This is going to be a long, but not particularly serious post. Besides thought-provoking on the title topic, the aim is to invoke some nice nostalgic feelings.
Be warned: serious lineup-p*rn ahead!
I probably have already spoiled the fun with the title, but what would you think of a possible line-up from 1996 like below?
OK, probably this XI never existed, but I couldn’t find a proper pair to Wrighty, so I had to go with 5-4-1 with 5 defenders and a midfield diamond.
Anyway, the obvious correct answer to the question above is that they are all English/British – in fact they all have played in the national team (although Hughes only at U21 level).
Pretty neat XI, isn’t it? They could kick some serious butt back in the days.
Let’s fast forward to 2002 or 2003. Arsene Wenger educated the world on eye-catching and efficient football, with a likely lineup:
As you can see, there is indeed not a single player of British origin there. I don’t live in the UK and I am not British myself either, but it could have felt like a kick in the teeth seeing those invincibles on the top.
The message shattered the superiority of British football. Thus became the reason for the anti-Arsenal bias commonly shared among pundits, journalists and even referees. But that is speculation, and would need a separate post on its own.
And what’s worse: it was not a one-time gig, rather a pattern. Let’s go ahead 4-5 more years. How about this peach of a 4-4-2 squad? The defense might not be that convincing, but look at that front 5.
I tried to avoid duplications, but we indeed have loyal players that could have appeared in multiple line-ups. However that was not the point, in fact counter-intuitive here.
Still I enjoyed watching these guys playing in 2011, even without a single British player in the starting XI.
There was a slight decrease in quality, but after the footsteps of Bergkamp, Henry, Pires, Fabregas and van Persie it was inevitable.
I will not waste your time (too much), as the message is the same. Great foreing players capable of fighting for silverware.
Let’s see a potential line-up from Wenger’s penultimate campaign. Isn’t that a composed defense and a lethal attack?
Yes, we were way too light on the wings (Iwobi and Campbell were sitting on the bench), but what a trio of creative talent like Cazorla, Ozil and Alexis in the same team!
Sorry, I got carried away. I wasn’t trying to force comparison on Arsenal line-ups or invoke bitter-sweet feelings on the good ol’ days.
I merely wanted to introduce the trend of the British contingent in the Arsenal squad.
I did cheat a little as I left out some English players who could have made the cut (primarily Campbell and Cole, less notably Taylor, Upson, Pennant, Lansbury, Bentley or Jeffers), but not much.
And we arrived in 2012. Then Arsenal had a competent quintet of young, success hungry British lads, richly decorated with junior caps. It was the first time since Wenger’s early years where quantity met quality.
Gibbs and Wilshere progressed through our academy, while Jenkinson (1M), Ramsey (6M) and Walcott (9,5M) were purchased. Arsene was often told by pundits (of which profession I am still struggling to acknowledge) to build the team around them, hence the expression of the British core. We know he didn’t comply, and the rest is history – even in spite of 2 years later Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain had joined the club making a septet out of the core 5. Nevertheless this did not become a success story. Obviously it had nothing to do with them being British.
None of them are with Arsenal, but with different trajectories.
– Walcott showed glimpses of immense talent, but he struggled with consistency. He couldn’t score the same goals at 26 that he scored easily at 21. After long years of experimenting and multiple chances, he was sold by the club for a reasonable 20M. Him becoming a fringe player at Everton showed that it was the right decision.
– Wilshere had technical abilities beyond Cazorla’s, and a lovable, dedicated, Arsenal-centric personality. His curse was the endless string of injuries hindering his development and motivation. He was let go on a free transfer despite having a valid contract (and a 20M value) – a signature Wenger gesture – but his luck hasn’t turned at West Ham either. I would really like to see him coming back to coach in the academy…
– Gibbs and Jenkinson had similar fates. They couldn’t continue their promising development in their early 20s and despite a few senior caps they kind of stuck at a low-tier PL level of a full-back. Eventually they were both sold below their values in order to find a proper club for them (West Brom and Nottingham Forest respectively) where they can – and still – play on a regular basis; acknowledging their loyal and committed services to our club, but there’s a common understanding that they weren’t Arsenal quality.
– Ramsey’s challenges were consistency and ambition. He had a few excellent spells with the club, but among CMs like Arteta, Wilshere, Ox or Diaby and AMs like Rosicky, Özil and Sanchez he couldn’t establish himself as an obvious starter. For his defense, there wasn’t really a box-to-box midfielder role in Wenger’s team. He was a clear star of the Welsh team (often on par with Garreth Bale), and he expected to play the same role at Arsenal. But (or rather: thus) the greed had the better of him, and left Arsenal on a Bosman, making more money at Juventus than Ozil. He was the only player from the core causing loss to Arsenal on purpose, therefore he is the only player whom I gloat upon seeing disappointed, as he ended up a mere squad player at the Italian champion, showing either he was not too good for Arsenal, or that astronomical wages often debase performance and/or motivation.
– The Ox is the dark horse here. The jury is still out, but my guess is that we made a good sale: at a right time for a decent price. Wenger was kind to Alex beyond his valor, giving him more minutes than he deserved for his performance, but he moved away to play for silverware. He indeed managed to have a CL-winner icon on his profile page (he didn’t play a single minute, and was on the bench for 1 game) and was a part of Liverpool’s PL-winning squad with 5 goal contribution last season, but he plays second/third fiddle behind Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Keita, Henderson, Milner – and now Thiago. He is a B-list player at Liverpool, and hasn’t played in the national team since 2018. So let’s say his departure was a win-win resolution.
