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How Smith Rowe and more have been boosted by Ben Knapper - the loan manager who could become Arsenal's next technical director

12:47 GMT+4 30/11/2021
Emile Smith Rowe Arsenal Huddersfield GFX
Knapper has made some big changes to the way the Gunners operate since taking up one of the most influential roles at the club in 2019

Ben Knapper is a name that few will recognise outside of Arsenal circles, but there aren’t many individuals at the club who are as widely respected as the Gunners’ loan manager.

Since taking on the role in 2019, Knapper has set about revolutionising a loan system in north London that was lagging behind rival clubs and helping bring it more in line with world leaders Chelsea.

It’s a process that is still ongoing, but already Arsenal are reaping the benefits – with the £25 million ($33m) deal they struck with Newcastle for Joe Willock in the summer seen as a major success story for Knapper.

And for those who know and work with the 34-year-old, that type of deal will be the first of many.

“Ben is a massively important cog in the wheel,” one source who has regular dealings with Arsenal told GOAL.

“He takes the job very seriously. To my mind, he’s a future technical director, no question about it.”

Knapper first joined Arsenal in 2010 as a football analyst from statistical analysis firm Prozone.

He stayed in that role for five years before earning a promotion to the position of lead football analyst.

His primary responsibility during that time was supporting the first-team coaching staff with match preparation. 

He would focus on the opposition and how they could set up, before presenting his findings to the manager and coaching staff ahead of the upcoming fixture.

“I look back so fondly on those times,” Knapper told the Arsenal matchday programme during a recent interview. “I learnt so much and it was a real privilege to work with the coaches that I did.

“Eventually, though, I sought a new challenge and I’ve always been really interested in the medium to long-term, more strategic side of running a football club.” 

So in February 2019, Knapper was appointed as Arsenal’s loan manager.

It was a position that was created for him as the club were aware that rivals within the Premier League had stolen a march on them with how they utilised the loan system, especially Chelsea, who were treating it as a major revenue stream.

And, since then, he has worked closely alongside technical director Edu, academy manager Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta – who was appointed as first-team boss in December 2019 – to overhaul the process around managing loans at the Emirates Stadium.

“Ben’s been magnificent to be fair,” Arsenal defender Jordi Osei-Tutu told GOAL.

Osei-Tutu is currently spending the season with Nottingham Forest having spent the 2019-20 campaign in Germany with VfL Bochum and last season with Cardiff City.

“For someone who has come into the role, he’s been perfect,” added the 23-year-old. “He calls me, I call him. He always messages me as well to see how training is going.

“When I play a match, he’ll sit down and watch the game and call me afterwards to give me a summary of how he thought I played, which helps me a lot.

“Previously, I heard a lot of players were forgotten about when they went on loan. That’s why they’ve brought Ben into place and I think the system now is working better.”

Knapper’s primary role as loan manager is to help Arsenal’s young players transition from academy football to the senior game.

With the way under-23s football now operates, youngsters often need to go out into the senior game to give them the experience they need before they can really be considered as ready to make an impact for the first-team at the Emirates.

And that is where Knapper comes in. 

When Arsenal have a player they believe will benefit from a loan spell, he will carefully analyse the clubs that are interested and work out which will suit the player better in terms of the opportunities he will get to develop.

“That’s one of my main responsibilities really,” he explained. “To help inform the strategy behind these decisions.

“That means being more organised and having more player-specific development plans and then trying to interface with the market to bring those to life.

“Conversations to plan for these things are constantly ongoing, often a window or two in advance, particularly for the younger players.”

Emile Smith Rowe is a recent success story for Arsenal’s loan system.

He was deemed to have outgrown U23s football, but was not yet considered ready to really make a significant impact on the first-team squad, so he was sent out to Huddersfield in January 2020.

The young playmaker made a big impression with the Championship club and six months after returning he forced his way into Arteta’s plans and has since gone on to become an England international.

“Emile used his time at Huddersfield to grow and develop all aspects of his game and then came back to reintegrate and go on to do what he’s now doing in our first team,” said Knapper.

“He’s a real example of the positive work that can be done in this space.”

Whilst the main objective when it comes to academy players is to try and help them progress to the senior side, that clearly can’t happen all the time.

More often than not young players are unable to make the step up and have to move on to continue their career.

For Knapper, this is just as important and this is where Arsenal have spent the past two years trying to claw back the lead that Chelsea have taken when it comes to generating revenue from players out on loan.

It is now just as important for the club to use the loan system to help bring in cash.

They did that with Willock in January when they opted to send him to Newcastle over several other clubs as they believed getting regular minutes in the Premier League under an experienced manager like Steve Bruce would help his development.

It was an inspired choice, with Willock’s exploits while at St James’ Park seeing his value dramatically increase in just a few short months.

Had he been sold in January, Arsenal would have been fortunate to receive £10m ($13m), but they could now end up pocketing close to £25m should all the add-ons be met from the deal they eventually reached with Newcastle.

“We’re trying to be much more deliberate and strategic about the whole process,” Knapper explained. “We think that on every level that makes sense. Morally, economically and from a sporting perspective.”

Arsenal have 17 players out on loan this season, seven of which are first-team players, with the other 10 coming from the youth team.

Knapper is in close contact with all of them, from Willliam Saliba at Marseille, to Reiss Nelson at Feyenoord and goalkeeper Dejan Iliev at SKF Serad in Slovakia.

He will watch their games – either in person or on video – and then report back to Arteta, Mertesacker and Edu to keep the management team updated on their progress throughout the season.

“Ben has been very important,” Iliev told GOAL. “I’m constantly in touch with him.

“In Slovakia, I was constantly speaking to him and he came over there to see me. We speak after the games. Whether it’s been a good game or a bad game, he gives me positives and he believes in me.

“So, he has been very good for me, very supportive. I really respect him and I appreciate what he does.”

In just under three years, Knapper has brought Arsenal’s loan system into the modern era.

His forward thinking and analytical approach to decision-making has seen him garner the respect of many in the game, from players, agents and club officials.

Most who work with him on a regular basis see him as a rising star behind the scenes in football.

“He’s got trust from within,” one source said. “He’s got trust with agents and trust with the players and he has made a huge difference to the way Arsenal operate in the loan market.

“Chelsea are the world leaders and Ben doesn’t have the numerical staff that they do, but when you compare Arsenal to Spurs for example, then they are on a different level now.

“Ben is very personable, which is always important. He’s very diligent and analytical. He’s got a good eye and good people skills with the players. He understands how they are thinking.

“But he’s also very good at talking to the clubs that are interested so he’s able to multitask. You get certain recruitment people who are not good ambassadors for clubs sometimes, but Ben is.

"He will go a long way.”