Discussion Post–Arsenal’s Youth Policy; Does it Serve Our Needs as it Should?
Thanks, in advance, for reading…As an “incentive” for getting through all these words, I’ll preview the conclusion… A shift towards a more aggressive (in my opinion) youth recruitment policy might be a chance for the club to move Arsene Wenger OUT of management and into a new role…
Here at Bergkampesque, a more “participatory” blog than most, there’s been a large drop off in, well, participation. In part, I think, this can be attributed to the frustrations many Gooners are feeling with the very disappointing start to the season after a reasonably promising summer. Our depleted squad has been tested–repeatedly–and found wanting. Now we face a week off before our next make or break run of fixtures. Will we go on a run and get back into sniffing distance of the league leaders (if they stumble), or will the couple of nice results before this little break be just another false dawn for the Arsenal? The recent convincing wins–both by the same 4-1 score lines–albeit in a meaningless Champions League group match, and against a not very motivated looking Newcastle team, perhaps overly chuffed with beating some other London club the week before…may have dulled the points on the pitchforks, but certainly haven’t mollified the masses…
On this site, although there is a diversity of opinion about the manager, there is also an acceptance that nothing will change quickly, mostly because the board and the principal shareholder seem perfectly pleased by financial results. Additionally, we have a small cadre of writers (including myself) who do not have a great tolerance for the usual arguments and highly repetitive one-liners trotted out after each disappointing result. As such, those would-be new members of the BK community who come here to “blow off steam” or otherwise rant about our “woeful” situation are sometimes challenged. It doesn’t mean we’re a happy lot but just that we attempt to take a wider view.
After all, how many different ways can we point the finger at the manager and suggest that all would be solved with a new man at the helm? A lot, it appears…
The winner this autumn has been the myriad variations on the criminal activities of the manager at the rear positions. Despite spending 16 million pounds on Calum Chambers and 12 million on Mathieu Debuchy (not to mention 4 million on David Ospina in goal), “Should’ve bought defensive cover” is the mantra of the I-know-more-than-the-manager brigade. It replaces that chestnut of the past few years, “Fire the physio,” even if the new guy in that arena, Chad Forsythe, is walking a tightrope as twangy as Aaron Ramsey’s hamstring or Laurent Koscielny’s achilles tendons. Good public relations work, in naming dates for a couple (of kissing?…) French fellows (Debuchy and Olivier Giroud) may yet save the German as they both came back early and strong. If his countryman, Mesut Ozil, comes back on schedule (or ahead) and makes a good contribution in the New Year, those Gooners looking to blame the boss may have to buck up their ideas and find a new way to aim invective at the manager. Already, however, the twin tines of “We didn’t (or we won’t) spend enough (in the Summer or January),” seems on the tip of many a Gooner’s (pitch) forked tongues…
What’s interesting, around these parts at least, is that a small group of writers with a heavy interest in the development of young players and especially the development of young English players, has emerged. Despite the troubles we’re having meeting the club’s expectations this seems a very good time to take an interest in Arsenal, if you enjoy watching these sorts of players and trying to predict who will make it on the big stage.
Arsenal’s overt recruitment of young British talent, even at oftentimes inflated prices, has yet to truly yield tangible results–both in our first team and for the National set-up–but the signs appear promising. Clearly, finishing 3rd or 4th in the league is tiresome for Arsenal supporters, much as merely qualifying for the International tournaments is not enough for supporters of the Three Lions. Still, players like Walcott, Gibbs, Welbeck, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers are already, or likely will be, core players for both club and country. Guys out on loan, notably Jenkinson and Aneke, are huge contributors at their current clubs, while very young guys like Chuba Akpom and Dan Crowley are pouring in goals in the U-21 and U-19 matches. A real favourite amongst many (see the proposed starting line-up mooted for the Newcastle match) is Isaac Hayden, a guy who surely would’ve made his league debut given injuries to our back line, but for one of his own.
