The decision to leave Borussia Dortmund to join Arsenal was not one Sven Mislintat made in a hurry. This sounds typical of a thoughtful, down-to-earth man who has made his reputation by looking, listening and trying to get a full picture rather than acting on rash instinct.
Structural change has been needed behind the scenes at Arsenal for some time – even since Ivan Gazidis’s call for a “catalyst for change” it has been a slow burn – but the latest person chosen to refresh the setup brings qualities the club hope will make a real difference. Mislintat, described in Arsenal’s official announcement as “one of Europe’s most respected player recruitment experts” and ostensibly coming in to cast a fresh pair of eyes over the scouting philosophy, has a track record in the Bundesliga that was admired across Germany.
Christoph Biermann, a writer with 11 Freunde, who got to know Mislintat during conversations for a book he is writing about the use of data in football, values the way Mislintat brings together current and traditional modes of assessing football. “He is very interested in modern ideas generated with stats and data but he is also strong when it comes to scouting with the human eye,” Biermann says. “At Borussia Dortmund he worked with a wide range of scouts with different backgrounds. He would listen to the modern guys, and the older guys with more traditional values, to get the complete picture.”
Mislintat’s background, as an amateur player who studied sports science in Bochum, led to his interest in analysing matches and he started off at Dortmund in that department. He happened to be at the right place in the right time, when the club were facing bankruptcy in 2005 and so much was up in the air, to be asked to organise the scouting. So he began by learning. He asked the scouts what they looked for, how and why, educating himself about the role.
“It was a strange way into this but Borussia Dortmund at that time was a perfect place to learn,” Biermann says. “They had limited resources. They had to be very clever and careful in their choices.
“If you look at the incredible turnaround, from when the club was almost bankrupt to reaching the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 2013, four pillars were vital to this. Hans-Joachim Watzke was the organisational force who led the financial reconstruction; Jürgen Klopp transformed the way they played; Michael Zorc as technical director; and the fourth factor was Sven Mislintat, who was so strong in scouting. He possessed a quality for evaluating how well a player would develop in future.”
The best examples include Shinji Kagawa (Mislintat saw his potential when others found it hard to assess in the Japanese second tier), Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ousmane Dembélé. As Biermann points out, it is not as if the latter group were unknown but predicting those who can evolve into elite players is something Mislintat has a nose for. “We are not talking about unveiling someone nobody has ever heard of,” Biermann says. “But to identify someone as becoming world-class, to forecast a career, is a difficult task. He is really good at that.”
In Mislintat Arsenal have found someone whose qualities echo those Arsène Wenger had when he arrived in England. Wenger’s reputation in 1996 was enhanced by what was a golden era in recruitment. He sent Patrick Vieira as a taster – the midfielder arrived a few weeks before the manager sorted his exit strategy from Grampus Eight in Japan and everybody in the ground for Vieira’s Highbury debut was stunned by the instant impact of a special and very different calibre of midfield player. During the three title-winning sides between 1998 and 2004 there was an extraordinary conveyor belt of talent: Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, Kanu, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva, Kolo Touré, Cesc Fàbregas. Contacts in the French market gave Wenger a fantastic advantage but he added from Sweden, Brazil, Ivory Coast and more, slotting seemingly perfect players into the squad.
Wenger had what David Dein, Arsenal’s vice-chairman at the time and the manager’s close ally, described as “encyclopaedic knowledge” of the markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But two major things happened to make it more difficult for Wenger to continue striking gold as he did in that period. First, international scouting and injections of multimillions allowed other clubs to not just catch up but overtake. Second, Dein left Arsenal in abrupt circumstances just over a decade ago, when boardroom manoeuvrings over the potential sale of the old board’s shares to overseas investors led to a fracture. Signing players had been a relatively simple operation – Wenger told Dein he liked a player and Dein made it his business to cut the deal.
Arsenal were left with a vacuum in a critical position at the club. It was not resolved easily. Player recruitment was helped along by Ken Friar, the veteran administrator. A couple of years later Dick Law, an American known to the club from when he assisted negotiations in the transfer of Gilberto Silva, joined the club full time to oversee transfers until he stepped down in September. Meanwhile the scouting department grew in numbers, and Arsenal invested in a data analytics business to try out a sort of Moneyball approach, but making headway in a complicated marketplace brought mixed results. Signings such as André Santos, Yaya Sanogo, Gabriel Paulista and Lucas Pérez never really worked out.
There have been coups – the purchases of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, no matter what happens in the next few months as their contracts run down, will go down as influential in this era of the club. Wenger’s eye for a class act like Santi Cazorla, an unpolished gem like Laurent Koscielny, or a youngster with potential like Héctor Bellerín, has produced some fine goods.
But there have also been duds, dithering and disappointing transfer windows. Some of the finger-pointing for that goes to the manager himself, for indecision on certain targets or not prioritising some physicality in the heart of defence or midfield. Some goes to the scouting department, and the data analytics gurus, whose recommendations do not always fit the bill. Some is directed at the negotiators, with winding down contracts a related problem. Recruitment has been one of the departments that felt in need of an upgrade for a while.
Persuading Mislintat to join took time. He thought long and hard about it, given his family’s needs and his emotional ties to Borussia Dortmund, the club he supported as a boy from the region he grew up in. Despite conflict with Thomas Tuchel during the latter’s spell as Dortmund manager he remained wedded to the club until now.
Mislintat, along together with the contracts expert recruited from Team Sky, Huss Fahmy, is tasked with reviving Arsenal’s dormant gift for spotting talent.