It’s not often these days that I get the chance to see the Arsenal youth team, or reserves for that matter; life just gets in the way and as most games are played at the training ground or Borehamwood, it’s just not convenient. Popping into Highbury pre-Wenger, to see a Combination game or a Southern Junior Floodlit Cup tie was always a pleasure, for those who worked in London it was simple as well. That was followed up by being a pre-Internet kind of ITK as you could then tell all your Arsenal mates at work the following day that we’ve got, say, a promising centre half in a 17 year old Martin Keown or an interesting fullback in Gus Ceasar- I didn’t always get it right….
So it was interesting and very enjoyable to watch the FA Youth Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea and the England games in the Euro U17’s on TV recently, despite Arsenal and England falling at the final hurdle in both competitions.
I came away from both events very encouraged by the 17/18 age group at Arsenal and the prospect of possibly 3 or 4 of them developing into genuine 1st team quality players for the Gunners.
I’ve seen possibly three generations of youngsters coming into the Arsenal 1st team squad en masse, all of them playing significant parts in successful Arsenal teams.
There was the George, Kelly, Rice group who played a central role in Arsenal winning its first league title in 17 years when they took the Double in 1970-71, the Original Double Team no less.
Almost a decade later I saw the O’Leary, Rix, Stapleton and Brady bunch gradually being fed into the 1st team. Those lads had to contend with a dominant Liverpool at the time or I’m sure that they could have won at least one league title. But they were instrumental in 4 major cup finals during 3 seasons in the 1978/80 period.
Move on around another decade and we saw the Rocastle, Adams, Thomas generation who eventually succeeded in knocking Liverpool off of their perch; it was the Arsenal that did it, with two league titles in 3 years, not Man Utd as is the popular folklore.
And so we move on again to today, a gap of time that took in the birth of the Premier League, a more monetarist organisation, wall to wall football on television and online, Arsene Wenger, foreign players, foreign owners, a worldwide and knowledgeable audience of fans, but a steep decline in young player development, until now.
A top German coach (whose name escapes me) when asked, claimed that the best young players in the world are currently English, which the recent results of the England youth teams seem to bear out.
So has the advent of St George’s Park, the English Clairfontane, better quality coaches, the Academy system and good old financial prudence brought about this improvement and where do Arsenal stand in it?
One youngster who caught my eye was Bukaya Saka (17), I saw him perform admirably in both the right-wing and left-back positions. He has excellent close control, a high level of technique and is very fast as well as being versatile, the perfect example of the young, modern footballer no less. He has a great attitude and a top work ethic, yep I liked him.
Xavier Amaechi (17) has a silky smooth style and I love players who glide over the pitch. He has a fantastic technique, an excellent turn of speed, can go outside or inside defenders with equal comfort and has a rasping shot. A lot of development can happen between the ages of 16/17 to 20/21 but if he doesn’t make the grade then I’ll be amazed.
Robbie Burton (18), is a tenacious midfield pit bull without the ball and an intelligent midfield prompter with the ball, I can’t recall him wasting a pass in the two games against a rampant Chelsea. He has a high level of technical ability and plays the box to box role with alacrity whilst also doing an excellent def/mid job. These type of players sometimes pass under the radar as the Smith-Rowe’s and Amaechi’s get all the attention, but every team needs a water carrier or two and he fits the bill.
Northern Irishman Daniel Ballard (18), has had a mixed career at Arsenal. Twice it seemed that he was going to be released only for him to be retained and he eventually ended up as the Youth team captain, echos of Pat Rice perhaps?
He has a great attitude and personality, leads very much in the mould of a Tony Adams, those are attributes that Arsene Wenger recently admitted that he found impossible to replace after Adams and Vieira left. Ballard isn’t just a big lump, he is a proper defender with a lot of ability, skilful on the floor and powerful in the air.
The fact that he overcame the threat of being released twice and remained to still develop his career at Arsenal shows he is a young man of impressive character.
I liked him a lot.
Emile Smith-Rowe is quality, I don’t need to add anything as I think 2018/19 will be his breakthrough season and you can all see for yourself.
I was impressed by others, notably Olayinka (17), M.Smith (17), Daley-Campbell (18) and Thompson (18). Add all those to N’ketiah, Nelson (if he stays?), Osei-Tutu, Dasilva and Willock and the future definitely is a youthful red n white…