Of course, many Arsenal watchers don’t limit their support of the youngsters to Englishmen. 19 year old Spaniard, Hector Bellerin, with 90 minute outings in the hostile environs of Dortmund and Istanbul, and a great display Saturday vs Newcastle, which included a 60 yard run capped by a stunning assist, will surely see more time with the first team despite his age. 17 year old Gideon Zelalem (who has yet to declare at full International level but seems to be leaning towards the crowded group fighting to play for the world champion German team) got another run out in Turkey after last year’s league cup debut. Other international players are doing very well at the academy, including Semi Ajayi who took up a bench seat on a couple of occasions even if he hasn’t made his full bow yet.
All of this, of course, is merely review for the guys who watch the coverage of the reserve team or follow the excellent blog “Jeorge Bird’s Young Guns.” And it is to you fellows I’m reaching out.
Arsene Wenger, who sometimes has been ridiculed for his, er, use or support of young players in the songs of opposing crowds, has also been skewered by his own for statements along the lines of, “We don’t buy because it would kill (insert name of player)…” or “We were a bit naive because we lack experience,” etc., etc.
Playing young players, especially too many all at once, can be a double edged sword which cuts deeply. Additionally, the acquisition of young players (and then sending them out on loan) and the building of academies is a real frontier in the Wild West of football finances. Benevolent owners can hide losses in such policies and projects under current Financial Fair Play rules while developing their own future stars AND a revenue stream from sales of the ones who don’t quite make the grade. Moreover loan rules, which (in my opinion) desperately need reform, allow clubs down the financial pecking order to employ and develop players away from the (often harsh) floodlights of their home clubs’ stadiums. This spares those who spend the relatively lavish sums to buy a seat at places like the Emirates or Stamford Bridge (Princes and Emirs themselves, at least relative to the more working class wages of the football fans of yesteryear) from having to watch young players “learn on the job,” as it were.
Chelsea are stockpiling talent and working the loan system at an unprecedented level. Their group of players out on loan (26 in total, including some older guys, like 50 million pound purchase, Fernando Torres) could probably compete adequately to win the English Championship or other less powerful leagues. Manchester City are augmenting their buy-him-to-try-him system (with a shadow squad of Bridges, Barrys, Rodwells, Johnsons and Sinclairs, etc.) to this: http://www.mcfc.co.uk/The-Club/City-Football-Academy/Our-Vision
In the decade since our last league title (won in spectacular, invincible style) and the move to the new stadium, Arsenal have endured a period of relative financial austerity, especially when compared to the lavish spending in South London or up in Manchester. In this period our focus on youth development has been a bit of a bright spot. Things looked especially good in the first season after the stadium move with an appearance in the final of the league cup and a narrow 2-1 loss to Chelsea.
Since then, however, things haven’t seemed as rosy and the second time we made that final, and also lost by a similar score line, it was to a club (Birmingham City) which would soon be relegated. That one may have actually been a sizeable set-back, given that would-be young leader Szczesny, and Koz, were at fault for the loss and left the pitch in tears, respectively, surely not signs of maturity, in deed nor action.
This season has been a further test as injuries to experienced players like Ozil, Giroud, Debuchy, Koscielny and Arteta have given extended chances to many a young Gunner. Results have been mixed (at best), and Arsenal approach the festive period in 6th position in the league and already eliminated from one of the kids’ best venues–the League Cup. Even a moderately kind draw in the Champions League group stage didn’t result in substantial opportunities for the younger players.
In my opinion, we’re actually getting the worst of all worlds. We spend big (relatively) on young talent but still spill points or otherwise sacrifice immediate results in the hopes that the young players we are using can come good. We’re forced to use players who are too young or are hopelessly below Arsenal standards and we put them in situations which probably carry too much pressure given the demands of the fans who sit in the (famously) “highest priced seats in all of Europe.” Now, even our travelling support have grown tetchy. Hostilities on difficult trips no longer end at the final whistle. Recent video footage, amidst shameful treatment of our manager, contained the hilarious warning to a young player, Joel Campbell, to wise up and leave the club.