– Welbeck’s leaving on a Bosman was much quieter than Ramsey’s. Mostly, as he was not a first team player. His signing back in 2014 was less of a necessity, but rather a botched message that transfers between Arsenal and Manchester United are not only a one-way street. It wasn’t a proper retaliation for the treason of van Persie, though. (Well, it’s a bit off-topic, but as we know how the signings of Silvestre, Danny or Mikhi turned out, let’s give up on mixing pride with transfers.) Welback was the poor man’s Aubameyang: as he wasn’t the best suited to play up front (due to the skills and lack of versatility of Giroud and Lacazette), he was sent to the wing, which was not his preferred position. He was doing alright, but not at a PEA level – who is 3 years older than Danny by the way.
In summary, we got a 54,5M for the 2 ex-Southampton boys (44% more than their combined worth), while we received 8,7M for the other 5 (12% of their combined worth at the time). Their market values dropped to their halves (Ramsey, Welbeck, Jenkinson, Walcott) or less (Gibbs, Wilshere), and while the coronavirus pandemic explained some of the devaluation, they are still playing in their prime (all are between 27 and 29 now). Anyway, the trend proves that they wouldn’t have become the future of Arsenal.
Don’t worry, I will not leave with the sour message that if the British core didn’t work out back then, we should forget it entirely and go back to cheap (?) League 1 signings.
Arsenal improved big time with regards to domestic players. We are clearly better at signing. You might not agree with me, but I am a fan of both Holding and Chambers. They are composed, intelligent players, and genuinely nice funny guys. Unfortunately they were both affected by season-long injuries possibly limiting them of what they could have become, but let’s hope for the best.
However what is even more important, our Academy is under professional management and providing major talents on a continuous basis.
Clearly, not all Hale End graduates will become first team players, but most of them having junior caps on multiple age levels show the quality work Mertesacker and his team are putting into the academy.
We had some hit and misses I have to admit;
– some players didn’t live up to the expectations and were sold or released (Miyaichi, Akpom, Mavididi, Hayden, Kamara, Hinds, Bramall, Toral, Pleguezuelo)
– we couldn’t keep some of our most promising talents and they left us young (Virginia, Malen, Musah, DaSilva, Greenwood, Balogun?)
– we didn’t give enough chance to a few who – in hindsight – could have deserved it (Gnabry, Jeff, Bennacer, Bielik)
– some were kept at the club for too long, joined the first team but couldn’t make the difference (Miquel, Silva, Campbell, Iwobi)
– and for some we couldn’t bypass the stupid laws (Nwakali, Asano)
Many of them felt, they need first team football sooner than our internal processes allow, and didn’t want to play for the U23 and go on loan for a couple of seasons. Most of them didn’t reach stardom though, so they don’t really qualify for hit-and-miss (McGuane, Dragomir, Amaechi, Gilmore, Burton), but they can still turn the tides in the future.
But let’s focus on the positives: we have some great players coming from the academy and sticking to the first team. Loyal to the club, eager to learn, hungry for success and fun to work with.
I’m not saying they are equally gifted, but they are committed, they are industrious, they are all working hard in training and whenever they get the chance on the pitch.
And the best part: I am not talking about a trio of players, but a lot. Combining them with our few external British purchases they make a whole team – a quite strong one in my humble opinion – so we are talking about a balanced group of 11 talented, young players.
I want to conclude the post with their line-up, so before that I want to show you a really strong XI in Arteta’s favorite formation. I think for 8-9 positions they are the best players we have at our disposal:
As you can see I replaced Saliba and Gabriel with Mustafi and Sokratis (we can swap the latter with Mari without changing the conclusion), but the moral of this – pretty strong – all-foreign line-up, that there is an immense level of experience there. The youngest players in the XI are Xhaka and Kola, both being 27. To be honest, I don’t think this XI is any weaker than the squad with Szczesny, Arshavin and Bendtner, so last year’s 8th position (the lowest in 30 years) is probably the result of other clubs injected with cash, inaccurate coaching, and mostly bad luck. This is an inspired team that will get to the TOP 4 places this season.
But I don’t want to talk about the ‘senior’ team too much. Because we have another line-up here: the defenders were purchased (for reasonable not astronomical price), but all other players came through Arsenal’s academy:
OK; it is an unconventional 3-3-4, and I was cheating as John-Jules is on loan at the moment (and while he was sitting on the bench in PL, EL and many cup games, he hasn’t yet introduced himself in the first team’s line-up in a competitive match), but we need 11 players for a team. We could substitute him with Ballard – to have a player from Northern Ireland to add diversity to English lads and Tierney – but he hasn’t even sat on the first team’s bench yet, and would change the formation to 4-3-3.Nevertheless the line-up above is not only British, but young (the oldest player is 25, half of them are U21), and a really strong one.
I don’t think many PL clubs from the top half of the table could field an all-British XI, and our youngsters would probably beat the XI of West Brom, Leeds, Sheffield Burnley or Fulham with ease. This team worth 134M according to Transfermarkt, with John-Jules not even registered and ESR assigned a symbolic value. At the end of the season, this will be 200M.
So to sign off on a positive message: we have a strong British core now, that could play for Arsenal for 8+ years. Tierney has already established himself as an undisputed first team player, Holding can inherit Luiz’s role as the defense orchestrator in a couple of years, and while I see AMN and Willock mostly as utility supersubs, Smith-Rowe, Nelson, Saka and Nketiah could become our first choice players when are seniors retire, saving the club 250M+ in the process.
And there are always promising wonderkids in the Academy, some British (Ballard, Cottrell, Azeez, Balogun?), some are not (Lopez, Hein, Cirjan)…