How Arsenal Could Benefit By Using Loans In Europe to Get Its Youngsters Bedded In
Modern football is a tricky thing. When it comes to the Premier League and all the pressures attached to it, tricky becomes something more akin to a minefield.
For Arsenal, a club of stature looking for a bit of a rebirth, navigating key issues regarding squad management and the subsequent speed-bumps that come with it must be part of the remit moving forward.
Many of us cannot distance ourselves fast enough from some of the decisions the club has made in recent years regarding managing our playing assets. But perhaps even more frustrating than some of the highly questionable comings and goings at the Emirates over the years, has been our mismanagement of young players.
The traditional maxim for quite a while dictated that, to get your young players minutes on the pitch once they’ve hit the final phase of their development, send them down to the Championship.
We can all immediately point to Jack Wilshere’s highly successful loan spell at Bolton Wanderers the season before he broke into Arsenal’s XI as an example, winning PFA Young Player of the Year in the process.
But other than the former Arsenal schoolboy and academy graduate, the Gunners’ track record of insuring young player development via the loan market has been questionable at best.
For years the club has produced good players at Hale End (though some were unquestionably overrated); a trend that continues in our current iteration. Where we have failed has been applying the final punctuation point to conclude their development track.
With Mikel Arteta now at the helm, ushering in a shift in ideology away from what his predecessor Unai Emery championed, it could be time for the club to reconsider a different approach for its final phase of player development; outside links to continental clubs.
It should be emphasized that, while loan-spells in the Championship or League One can be beneficial, where Arsenal have struggled in the past has choosing the clubs that best fit the players’ profile. Supporters to this day still moan about Serge Gnabry being loaned to West Brom under a manager (Tony Pulis) only interested in long throw-ins and 60 yard balls.
While the circumstances of his departure from north London are a bit more complicated, Gnabry’s loan to a club never suited to his player type and the development required stands as a prime example of how we have bungled it before.
But there has been hope in our decision making as recently as last season. Both Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe secured loan moves to Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig last term; two clubs who have a knack for handling burgeoning talent correctly.
Now, with Per Mertesacker heading up the academy, a man who is the byproduct of one of the elite production pipelines in the world (Germany), all signs are pointing to the club reviewing and revamping how it conducts its development tracking.
By default, Mertesacker’s knowledge of German football gives us an avenue to explore if we were to consider establishing a direct link, or links, to clubs on the continent. So too could Raúl Sanllehi, whose experience with Barcelona provides options.
So too with Edu; now back at the club as technical director and largely responsible for bringing Brazilian youngster Gabriel Martinelli this past summer. In his case, links and knowledge of the Brazilian/South American market open up a whole other world of options; gifted young footballers who – on average – would cost a fraction of the price that the best and brightest from places such as the Netherlands and Belgium would be valued at.
Arsenal did strike it lucky with Martinelli, however. If not for his ability to gain an Italian passport, the club at current would be in a scenario akin to the Wellington Silva fiasco. Had Martinelli been unable to gain a work permit in England, a pre-existing link to a continental club could be levied to ensure the requisite development.
The key aspect of establishing a link (or links) on the continent is the profile of club and league. Again, we circle back to options further down the football tier in England. Apart from certain case scenarios, the average club in England in the Championship, League One, or League Two, do not have the same technical requirements.
Naturally, there are exceptions. Recent examples of Daniel Farke’s Norwich, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, and Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves are clubs who highlighted technical quality in addition to structure and graft. But no one would want to see a player like Bukayo Saka at a club like, say, Coventry City.
By example, Chelsea’s long-standing link with Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie is a prime example of the benefits gained from both parties involved.
For Chelsea, FC Hollywood at the Rhine provides a proving ground for young players in a league that champions chances for the next generation, and a focus on technical quality and footballing intelligence. The result; players the likes of Mason Mount, Bertrand Traore, and Lewis Baker having been blooded at a good level at the GelreDome.
In the reverse, a club like Vitesse gains an avenue which they can – temporarily – bring players in to improve results on the pitch, without having to concern themselves with cost. Unlike Ajax, finances in the Eredivisie are hardly a level playing field.
With little money to work with annually, Vitesse have garnered success under managers like Peter Bosz (formerly), seeing the club finish in the top seven – netting Europa League football on a handful of occasions – seven of the last eight years, including winning the Dutch Cup in 2016-17.
Mount, Baker, and Traore all heavily contributed to Vitesse’s campaigns during their loan periods, with Baker and Traore netting 10 goals or more in a single league campaign. The experience gained while in Arnhem allowed all three to carve out decent careers to date. Mount is a regular at Chelsea under Frank Lampard, Traore dazzled for Ajax (on loan) before securing a move to Olympique Lyonnais, while Baker has had a series of loan stints and is currently at Fortuna Düsseldorf in the Bundesliga.
One never knows what such a link could have done for players like the aforementioned Gnabry, Krystian Bielik, and Chuba Akpom, or even some of our current crop.
Regardless of the past, this is surely an option that the Arsenal brass should consider moving forward if it is to continue its aim in highlighting the clubs ability to produce homegrown talent.