That warning (“Get out while you can”) begs the question: what should Arsenal do with its youth players?
Some here (notably a writer named “Steve”) seem to favour playing many of them, most all the time, no matter the results. Others, including our own man of the horses and dogs, Gerry, scouts them like a handicapper and sees opportunities as the first team is challenged with injuries. Still others demand that we recall players from loan spells as individual positions are depleted. With the recall of Coquelin (and his appearance late on vs Newcastle this past Saturday), it appears management concurs. As we’re not privy to the individual deals made with other clubs, it’s difficult to know what’s actually possible.
Certainly, between transfer windows, at least, bumping up kids from the under 21-s IS the way to go and sometimes, if they’ve got the inherent quality and they’re given enough support, a player can make the step up. Given the success–and versatility–Hector Bellerin has shown in his last two outings, I’d expect him to be a regular presence on our bench (and in the FA Cup matches). Given continued development he seems a very plausible back-up and successor to Debuchy (28 now) at RB. (Calum Chambers, a young but expensive player, has by and large made the most of his opportunities, too, and may be Debuchy’s long term successor, if not used more in other positions.)
Bellerin and Chambers, however, I think, are exceptions to the rule. Arsenal, if we aspire to become a world class club will likely need world-class players in every position, or as Jose Mourinho famously stated when he was awash in money during his first stint working under Russian Oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, “I (we) want two world class players at every position.” If Arsenal aspire to such heights, we likely need to buy or otherwise develop our players to the point that they are world class on the day they make their Arsenal (first team) debut. If that means loaning out our most promising youth players, at the highest level possible and to clubs who might buy them, then so be it. It’s not a sign that we don’t support our guys by suggesting that they must make a career elsewhere.
Personally I love to see guys like Seb Larsson–a guy who never played for the first team at Arsenal–find success at a club like Sunderland. I much prefer his story to that of guys who played for us, but ultimately didn’t make the grade, and quietly moved on. Where, for example is Larsson’s fellow Scandinavian, Nicklas Bendtner, this season? This is only my opinion, of course, and others may have very different views. This is a discussion post, after all.
Overall, until loan rules are changed, using other clubs (who have more immediate first team needs) seems the best way to develop and vet our best young players. It’s a balancing act, of course, and an act of speculation on the player in question.
Buy low and sell high is the mantra of Capitalists and our owner (one of the best, in this realm at least…) and managers must try and follow this course. We need to play this game at the highest possible level and also assume that our money allows us to treat almost all players at almost all clubs as if they’re on loan. Yes, to get adequate players we may not get our exact favourite. We may have to play one potentially world class player off against other would-be recruits and, be willing to lose them to offers from the clubs willing to pay (waste) even more money to hoover them into their shadow squads. Still, I think we can likely improve upon options already at the club or among the small group of players we have on loan.
We need mature players, ready to take their chances. No more “learning on the job” or making allowances for players simply because of their youth. We shouldn’t have one standard for youth players and one for older guys. If Mertesacker (or Arteta or Flamini) can’t race back or rise up and make a decisive intervention why do we cut him less slack than we do a guy like Bellerin or Chambers? (It’s called age discrimination, if you’re wondering…) Time to “bed in” and get used to the league and its players, is one thing. Playing young guys who clearly lack the physique or stamina or technique to play at the appropriate level is just as bad (or even worse, perhaps) than playing guys who are clearly past it.
Moreover, this type of player acquisition seems an ideal way for a great man, with a great eye for young talent, to travel and find future world class Arsenal players. Arsene Wenger is surely already trying to do this while he does his off season commentary work for French television. If he were to continue this work (and perhaps–while he continues as our manager–brings a younger manager our way who might succeed him with the first team…) it might suggest a way he might continue to contribute to the growth of his–and our–club.
As such, youth policy might (indirectly) suggest a direction for management policy or for handling the inevitable retirement of our iconic manager. Sorry, if that’s not really the Wenger Out conclusion I promised, but there you go… 😆
What say you, fellow Gooners?
Written by; 17highburyterrace