Edu interview: The five-year plan for Arsenal, Saka's contract and 'cleaning' the squad

“It’s important people understand,” says Edu, “because if you don’t understand, it’s difficult to support. Or even difficult to judge.”

Edu is here to explain. In the relaxed setting of Arsenal’s Orlando hotel, Arsenal’s technical director talks through his strategy for the club.

Communication is a big part of Edu’s job. Much of his work involves building and managing relationships with players and agents — and he has an easy manner that makes him highly personable.

But today the job is different: it is about telling us where Arsenal have been, where they are now, and where they intend to go.

His intention is simple: clarity. “We have a strategy, we have ideas, we have a plan,” he says. “You like or don’t like. That’s fine. I accept that. But I say a lot: people have to understand what you’re going to do. People have to really get the idea and then let’s judge it.”

Over the course of the conversation, Edu discussed everything from the inception of the current strategy to the decision to give Mikel Arteta a new contract and the crucial thing he said to Gabriel Jesus and his family to persuade him to join Arsenal.

Here, The Athletic’s James McNicholas explains what was discussed, and what it tells us about Arsenal’s possible trajectory.

Edu on… when the club began implementing the current strategy

“With all due respect, the plan started really when we decided to change Unai Emery (in November 2019). That was my first planning — to go to the board, explain to them the reason we want to change, the reason we want to go a different direction.

“The idea behind it was to have a coach with a very clear idea. A very clear plan: very clear structure, how he wants to play. And from that we’re going to build something together.

“If you have a coach and it’s difficult to read how he plays — in terms of system, characteristics, etc — it makes our life super complicated. And then we can make a lot of mistakes on recruitment because we don’t really understand and it’s not easy to find the right player for the right system for the right coach.

Edu with Arteta ahead of his appointment in December 2019 (Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We had to be really brave to make the decision in the middle of the season because internal people said to me: ‘Wow, we never did that before’. I said, ‘No problem, in Brazil we do that a lot. Don’t worry!’

“Of course, I’m joking but I said: ‘No, no: we will be fine. But if you have already diagnosed it’s not our plan, change. As soon as possible. Or you’re going to postpone, postpone, postpone’. In football sometimes the decision has to be (made) quickly. It hurts, it’s challenging, but it has to be done.”

James McNicholas: It makes sense that Edu recognises the termination of Emery’s contract as the true starting point for his Arsenal tenure. After all, he wasn’t around when Emery was appointed in May 2018. At that time, Arsenal were still considering the appointment of Emery’s long-time collaborator, Monchi, for the technical director role.

Although Edu was too courteous to say this explicitly, the inference appeared to be Emery’s Arsenal were a muddled team with a confusing identity — and certainly, that was the perception of most onlookers.

Edu made a quip about Brazilian football’s willingness to dispense with managers quickly but there was a serious point underlying it: he considered the need for change fairly urgent. It was uncharacteristic for Arsenal, but necessary.

They were, by then, a club lacking direction. The appointment of Arteta, and Edu’s increasing influence in implementing a squad-building strategy, changed that.

Edu on… choosing Mikel Arteta

“When I met Mikel, I went to his house, we had a great relationship straight away: conversation, ideas, etc.

“Then I see: this guy has a plan — a football plan… the style, players, characteristics. Very technical points: how he wants to play, people inside or external, how we’re going to press. It’s a lot of technical stuff, and he showed me he has a very clear idea of how he wants to play football, which again helps us to make decisions. Now he’s going to make the club’s life easier.

“Then I give to the club a five-year plan. I said to Mikel and to the board: ‘Guys, 2022-23 will be the season we’re going to be much better. We have to be patient… It would be impossible to take everyone out and put everyone in, we need a process to do that. We need good decisions, we need to be brave, we’re going to (face) some difficult moments with players, agents, etc. But that’s the plan’.”

McNicholas: Edu has thrown down the gauntlet to Arteta and his squad by naming this season as one where Arsenal ought to be a force again. But why not? The manager has received significant financial backing and considerable patience.

This is not a new position on Edu’s part. As early as December 2020, The Athletic reported he believed the squad would and could only be truly competitive in time for the 2022-23 campaign.

During the conversation, Edu admitted qualifying for the Champions League last season would have put the club a year ahead of schedule. That makes it clear the aim for 2022-23 is to return to Europe’s elite competition, be that via the top four or winning the Europa League.

Edu’s respect for Arteta was apparent throughout. He was at pains to point out that the squad-building strategy is not purely his own but something shared with the manager, the executive team, and the board — and “everybody feels part of the process”.

