despite finishing 28 points behind champions Manchester City last season, Arsenal is aiming to win the Premier League in the coming years.
The Gunners were top-flight champions five times between 1989 and 2004 but it is now more than 15 years since the ‘Invincibles’ delivered their last Premier League title.
“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 a fun way, where they’re seeing some really entertaining football as well. I think we’ve got the group to do it,” Kroenke said.
“We have the highest of ambitions. In North America, we are trying to win. The [Los Angeles] Rams were in the Super Bowl last year. I can only imagine what a Champions League final is like after being over in Baku.
“There are six great clubs in the Premier League and unfortunately only four [Champions League] spots that are guaranteed. The economics involved – to be able to reinvest back into the club, attract different players who only want Champions League football… our goal is to get back and to win the Premier League.”
‘Absolutely here to stay’
Stan Kroenke’s Kroenke Sports and Entertainment began acquiring Arsenal shares in 2007 and gradually increased its influence over the subsequent decade, eventually taking full control a year ago when rival investor Alisher Usmanov agreed to sell his stake to the Americans.
Sections of the fanbase have been fiercely opposed to KSE and in particular Stan Kroenke, but his son insisted they are “absolutely, absolutely” here to stay and want to build relationships off the pitch for the good of the team on it.
Josh Kroenke said a galvanized Arsenal fanbase could “probably be the most powerful thing that I ever would have witnessed”.
“Passion can go a couple of different ways, 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. He added.
“They need to understand who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s important for them to try and 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 do.
“It’s important for them to know how passionate we are. When I met with some of the fans’ groups last season 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.
“Emirates is a place that is always going to be special to me and my family. I’m excited about being here, hopefully, a long time.”