Arsenal and It’s Youth Academy: A narrative worth changing
If there ever was a professional sports league that provided the entertainment world’s version of the Cold War, it would be the Premier League. Year on year during every summer – and sometimes winter – Arsenal and the other 19 Premier League participants do their best to acquire new and/or upgraded weapons in the transfer market with which to meet their goals.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea are all hardwired towards achieving dominance. Others in the mold of newly promoted clubs, Southampton, and Burnley, simply surviving is more enough. As for Arsenal, we fall somewhere in the middle.
The nature of the Premier League arms race is so much more than who to purchase. How you navigate the market to sell assets is equally important; this is a reality that Arsenal supporters are finally coming to terms with.
While some clubs are forced to routinely sell their best and brightest in order to finance parody, top six clubs have the luxury of retooling major pieces each season in a bid to improve even further. What spawns from this is the cut-throat realization to both player and supporter alike that producing your own academy talent is superseded by the need to keep up with your competitors.
Gone are the days of Manchester United’s class of ’93, and West Ham’s Academy of Football. Taking the time and care to develop players like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole is no longer a key directive of any club with genuine ambition to reach the top echelon of English football. The Premier League landscape has changed and Arsenal must adapt accordingly.
Arsenal’s Academy contributions
Arsenal’s academy has not done too shabby over the years. A reputable club for most of the club’s history, it took Arsenal over fifty years after the 1934-35 season to win multiple league titles in a three-year span. The 1988-89 league winning side included six academy graduates; Tony Adams, David O’Leary, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson and Niall Quinn. Two years on in 1990-91, Arsenal’s title-winning team yet again featured quite a few of its pupils. Adams, O’Leary, Rocastle, Thomas and Merson all remained, while a young Andy Cole also featured.
George Graham’s two league wins remain near and dear to many in the fanbase. Adams, O’Leary, Thomas and Rocastle remain legends and cult heroes that are still fondly remembered. In the years to follow, the academy would give us Martin Keown, Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczęsny and Sebastian Larsson. Like the many before them, they would reach the pinnacle the sport both at the club and international football.
Many other players have come through Hale End’s doors and left with varying degrees of success over the last twenty years. But despite the stature of the club, it is fair to suggest that Hale End has – until recently – lagged behind. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it has come too little too late.
During the current 2018-19 season, the Gunners have fielded ten players who spent time in the academy, either coming through from a young age or finishing their final development years. Alex Iwobi, Héctor Bellerín, Carl Jenkinson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Emile Smith Rowe, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Sako, Zach Medley and Charlie Gilmour have all logged minutes under Unai Emery in his first season at the helm. What is surprising is how that number stacks up to some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
More has not meant better
Over the course of the current season, only Spanish giants Barcelona, and Real Madrid have fielded more academy products than Arsenal when compared to the biggest clubs from the other top five leagues in Europe. When matched up against our domestic rivals in the top six, we trump every single one of them not only in total players fielded, but total minutes logged as well. Impressive yes, but this can easily be labelled as part of the overall problem.
It has been far too long since we mounted a serious title challenge. Though we finished second behind Leicester during their unimaginable year in 2015-16, we still closed the campaign ten points adrift. Since our last league win in 2003-04, we have only finished less than ten points behind the champions on two occasions; 2007-08 and 2013-14. Regardless of whatever reason(s) you subscribe to us falling behind, the simple truth is we have been trying to play catchup for years. Unfortunately for us, our recent relative success on the youth front may have to suffer if we are to successfully course correct.
A closer look at our domestic rivals and academy players they have fielded provides quite a bit of insight.
Despite fielding the largest number of players who have or are currently coming through the academy, our rivals have not put nearly as much stock in sprouting their own stars. What is more frustrating is that the few who have successfully negotiated the youth pipelines elsewhere have gone on to develop into players of high ability. We cannot boast the same.
Harry Kane – unfortunately for us – is one of the best centre-forwards in Europe, Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best right-back in England, and Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are vital pieces to the United and England set-up. As for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Winks, they are two of the most reputable young central players the country has to offer.
Out of our lot, realistically, only Héctor Bellerín has been a consistent performer since his graduation. Alex Iwobi has – though maybe rectifying it this season – been woefully inconsistent, while the jury is still out on the futures of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, and the rest of the bunch. Do we truly have time to hope they develop? Their ability is not in question by any means, but the longer we leave an avenue open for their progression, we potentially remove the possibility of finding a quicker and/or better solution to the problems plaguing the first-team.
