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Andoni Zubizarreta & Arsenal? The best sports chief ever SACKED by Barcelona

COMMENT: So Arsenal? Time for a second go? If not Monchi, then what about Zubi? The best sporting director ever sacked by Barcelona...

In France they're saying he's on his way. Increasingly isolated this season at Olympique Marseille, Andoni Zubizarreta has told family members he'll be moving to London in June. Having this season fallen out with coach Rudi Garcia and seen his powers watered down by the board, Zubi has had enough. His almost three-year tenure with OM has run it's course. With his contract now due, it's time for a new challenge.

And that new challenge appears to be Arsenal. The European Cup winner accepting an offer from old friend and fellow ex-Barca director Raul Sanllehi to take on the newly created technical director's role with the Gunners.

Now of course, we've heard this record before. The aforementioned Monchi also had agreed terms with Sanllehi - eventually - before turning his back on the Gunners and accepting a financially superior offer from former club Sevilla. But for now, those in France are adamant: Zubi will be the new technical director of Arsenal.

And it's a coup for the club. A sporting director known for uncovering little known gems, as he did with Morgan Sanson two years ago. Along with boasting the profile and persuasive powers to convince readymade talent to buy into what he's selling. Patrice Evra, Dimitri Payet and Kevin Strootman just three such names whom chose a Zubizarreta built OM ahead of offers from across Europe.

But it's at Barca where his legacy is still being felt today. And an experience which remains one of great injustices seen in football this decade.

Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic are all Zubi signings. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were also brought to the club - before moving on - by their former goalkeeper. Yet within months of that team of Suarez, Rakitic et al being assembled - plus the hiring of Luis Enrique as coach - Zubi was sacked by president Josep Maria Bartomeu. The sporting director shown the door for a team that apparently just wasn't up to it. That same season, the squad that Zubi built would win the Treble. And go onto dominate the LaLiga for years to come.

Even Carles Puyol, the former captain, resigned in disgust. Zubi - ever looking ahead - had brought in Puyol to learn the ropes with the view of potentially succeeding him. Instead, Bartomeu's desperate political play saw the Blaugrana great walk out and form a new management company with former teammate Ivan de la Pena.

"It hurt me a lot in the beginning and in a way it still hurts me," recalls Zubizarreta. "My goodbye created for me, perhaps, an exaggerated bitterness. Maybe also because I stayed in Barcelona and everything was around me. There was a curious mixture of pride, for the fact (of the Treble), with a bitter point."

You expect he will go to the Gunners with eyes wide open. Well aware of the spending restrictions the club finds itself in. After a previous spell with Athletic Bilbao, where he gave current Barca coach Ernesto Valverde his big break, Zubizarreta knows how to work with a limited budget. But given his success dealing at the market's top end, he won't want the handcuffs to be on for long.

"There are players who say no, there are clubs that also refuse or put prices that are out of reach," says the Basque. "But being a sports director of Barça is much easier than Rayo or Athletic. Although each one has its process and requirements in the LaLiga."

But that isn't to say Zubi is a chequebook manager. At Barca it was his decision to veto the signing of then Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos. Zubizarreta preferring to back La Masia graduates Sergi Roberto and Sergi Samper, now of Vissel Kobe, over the German, who would eventually sign for Real Madrid.

"You always take players from different age groups. To watch the average age of the squad. It's important you do not let a team age together," he says.

And that's his approach. Always looking forward. Discussing his appointment of Valverde at Athletic, Zubizarreta let us into how he handles the responsibility of his job.

"The day we signed Valverde for Athletic, I said: 'Tomorrow I start looking for a coach'. It's like fashion; we work to know the trend of next year. But we also do it with the co-operation of the coach. I always tell him who I like and why."

And in France they now say it will be Arsenal who next benefit from the Zubi approach. After Monchi, he's more than an adequate alternative. Only this time, Arsenal, be sure you actually get his signature on a contract.

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Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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