Thursday, April 25, 2024

All The Young Dudes

I have always had issues with the word ‘luck.’ It often implies an absence of responsibility; that an invisible force beyond our control has interfered malevolently. All too often, ‘luck’ is subconsciously adopted as a celestial kingmaker, wantonly dashing our hopes and dreams. However, happenstance, coincidence and felicity, though not driven by any imagined force or committee, play a big part in football matches, football careers and human life in general.

In a game as chaotic and random as football, where the flight of a spherical object entirely governs success and failure, ‘the run of the ball’ is very important. But it’s not just the ‘run of the ball’ that defies definition in the sport. Managerial decisions, moments, coincidences, injuries- all of these factors can define careers, not least for young players seeking to establish themselves.

Harry Kane’s unexpected rise to prominence is well documented. Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford got his first United start because of an injury to Anthony Martial in a pre-match warm up. Cesc Fabregas’ Arsenal career was fast tracked due to simultaneous injuries to Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Edu. Ashley Cole can attribute much of his career to “administrative concerns” with Silvinho’s passport.

Who knows? Had Olivier Giroud picked up an injury during last season’s run-in, Chuba Akpom might have been given his chance. In an alternate universe, Akpom is still banging in the goals for Arsenal rather than toiling on loan at Hull City. Chelsea and Manchester City have invested millions in their youth academies, creating formidable teams at junior level. But as Rory Smith writes, there is no substitute for opportunity.

Arsene Wenger’s reputation has taken a battering in recent years, but his penchant for developing young players- especially young attacking players- remains intact. Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi were U-21 teammates 18 months ago and both currently feature in Arsenal’s starting XI. Development is not a linear business and, in truth, there is plenty of ‘hit and miss’ involved.

Questions have been asked lately around the failure of the Gunners’ British Core™ to progress as expected. Is there a pattern to the players that make it at Arsenal and those that don’t, besides felicity and circumstance? Personally, I think history shows that more technical players stand a much better chance of acclimatising to life at Arsenal (this holds true of Arsenal’s external recruitment, as well as their track record in Youth Development).

Many, me included, have asked why Alex Iwobi has already been able to usurp Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s end product for the last two seasons in just three games. Not to totally lay all of Ox’s failings to one side, but I think this is because Iwobi is moulded into the Arsenal style, having joined the club at the age of 8. He is quick, mobile but most importantly, he is able to look after the ball. Not only does he fit Arsenal’s overall ethos, he has been able to redefine it. He has become the secondary technical presence the team has missed since the injury to Santi Cazorla.

Players like Walcott, Chamberlain and Gnabry are different. They are “impact” players, whose attributes deliberately exist outside of the team’s style in pursuit of variety. As such, their inconsistency stands to reason. They are not entirely in synch with the modus operandi of their teammates. This goes some way to explaining why Jack Wilshere found it easier to make an impact on the first team in his nascent years than Aaron Ramsey did.

Fabregas was so good at an early age that the manager dismantled some of the more physical aspects of the team, producing a more technical imagining of his team for his impudent Spaniard. Like Fabregas, Bellerin was moulded as a midfield player at La Masia, which is the finest technical education available in world football. Despite being a penetrative presence in the side, Héctor can groove to Arsenal’s technical tune just fine thank you very much.

Initially, Francis Coquelin struggled to make an impression on the Arsenal first team. In possession, he is still not the greatest (though he has improved notably in this area), but he was a little older, a little wiser and had already made his mistakes in an Arsenal shirt when he made a Lazarus like return in 2015. Perhaps there is something of a moral in that story for Wenger. Maybe players intended to provide the iron fist inside Arsenal’s velvet glove need to be of a more experienced vintage. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a young player learning his trade to play outside of the structure of the overall team.

I have hope for Chamberlain yet, Walcott has never been able to convincingly rubber stamp his Arsenal credentials, Gnabry has been curtailed by injury. Perhaps in more direct, or counter attacking sides, these players would be able to flourish more effectively. (Though injuries have hampered both at key moments, too). Another Southampton academy graduate, Calum Chambers, is a player that can probably rue a lack of opportunities this season.

Since a lame 45 minutes against Liverpool last August, Chambers’ fleeting glimpses of first team action have been positive. I felt certain that he would be substituted during the half time break of that goalless draw with Liverpool. He wasn’t and he fully justified the manager’s faith with a fine second half display. That suggests Chambers is a quick learner and possessed of good mental strength (we’ll soon turn him into a jibbering wreck).

He worked very well with Per Mertesacker to shackle Jamie Vardy when introduced as a half time substitute against Leicester in February. The manager has invested a lot of effort in turning Gabriel into a bona fide first choice centre half and, understandably, has been reluctant to upset the combination, as the Brazilian tries to forge some chemistry with Laurent Koscielny. Mohammed Elneny and Alex Iwobi were able to use FA Cup matches as a platform for their ascension into the first team.

Thanks to Mathieu Debuchy’s case of “the Lassana Diarras”, Chambers was used as a right-back in cup matches. It seems obvious that his future lies in a more central position, so the runouts at full-back were nothing more than executive relief for the over used Bellerin, they likely did little to aid Calum’s personal progression. Chambers was probably unlucky not to get more of a chance as a deep lying midfielder during the New Year, as the incompatible “Ram-Flam” duo continued to butt heads.

He certainly seemed a more complementary partner for Ramsey, given their contrasting styles. Chambers made a league appearance there against Newcastle, as well as an FA Cup tie against Sunderland (he also played for the U-21s in the position). Whilst not the stiffest of opposition, he performed well against both northeast clubs. Iwobi has been a success thus far because he gave the team qualities it was missing and perhaps Chambers could have done the same.

That said, Iwobi’s introduction was gentle- FA Cup encounters (mostly in home matches) in a free role behind the striker. Following his performance in the 3rd round win over Sunderland, I argued that giving Iwobi a free role served as a clever induction. The number 10 role is the most expressive, with the least amount of defensive responsibility. There is a reason that creative types want to play there so desperately. It was the perfect place for him to gain confidence.

In midfield, perhaps the manager felt that Chambers would not benefit from this type of gentle introduction in the same way- especially in such a key defensive position. Arsene suggested that Iwobi had impressed him at London Colney and it could be that Chambers did not radiate the same confidence to him in training. The chips have fallen for Iwobi in a way that they haven’t for Chambers. In the long term, both of these young men seem to have the technical grounding to flourish at Arsenal. Whether the likes of Chamberlain and Gnabry can make their difference a virtue, remains to be seen.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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