Continental winds of change
There are not many top clubs in Europe that currently produce and subsequently rely on good academy talent; the game is too unforgiving. Barcelona gave us players who transcended the sport to a whole other level, but no longer do the Catalans rely heavily on La Masia as they once did. Bayern has never had a brilliant youth set-up despite giving us David Alaba (to an extent), Thomas Müller, and Mats Hummels. Many often forget that Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich were not Bayern-bred.
Further examples can be found at Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. Top players that have come from their academies did so years ago. Those clubs that can boast high minutes logged by academy players can do so by way of those players now being in the prime of their careers or being a part of the top echelon of the young player pool in Europe. Quality over quantity is the order of the day.
As the monetisation of football has reached immeasurable heights, very few of the European elite clubs turn their nose up at spending to improve over in-house solutions despite successful track records. All our domestic rivals now subscribe to this modus operandi, and it is time we do the same.
We have recently seen the financial benefits of selling academy assets who have developed to a decent level during this very window. Manchester City recently sold Brahím Diaz – a player who registered a grand total of 414 minutes of Premier League football after coming through the youth ranks since his move from Málaga – for ₤15.3million, pocketing a 300% profit in the process.
Liverpool had similar success when they sold Dominic Solanke – a player bought from Chelsea on a free in the summer of 2017 – to Bournemouth a year-and-a-half later for ₤17million despite never being more than a depth option at Anfield. With Bayern Munich locked in negotiations for Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and reportedly willing to pay the Blues’ asking price of ₤35million (he has appeared for Chelsea just three times in the league), one must wonder if we should be deviating to the road being travelled.
Arsenal need a new-found ruthless hand
It was clear to most that both Diaz and Solanke were bright young players, while Hudson-Odoi is arguably the hottest property amongst English youth football, but would they really have had a chance to succeed? Ademola Lookman, Reiss Nelson, and Jadon Sancho, all highly talented youth English talents, left for the Bundesliga in order to develop in an environment more conducive to player development. Lookman turned heads at RasenBallsport Leipzig, while Nelson and Sancho have taken the league by storm. These are not opportunities they would have gotten had they stayed at their respective clubs.
If such bright talents can fetch sizable fees despite little-to-no league experience, could this not be a surefire way that Arsenal supplements its income? The fanbase has already had to come to grips with the fact that Stan Kroenke, Josh Kroenke, the brass, Raul Sanllehi, and Sven Mislintat are all onboard with a model of sustainability.
Arsenal, in all likelihood, will never be a club to shell out mountains of cash on multiple big-name transfers in one window akin to City our rivals. Many in the fanbase are uncomfortable with this notion, claiming that we will never be able to gain ground on those ahead of us without investment to bolster our spending power in the market. Using Hale End’s production as a sustainable way to levy cash may be the only way.
We as a fanbase love to see homegrown youngsters make it at the club; it is what made Jack Wilshere so popular at the Emirates. Despite this, we must learn to be ruthless in our assessments of developing players and take a page out of the continental playbook. When you reach 19 or 20 years of age at clubs like Dortmund and Barca, it is quite clear if you have impressed enough. Your prime years of development as a footballer come to an end by this period and truthfully any future you will have at the club should be clear. Our problem for years has been our habit of holding out hope that players will eventually come good, or that we struggle to cut the umbilical cord; Carl Jenkinson is a prime example of this, as was Wilshere.
Players that have truly failed to make the grade by the end of their natural development track should be immediately jettisoned for profit. A financial return on a player is instant. Sitting and hoping they develop further is not. Solanke may have eventually come good for the Reds, but waiting to find out is often ill-advised when you have ambitions to reach the top.
That is not to say that young players will never have a chance to make it at Arsenal. Any big club worth their salt can identify a young player who is far ahead of the curve. Integrating players with that level of inherent quality should then become a priority. Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands are all prime examples of leagues that regularly feature players who are eighteen or nineteen, sometimes as young as seventeen. If you are truly good enough, then age is just a number.
There is no telling what our current crop of youngsters will turn into. The law of averages states that it is unlikely that more than two of them will make it at the club on a level higher than a squad player. If we are to financially compete with those ahead of us while remaining a sustainable club, it’s time to turn the Arsenal academy into a source of monetary sustenance. Our future could well depend on it.
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