CrossBar sat down with Football London’s Arsenal correspondent James Benge in an exclusive interview to talk about football, Arsenal, finances, and much more.
The CrossBar team would like to thank James for giving us the opportunity to talk about the game we love and cover.
CB: Welcome James, first up How are you doing?
James Benge: I’m alright, It’s a strange time, and obviously here in the UK It kinda feels like we got used to how lockdown was working and now It all might be about to change. I think all that confusion about what’s going on is never a nice state of affairs. But also we all have to be positive, it’s a tough time for everyone and hopefully it becomes easier.
CB: So how did you wound up in Journalism? What was your motivation behind It?
James Benge: So those are two separate questions. I think for me, although I’ve loved football for as long as I can remember It, it was never about football itself. It was about journalism that hold most of the excitement for me.
Specifically, in my teens, I wanted to be a journalist. I always thought to myself that I would either end up going down to music journalism route cause of my teen years or potentially even reporting on the news. I was really passionate about covering housing issues cause obviously in London it’s a huge problem.
So football sort of eventually fell my way, I did my Undergraduate degree then went and did some work in the City of London for a few years. I never actually earned more than a few quid to pay for my Masters in Journalism. The opportunity came up to do some work experience for Evening Standard and it sort of snowballed from there really.
I was incredibly lucky to get a job out of my experience and then suddenly, the start of 2015/16 season I found myself sat in front of Arsene Wenger at the Emirates Cup and then you turn around and go
‘How on earth have I found myself here’ and my journey here has been quite boring to be honest haha.
CB: Speaking of Arsene Wenger, have you ever got the chance to chat with him?
James Benge: Not at GREAT length, I mean most of the time I’ve talked to him is in a press conference with the other journalist. But going back to the start, the very first time I saw him I was struck by how tall he was.
I mean everyone knows he’s tall, but I never really realized. I mean I’m 6’2 and he’s taller than me. He has a really commanding presence to him. The one time I got to speak with him outside of press conferences was when he left Arsenal.
Just talking to him afterward about everything was brilliant. I think one of the reasons journalists like talking to him is that you get the impression he’s always listening and thinking about what he wants to say. He always has a story to tell
I remember joking about Kylian Mbappe with him, and he told me the whole story of, you know, going out to talk to him and all. He always knew, even that summer before he went to PSG, he knew the fact that they hadn’t got him he was never going to be got again.
The boat had passed. He’s just a fantastic story teller is Arsene and such a wonderful wonderful man to listen to. He certainly spoiled us journalists rotten.
CB: So It looks like the Journalists loved listening to Arsene…
James Benge: Oh absolutely!! The thing that hammered that home was during Unai Emery’s time. After a few weeks, people would just stop turning up to his press conferences cause you knew there was nothing interesting to talk about.
Arsene was just..you just wanted to hear him talk about everything. He knew how to play a room as well and one of my favourite moments as an Journalist was the game where Arsenal lost 3-1 to West Brom, dreadful game.
Afterwards, Arsene knew how to completely change the topic and that is something that Alex Ferguson was great at as well. It was a game with a lot of pro and anti wenger stuff and he says “I’ve made up my mind on my future”
He hadn’t, he straight up lied to me but it completely changed the subject. It wasn’t about the planes or the discontent at Arsenal, he made it about him. I always thought he was this human shield for Arsenal. He gave us stuff to write about that made him the focus, never the club for all the problems it’s faced and I think thats a very courageous thing to do.
CB: Ivan Gazidis was pretty divisive as a CEO. We are curious to hear your take on him, What did you feel he did right and wrong?
James Benge: I mean, give me time and I’m sure I can come with something that he did right. I guess you don’t really know the measure of the man in a job like that until he moves on. It’s pretty clear that he was unable to function as a chief executive in terms of actually being able to impose some degree of management on the club.
That’s why Stan Kroenke went over his head and just handed Arsene that contract extension to Arsene Wenger after that 2017/18 FA Cup final. Commercial revenue itself was a huge issue I mean there are mitigating circumstances to that.
Arsenal needed cash upfront and needed to tie themselves to long term deals with Emirates and Nike when they moved into the new stadium. BUT, there were no other partners.
Look at the number of partners Manchester United developed in the 2010s and the late 2000s. You compare that with Arsenal and its not even close. When Vinai joined the club, there was nothing. There was no commercial link beyond the two sponsors in Emirates and Adidas.
It was absolutely nowhere, I mean, from everything I’ve heard internally from the club; Gazidis wasn’t a leader. People talk about Gazidis at Highbury house, the guy was never there, he was never around and available for the staff.
Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham have got their critics and I absolutely understand why. But I think they do understand the importance of building a culture, of taking people on a journey with you. I just don’t think Gazidis did that
No matter how influential Arsene Wenger was, a chief executive of a club with over 1500 employees needs to be able to paint the picture, have a vision and Galvanize the club. I just never understood what Arsenal’s vision was under Gazidis.
Then he left them at the worst possible time. He finally built the club in his own image, built it how he wanted it and he left them in the lurch. He left both Sanllehi and Venkatesham to pick up the post-Arsene Wenger pieces.
CB: Did you ever felt as If there was a sense of friction between Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis?
James Benge: Abolutely! The whole second half of 2016/17 season was played out with Gazidis attempting to sort of asert his will over the club. To not allow himself to be treated less than the manager.
I think he always rubbed up against the idea that this was really Arsene Wenger’s club and he wasn’t really in charge. Wenger was sort of the defacto CEO.
It was pretty clear that there was a battle for power in that season. Look at the appointment of Mislintat, that was something Arsene didn’t want. Look at Sanllehi, he didn’t want a Director of Football which is what he started out as.
That was all about building a structure in which Wenger became much more replaceable. Ofcourse, Arsene’s not gonna like that but It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
It was just a very uncomfortable club at that time I have to say.
CB: Do you feel that because of the role Gazidis played in Arsenal’s finances It’s left Raul Sanllehi with too much to do?
James Benge: Arsenal’s financial picture was quite problematic when the new executive team took over. So the issue is, as Josh Kroenke said, the costs have ballooned hugely and you think about that one fortnight.
When Alexis Sanchez left with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang arriving coupled with Ozil signing that new contract. Sanchez was on about a little over 100 grand a week so you’ve added over £30m pounds a year to your cost space in January 2018.
This was at a time when you were not in the Champions League. The cost of running Arsenal, or a huge chunk of it, was the wage bill. Which mushroomed at a time when revenue was stagnating because of a lack of UCL football. It was no longer a guaranteed thing.
Now I understand taking a risk is part of business, but did Arsenal actually believe that Ozil approaching the twilight of his prime, Mkhitaryan, and Aubameyang minus Giroud and Sanchez would be enough to get the Champions League football?
If not they should never have sanctioned such a massive overhaul of their wage bill. Although since then, Arsenal has done quite well in broadening its sponsor base. But it does not plug the gap that’s left by a lack of Champions League football.
A Lot of these implications boil down to those contracts handed out by Gazidis and everything has been caught up to that. Take the Ramsey decision, the club didn’t want another midfielder, particularly one whos had injury issues on our wage bill.
It’s because of these deals that Arsenal have had to cut their financial gloss in a way they really shouldn’t have to. The club still earns £100m a year from the Emirates stadium but when £17m of that alone goes towards Ozil you kind of see how they put themselves into these situation.
Mind you, If I was in Ozil’s place I would have signed the contract as well. The questions have to be pointed towards the executive team for that deal.