BY JEFF BRADLEY
On Saturday night in Harrison, N.J., Arsenal will take on former star player Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls in a friendly. Unlike other English Premier League teams like Manchester United and Manchester City, who are going to be playing a number of preseason games on American soil, Arsenal is here for one game and one game only.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger and chief executive Ivan Gazidis (formerly the deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer) were in Hoboken, N.J., on Thursday to speak at the Emirates Business Breakfast, and took some time afterward to speak exclusively to SI.com about the upcoming season and all things Arsenal:
SI: Let’s get this one out of the way for American fans. We’ve heard a lot about Gedion Zelalem. We’ve seen bits of him on YouTube. He is eligible to play for the United States national team if he acquires citizenship. And he’s on your roster for the game on Saturday night against the New York Red Bulls. What can you tell us about him?
Wenger: He is a player with a good eye and good technique and is very agile. He has the ambition to find the ball on the field. So he’s the kind of player who could be of use to the United States. He’s in some ways the type of player the U.S. was missing in the World Cup.
He is potentially an international player, for sure. But the next two or three years he will have to show he has the mental qualities to fill that potential. That’s what’s at stake for him now. If he grows physically, since he’s slim, and continues to develop his mentality, the potential is there for him to be a top professional player.
SI: Is the potential there for Gedion to play for Arsenal [first team]?
Wenger: Right now, I don’t think he’s ready. I don’t think he’s ready in the next six months. Next season, I hope to say yes. But if things go quicker than expected, maybe from January onwards. The American fans can see him play on Saturday night.
SI: Do you think his choice will be to play for the U.S.? (Zelalem, born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, is currently eligible to play for Ethiopia and Germany. He lived in the USA from when he was 9-15 and his father is in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship, according to SI’s Grant Wahl, which would have a trickle-down effect for Gedion)
Gazidis: I don’t know. If you speak to Gedion, it sounds like you’re speaking to an American. And, certainly, when we found him, he was living in D.C. and thinking of himself as a young U.S. kid. But I don’t know, that’s a decision he has to make.
Wenger: He feels American. But who will he choose? I don’t know. He’s a product of modern society. More and more players, like him, have three national teams and have to choose one. Look at Algeria’s World Cup team, 17 of 23 players were born in France.
17-year-old Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem, right, is a target for Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. men’s national team.
SI: Another player we are familiar with here in the U.S. is Joel Campbell, who had an excellent World Cup for Costa Rica. Does he fit in to your plans for this season?
Wenger: I love his talent. Because we love those players, when they have the ball, we think something can happen. He has that special talent, but I have to assess him in preseason to see if he has a chance to play for us, because the competition is very hard. He has matured. When he arrived from Costa Rica, he was not ready mentally for the competition. The consistency, he’s learned that in the last two or three years. He is ready now and I will have to make a decision on him before the season starts.
SI: It’s the “silly season,” as we all know. So everyone wants to know, will Arsenal be making any more big signings? We hear Mario Balotelli and other names in the rumor mill.
Gazidis: I never really like the words “big signing.” Because for us, the key is finding the pieces Arsene wants. What may be a big signing for us may not seem so to others. I would say disregard everything you read. It’s very seldom close to what we’re thinking.
SI: Well, you did already sign Alexis Sanchez. That’s a big signing. Do you have a clear picture of how Alexis will fit into your team?
Wenger: He can play from the middle. He’s a wonderful runner of the ball, so he can play on the flanks as well. We have to find the balance and figure out where he can be most efficient. But he can score goals and he has qualities that are very important in the modern game. He’s strong. He’s a fighter. He’s efficient and he’s quick.
SI: How about Jack Wilshere? I know he’s still only 22, but is he ready to have a breakthrough season for your squad?
Wenger: He looks to be ready and this should be a very important season for him. He was a first pick with the national team two years ago, but at the World Cup he was not always a regular first-choice. Talent-wise and potential-wise, he’s a first-choice player for the English national team, and hopefully a very important player for our club this season.
SI: Arsenal had a fourth-place finish for the second year in a row, but it’s been 10 years since Arsnenal have won an English Premier League title. Can you contend this year?
Wenger: We did last year. We were 128 days on top of the league. We had many injuries, but it was very tight. And I expect it will be very tight again. We are ready to compete. We have the hunger. We have a strong confidence, but it’s always difficult to know how much stronger the other teams have become. The Premier League will be a close race.
SI: How difficult was it to be the Arsenal manager when teams like Chelsea and Manchester City were spending so freely?
Wenger: It was very difficult because the demand for success at the club his huge. Just before Ivan arrived at the club, I can remember board meetings where we sat there, and thought, ‘How can we manage to survive?’ But now we move into a different era again. We went through a patch where we had restricted finances. We went through a time where other clubs had unlimited resources. Now we’re going through a period in the game where it looks like, with financial fair play, the era of unlimited resources is finished. Now, it looks like we can compete again. We managed to get through the storm without too much damage.
SI: How challenging was it, in this age of the social network, to keep your team focused and tune out the noise, when the club was not contending for EPL titles?
