Theo Walcott, interviewed just after Arsenal beat Newcastle 1-nil to clinch 4th place and the final Champions’ league place said something along the lines of, “We did it, which is great for such a young team, but we’re not satisfied with 4th and now we want to push on and challenge for the title”….
Very nice Theo and a good explanation about our celebrations and how it sets the stage for bigger things. Still, it got me thinking….Are we a truly a young team, and if not, what does it mean going forward?…. Moreover, how do we get from here to there? And (finally) can we expect this team (plus the transfer business over the summer) to really allow us to push on towards our higher aspirations? It’s my belief that our manager has a “plan” which, to the extent it has panned out in the past, gives us a measure of guidance for the future.
After the stadium move “the plan” was clearly based around youth. We couldn’t compete when it came to buying the top, ready-made stars given the new power of Abramovich’s Chelsea. And, of course, this only got more difficult with the emergence of Sheik Mansour’s Manchester City, and (as always) Sir Alex determined to borrow as much as needed to keep Rooney (and bring in others) across town….
Nonetheless, the plan had a measure of promise, and, while some of our younger guys (I’m thinking of Denilson here…) didn’t really pan out, others looked (very) promising. Flashing back to the World Cup final of 2010, we saw our own Robin van Persie as the starting Center Forward for the Netherlands and (our own) Cesc Fabregas as the guy who came on and secured the trophy for Spain with his assist to Iniesta. Sure, “Young Guns” Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott got left off their respective national teams, but both squads underperformed and we thought maybe it would light a fire under the two (very promising) players. A few others (Bendtner, Song and Vela come to mind) did get to play in the tournament, albeit with mixed results.
Of course, 2010-11 wasn’t a breakthrough season at Arsenal and the plan then came in for a major overhaul in the past two off-seasons. Cesc returning to Barcelona was always on the horizon but the hope was to delay it as long as possible. Nasri having his head not just turned, but fully yanked, (Linda Blair style http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO9FD7zI7k0 ) by ManCity’s offer to double the one we had tabled, was something beyond the realm of the normal. Certainly it wasn’t the plan when we bought (and developed) him from Marseilles. Arsene famously spoke of the book he could write and his quip about top teams not losing their two best players suggested that our activities in the summer 2011 window were not exactly choreographed. Queue up early season humiliations (the 0-2 vs Liverpool almost as bad as 8-2 at Old Trafford…), a series of desperation buys at the transfer deadline, and, finally, a very long haul to a final day bum squeaker at West Brom. Ugh.
And then it got worse. Summer 2012 saw another remarkable remaking of the Arsenal first team. Our top scorer, Robin van Persie and our 2nd top scorer (and best assist creator) Theo Walcott were allowing their contracts to wind down (as Nasri had the year before) and the former burnt his bridges on (US) independence day with an outrageous message to the fans. Meanwhile, this public show of indiscipline was matched by more insidious ones from our best midfielder, Alex Song, who was well known for being indifferent to fines for tardiness. RvP and Song would be gone before the season kicked off while the Walcott contract saga persisted into the new year. The bottom line is that three of our best players threatened to leave us and two actually did. Another long year, another last day nail-biter, another “ugh.”
So, these past two summers have been all about replacing our best players, while hoping that losing them wouldn’t kill us. Two years ago, at the transfer deadline, we got Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos and Park Chu Young. (Earlier in the summer we also bought Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.) Last summer we brought in Lucas Poldolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla.
These buy were essential (well, at least the ones that panned out…) and they completely re-shaped the squad. They have also represented a real change in policy as the players we bought were (mostly) older ones. The ones who have emerged as starters, most certainly ARE older. Among the guys who are now in the first 11 (at least when healthy) Arteta is now 31, Mertesacker is 28, Poldoski will be 28 in a week, Giroud is “only” 26 (27 in September) and Cazorla is 28. We also picked up Nacho Monreal (27) in the January window (to spell injured Kieran Gibbs, while sending Andre Santos, 30, out on loan). Add in regulars Bacary Sagna (30), Tomas Rosicky (32) and Laurent Koscielny (27) along with Captain Tomas Vermaelen (27) and a large part of the core of the squad would seem to be at that age where they are playing at the peak of their physical and technical abilities. We cannot realistically expect huge improvements out of this group in the future….
On the other hand, Arsenal also made a conscious effort to promote the idea of an up and coming British core of young players. When Theo Walcott (24) finally signed a contract extension, the team also announced that several other contracts had recently been extended. These included Jack Wilshere (21), Gibbs (23), Carl Jenkinson (21), Aaron Ramsey (22) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (19).
There are some other key young players in the team. Keeper Wojciech Szczesny is 23 and Francis Coquelin is 22.
Intriguingly we have no 25 year olds, though Gervinho only just turned 26 a few days ago.
OK, so what? Well, as research goes, that’s about as deep as I get….
Still, when I look at nothing but the ages of the players I see a generational divide. And I think this would be exacerbated if we looked at the actual contribution (minutes played) of the guys 26-27+ and those 24 and under. The bottom line is that (due to changes in plan…) we are currently NOT a young team and that we will require a LOT of new guys to come in and replace the older guys as their play drops off. Because we are not in a position to buy ready-made, prime-aged players (although maybe Red Arse and others who think FFP may mute the market for top, prime-aged players, might disagree…) I predict several seasons of significant transition for our team.
In other words, the ripple effect of losing Cesc and Nasri in Summer 2011, and RvP and Song in 2012, will be felt for years to come. Theo, it turns out, wasn’t quite right about us being such a young team….
This fact should not be seen as “all bad”….First off, against all the odds, we were able to keep our CL spot these past two seasons and this last year (in particular) saw the real development of young guys like Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. Jack Wilshere is still sorting out his fitness issues but his talent seems extremely promising. It’s astounding that the Ox is still only 19 and his cameo in place of Arteta in the final match (and in matches with the English National team) showed that (maybe) he can do a job all over the pitch. Jenkinson, red card at Sunderland notwithstanding, did quite well in the several periods when he stepped in for Sagna.
Additionally many of the older guys look really keen to be in this Arsenal side and we’ve seen the departure of players who had big issues with discipline or keeping fit (I’m thinking of Song and Arshavin here). A collective atmosphere of personal discipline and fitness (have you seen the abs on the likes of old boys Sagna and Nacho….or the running of Rosicky?…) can go a long way to keeping these older fellows contributing in fresh ways. With a couple of additional savvy and fit older guys (maybe at Keeper and Striker, and on the cheap, of course….) this mind-set might be reinforced…
With the bulk of our transfer funds, however, we need to think about adding to this collective in a judicious, almost surgical fashion and improving the team, with a keen eye to the longer term.
This may mean using our resources to buy younger guys with real “potential” rather than ready-made, more mature players who have already shown they can produce on the biggest stages. We should, I think, be looking for guys to augment the 24 and under group rather than the 26+ guys.
Other threads have discussed the strengths and weaknesses of our squad in specific areas of the pitch and suggested where key players might be added, ideally while keeping the hard fought sense of team accomplishment (the “Springvincibles” mentality) intact.
The teams above us are using big money transfers and big salaries and new (big money) managers. Quality is quality, but sometimes a strong “team” can beat a bloated brigade of all-stars—and not just in one-offs (the Cups) but over the longer haul–if the focus is correct. This is what I am hoping for this off-season and as we start up again in August. Still, I think we must keep our expectations realistic and know that it will take time, simply given the age demographics of our squad….
What do the rest of you think?….
Written by: 17 highburyterrace
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