Of course, there’s an apparent contradiction in all this. If Arsenal and Edu hatched a plan to refresh and rejuvenate the squad in December 2019, why did they later commit to contracts for veterans like David Luiz and Willian?

Edu on… why the club then signed older players like David Luiz and Willian

The signings of Luiz and Willian seemed to go against what Arsenal were trying to achieve (Photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

“We presented to the board our plan. We received a lot of good messages and then during that journey, that two years, David Luiz and Willian were the players which we considered at that moment the players to help a little bit to maintain the short term in the good level.

“Right or wrong, that was the idea. Because I’d say, ‘Willian, free. Wow. If he’s feeling well, he’s going to help us for sure for short periods. David Luiz with experience, knowledge of the Premier League, OK for short periods, maybe for the process he’s going to help us’. Works, doesn’t work. But the idea was there.”

McNicholas: In any process, mistakes will be made. That’s transfers for you: there can be a seemingly sound logic behind a deal, and yet it can still go awry. The merits of Luiz’s time with Arsenal are debatable; the failure of Willian’s brief spell is not.

Clearly, Arsenal and Edu felt they needed a few experienced players to help the bridge the gap in those first couple of years. Perhaps, though, they did not choose the right ones. Hopefully, lessons have been learned.

Edu on… ‘cleaning’ the squad

“Listen, for me, there are three elements which in my role I have to be really prepared to be strong on the message to the players: when the player is 26-plus, big salary and he’s not performing? He’s killing you, that kind of player. Because you don’t have a valuation to sell the player, the player is comfortable — Arsenal, London, beautiful, everything is fantastic — and has a good salary. How do you move this player?

“So, how many players with that kind of characteristics did we have in the past? Eighty per cent of the squad. That’s why I said to them when I made my plan: ‘Guys, it’s not easy to clean the squad straight away because most of the players have a two, three or four-year contract’.”

McNicholas: Edu has overseen huge turnover in the squad since taking over as technical director. Even if you discount his first summer of 2019, in which he was largely acclimatising to the job and working under head of football Raul Sanllehi, 16 players have left the club permanently on his watch. There has been much necessary churn.

Of those players, however, only Emi Martinez, Joe Willock and Alex Iwobi have moved for fees in excess of £15million ($18m). Edu would doubtless point out that those three do not have the unfortunate “three elements” he named above, making their sales easier.

Edu on… struggling to get fees for departing players

“If you imagine, ‘Oh, no problem: this season we’re going to expose the player a little bit more and then we sell them’ — no, be realistic. You don’t want to sell the player. Try to avoid one more year with the problem inside, in the dressing room, expensive, not performing. Clean, take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. To leave is better. Because that guy is sometimes also blocking someone.

“I know it hurts, I know it’s strange when I go to the board and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to pay a player to leave, than maintain them’. But I consider it an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive’. I say, ‘No, it’s investment’. But someone will pay if you sell? No, guys — if the player is above 26, 27 and not performing, big salary, no chance.

McNicholas: This may be the most controversial statement Edu made during our conversation — and he probably knows it, given it’s a case he’s had to make to the Arsenal board.

Arteta and Edu have tried to instigate cultural change and have effectively decided there may be a financial price to pay for that. They feel they’re nearly there, with a slimmer wage bill and a more motivated squad.

Of course, continuing to allow players to leave for free — or even to pay them to go — is not sustainable. But Edu believes Arsenal are close to breaking that cycle.

“Tell me how many players in the squad we have with those (negative) characteristics today,” he says. “I can tell you, next summer, have a look at the valuation of the players we have, the age of the group that we have, and the salaries that we have today. Now, as part of the plan, we create value in our players today.”

Edu on… the timing of Arteta’s new contract

Edu, director of football operations Richard Garlick and CEO Vinai Venketasham with Arteta as he signs a new contract in May (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“I was an important part of this process as well. Of course, I can recommend, I can talk, but the decision in the end is for the owners and the board.

“But it was part of the plan as well, because we had discussions where we said, ‘OK, now we’re going to face a transfer window’. And if you want to be a club like Arsenal, and for people to see us as very organised, well-planned, our manager has to be renewed. Because the agents and the players can say, ‘OK, what’s happening there? One year? Six months? A three-year contract?’.

“We say, ‘No, no, no — he’s our coach, he’s our manager, and he’s going to be here with us for a minimum of three years more. That’s how to avoid any doubts when you’re going to sign a player.’