Wenger: For me, inside the club, all that’s important is the next game. But sometimes we are not conscious of the speed of the change in the environment outside the club. It is like we live in a bubble, but from year to year, things change so much. Not only in the game, but in the world. When you’re focused only on the next game, you can lose perspective. Maybe it’s better that we are not overly conscious of it.
I said to a former player of mine, ‘Sometimes I drive home from a game, feeling the sadness of hundreds of thousands of people, our fans. I feel guilty.’ And the player said, ‘I’m glad you never said that to me (when I was playing). I wouldn’t have been able to play if you said that to me.’
SI: You’ve had longevity in your position as manager that’s hard to comprehend having taken the position at Arsenal in 1996. Have you ever thought, ‘This could be my last game if I lose?’ Does that ever cross your mind?
Wenger: Of course. I try not to worry too much about myself. I worry about the club. I worry about reaching the targets. I just want to win for the club. Even during this period, where we were short (of finances) we felt we had to reach the Champions League. We had to have at least 55,000 people at every home game. I think the club has been very loyal to me, when we’ve gone through some difficult times. But I also feel like I’ve returned that. I think I’ve been very loyal to Arsenal, because I’ve had many offers.
Gazidis: Think about this club. In 2002 and 2003, it’s really at the top of the world. And Arsene is at the top of the world. We have fantastic players. It’s us and Manchester United battling at the top of the Premier League. It all looks amazing for the Arsenal Football Club. But what does the club do? And what does Arsene do? And what do the board members do? They say we’re more ambitious than this.
Most people would have just sat back and said, ‘This is great. Everybody loves us.’ But what do they do? They throw all of that up in the air, a massive risk. They say, ‘We’re going to commit all the resources of this club to building a stadium that we think we are going to need 15 and 20 years from now if we want to be a really global football club.’
It’s an incredibly bold decision. They do it, they see it through, go through all the difficult times. Arsene continued to do an incredible job, threading the eye of the needle on the pitch. The board does an incredible job threading the eye of the needle off the pitch. We are now, just now, all these years later, beginning to come out of that. Arsene navigated us through that.
Yet it seems people just assume, at Arsenal, we’re going to be in the Champions League. They assume we’re going to be near the top of the Premier League. There’s nothing that really distinguishes us from the other clubs in England, other than this man.
SI: Still, incredible to have one a manager in the EPL survive 19 seasons.
Gazidis: It’s required, along the way, a lot of resistance to public pressure, a lot of unity. It’s not been an easy task, but now we begin to see what this was all really about. It’s an easy story to tell now, but at the time it was difficult. One of the huge factors, as well, is the stability of the club. From my perspective, we have a board that has always been supportive.
by SI Staff But we also had an owner come in who’s respected the traditions of the club, who’s not turned everything upside down, in Stan Kroenke. Having him in the majority position has been a tremendously good thing for the club. He’s respected the direction of the club, he’s endorsed it and promoted it. He’s brought a lot of commercial capability to what we do. A lot of owners would’ve tipped everything upside down.
SI: Speaking of challenges, Ivan. What has it been like for you, going from a top executive and one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer to a storied club like Arsenal, where expectations are so high?
Gazidis: It was a very different type of challenge. With MLS we were growing the sport and building an infrastructure for the game from the ground up. The wonderful thing about that was the degree of influence you’re able to have. And now the pride I feel to see that soccer is establishing itself and that MLS is becoming a permanent fixture, building stadiums. That was a challenge and an incredible responsibility, as well. But coming to Arsenal is a very different type of challenge. This is a club with 128 years of history, a manager who is iconic, in a sport that is dominant and well-established in its country.
SI: Arsene, were you skeptical of bringing in an outsider like Ivan?
Wenger: I was interested to see how he’d adapt, but I’ve really grown to respect his work and all he has been able to do for the club. We’ve become better in all areas.
Gazidis: We knew that we had solutions on the business side because we’d taken a very big step forward with the new stadium, which opened in 2006, but it was clear that the stadium alone was not going to be enough to provide us with the platform we needed so that Arsene could have the resources he needed to make the club successful.
The world of football had changed. Chelsea was spending and spending big. Manchester United was commercializing very rapidly. Their revenues were going up. So we had to come up with a plan for transitioning, so we could get the commercial revenues we’d need five years in the future. So that required a balancing act because we had incredible tradition and some fantastic people at the club with real experience and knowledge. But we also needed to bring in new skills. People who’d respect the values and traditions and partner with new commercial partners and connect the club with its huge global audience.
People loved us and the football we had been playing under Arsene, but we didn’t have the capabilities in the club to make the connections, to digitally connect with that fanbase. We needed internal change and I think we managed well to develop that. Now we’re seeing the fruits. Some of those commercial partnerships have enabled us to sign players like Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, but also to invest in things like our training ground and our youth development system. We feel like our digital positioning with our fans is second to none. Fans from all around the world are able to connect with us on a daily basis now, and that’s not the way it was five years ago.
BY JEFF BRADLEY