McNicholas: This feels entirely self-explanatory. Arsenal’s primary objective for 2021-22 was to secure European football. Once that was achieved, Arteta’s contract was extended. Would the likes of Gabriel Jesus or Oleksandr Zinchenko have joined the club were the manager not tied down?

Edu on… why Arsenal failed to make the top four

“I felt in some important moments we needed players like the players we are signing today.

“In those kinds of moments — we’re going to play an important game, pressure, we have to win the game to be in the Champions League — you need a squad with (an attitude of) ‘I want to kill someone’. You know?

“I’m not saying we don’t have a (good) squad, but we need a bigger squad with personalities, with some behaviours, that say, ‘I don’t lose that game. I will kill someone but I don’t lose the game’. I think we’ve added some more players with that kind of character.”

McNicholas: So there you have it: Arsenal have added killers.

In all seriousness, there were certainly moments during the run-in last season where that youthful Arsenal team looked a bit callow; almost daunted as the prize grew closer. That’s something that time and experience can alleviate, but signings will help too.

Edu on… if Arsenal have introduced winning mentality

“For sure. Talk to Gabriel (Jesus), talk to Zinchenko, talk to Fabio (Vieira). (Points to head) Here is the win.

“Champions League, OK — I accepted that, because I want to be realistic. But here in my head, I want to win. A club like Arsenal, at our size, is not building to be fighting for fourth place. I’m sorry. We have to realistic — there’s City, Liverpool, etc — that’s fine, I accept that. But also, you cannot accept that. Here, when you join this club, when you see our size, we cannot accept it.

“That’s why I was really, really hurt when I arrived. I said, ‘That’s not the mentality of this football club. What’s happening? Everybody’s comfortable, everybody’s OK…’

“Fuck you, ‘OK’. ‘OK?!’ No, I don’t want to lose games, we have to be there again. And I want to see the physios, I want to see the scouting, I want to see everyone with that kind of feeling, where you say, ‘Fucking hell, now we are going to really go for things’. And I think we are changing. Again, it doesn’t happen overnight, but I think we are changing and putting some good mentality in the squad. Characters.”

In Jesus, Edu believes Arsenal have bought a player with a winning mentality (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

McNicholas: Because we are now accustomed to seeing him in his suit, it’s sometimes overlooked that as a player, Edu was part of the Invincibles. He also worked closely with the Brazil national team. He has some sense of the kind of mentality that is required in a successful dressing room, and is looking to introduce that at Arsenal.

When he spoke on this, he was passionate. There was a fire there. His hunger to return Arsenal to prominence was apparent.

Edu has a point on the new signings: Jesus and Zinchenko are both serial winners, particularly in the Premier League. Even 22-year-old Fabio Vieira’s trophy haul is impressive: he featured in two Portuguese Primeira Liga triumphs and won the UEFA Youth League as a teenager.

Edu on… persuading players to join

“Face to face — I go there, I meet the player, if I have to travel to Germany, anywhere. I want to see the player, the agent, the family, put everyone together and say, ‘Guys, listen to me and what I want to say’.

“And then I sell what we are doing, our project. Because it works both ways, doesn’t it? I want to show them, but I want to see as well if they want to enjoy because if I smell something wrong (then) thank you very much, I go (and don’t sign them).

I faced an experience like this, for a player in Dortmund. I started to talk to them, engage the player, talk to the family, but always, ‘Yeah, but what about my contract?’. I said, ‘Listen, I want to understand first if you engage with this, if you like this. If you like it, I can talk, but not the opposite side’. ‘Ah no, let’s talk about the money…’ No, no, no, no. And one day, I said to the agent: ‘Guys, thank you very much, it’s not what I want to do’. Boom.”

Edu gives Matt Turner a tour of the training ground (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

McNicholas: Communication is arguably Edu’s greatest asset. He’s a compelling and amiable personality and it’s easy to see how he might persuade a player to choose Arsenal.

He tries to bring a human touch to his work. “It’s a personal style,” he says. “I’ve always been like this. Even when I was a player, you can’t avoid conflict in football but I always tried to work out how to manage that conflict.

Arsene Wenger was a very human guy. I learned a lot from him. He put a lot in place that maybe people didn’t see. He really tried to look after you and your family. He was always very focused on taking care of the people. I liked that.”

Edu on… Jesus

“I worked with Gabriel as well from the national team. I know him, I know his family, I know everyone and that’s why I decided to go there to talk to the family.

“I said to him one thing, which his agent said was really nice. I said: ‘Gabriel, I’m here to try to sign you, but not the Gabriel from this season, I want the Gabriel from the other seasons because this season you’ve not played the way I know you. You’ve lost your shine. When I see you this season, I’m not seeing you as before because I know you very well. I want the Gabriel from last season because again you have to be Gabriel’.

“He looked at me and said: ‘You’re right’.”

James McNicholas: Based on the evidence of pre-season, in which he’s scored four goals in four games, Jesus is steadily getting some of his shine back.

Edu also touched on using data as part of his presentation to Jesus and his representatives. He showed the striker evidence of some of the team’s attacking deficiencies and illustrated how Jesus could plug the gap. “It’s quite clear if you see where we were last season,” Edu explains. “The data can show why we didn’t make the top four.”

Edu on… Missing out on targets

“I have a very good relationship with agents and players because it’s part of my role. But when I start to talk to them, they explain to me as well, not only some ideas about Arsenal (but other clubs too). I say, ‘Be transparent to me because I can help you: what possibilities do you have? What do you want to do? I can give you information as well but give me a bit as well’.

“For example, Raphinha was clear — and Deco is my close friend — he wants to go to Barcelona. That is his dream. So I said, ‘Thank you very much’.”

McNicholas: Last summer, Arsenal had a relatively free run at major signings like Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale. This summer, they have pursued a different calibre of signing — and consequently, the competition was more intense. Raphinha went to Barcelona; Lisandro Martinez to Manchester United.

What’s indicative of the strategic thinking at Arsenal is when they realised their pursuit of Martinez was unsuccessful, they quickly pivoted to Zinchenko. It remains to be seen if they will recruit another wide forward in Raphinha’s stead.

Edu on… reducing the wage bill

“To be fair, my first thoughts were about the quality in the squad. Of course, I have to be aware of the salaries. But I started by thinking, ‘This player is not the profile I want’. And when they have a big salary then you have to take the decision as soon as possible to try to reduce the wage bill.

There’s a lot of discussions about how to manage our wage bill but if a guy is performing and has a big salary, that’s not a problem. The problem is always with performance. We would be happy to pay any money if the guy is performing (at the) top.”

McNicholas: Arsenal have shed some huge earners in recent years — the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were all on significant salaries.

Due to missing out on European football, and the financial impact of the pandemic, Arsenal have forcibly had to rebalance their books. But it’s not just about cost-cutting — the intention is by bringing the average salary down, Arsenal make their players more attractive to prospective buyers.

Of course, freeing up all that salary budget does leave room for some important contract renewals.

Edu on… how Saka’s contract talks are going

“Good, very good. Everybody is happy.”

(Edu is asked about the apparent delay in finalising the deal.)

Saka renewing his contract would be a huge boost for Arsenal this summer (Photo:) Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“It’s normal. We’re going to sit and put all the expectations in the right place. Our expectations and his, his family and his agent’s expectations, and put everything together. The main thing is how he feels, how he feels comfortable with us. He’s happy, we’re happy, so it’s just: sit down and find a solution.”

McNicholas: This will be reassuring news to Arsenal supporters. The renewal of Bukayo Saka this summer would arguably be as big a boost as any signing. The key thing appears to be both Arteta and Edu are convinced of Saka’s happiness at Arsenal — and there haven’t been any public contradictions to suggest otherwise.

Arsenal are absolutely intent on keeping Saka, but the motivation to build value in the squad is that you will, eventually, sell some of them.

Edu on… eventually having to sell players

“Part of the plan is when you are starting to sell the players — that’s the challenging one. You already need someone prepared. Sell, if we are able to do that, then ‘chapeau’. It’s very challenging.

“For example, let’s talk about next season or another. If we sell, I don’t know, Bukayo Saka — that’s not going to happen but it’s just an example — we as a club have to prepare his replacement straight away. So someone has to be in the squad or we have to manage the market well so, if we sell him, we have someone straight away to replace him in our model.”

McNicholas: First things first: it was absolutely clear in our conversation that Saka was purely being cited as an example, as we had just been discussing his contract. There are no plans to sell Saka now or any time soon.

But Edu’s point stands: sooner or later Arsenal will want or need to cash in on some of the value they are building in this squad. And when they do, they must be prepared.

Edu cited the example of Liverpool signing Luis Diaz in January before the departure of Sadio Mane this summer, as a “very nice plan”. As technical director, that is his responsibility: to keep an eye on the medium and long-term, and the continued evolution of the squad.

We are presumably in year three of Edu’s five-year plan. Arsenal fans will be intrigued to see where they go next.

(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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