Saturday, March 2, 2024

Project Youth: The Sequel

“There is another value which I didn’t talk about which is young players. Our academy teams are doing extremely well. Under the radar we’ve got a lot of players coming through into our first team. Not just ones that you already know about, but the next generation as well. So that value of giving youth a chance is also very important to the football club.”

Last week I wrote about Arsene Wenger’s failure to define or at least adhere to Arsenal’s “brand values.” Ivan Gazidis rather set those out in his press conference the day Wenger’s departure was announced. The CEO has identified a track record of developing youth in the essential criteria for the next Arsenal manager.

Youth development has always been considered as one of Arsene’s strong points. His ability to identify talented young players’ remains, but the impression that he has lost the knack of helping him to reach their ceiling lingers. That said, he is leaving behind a promising group of academy players for the new man to work with.

The Gunners swept to the championship at U-23 level this year and the U-18s finished as runners-up in the FA Youth Cup behind a Chelsea side who will likely continue to ignore their own greenhouse of young players in favour of buying microwaved talent like Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley. Arsenal have also given more minutes to academy players than any other Premier League team this season.

At the beginning of the campaign, Arsenal used the Europa League group stages to blood the likes of Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock, as well as younger players more advanced in their development, like Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi and Calum Chambers. (I covered that in detail back in the autumn).

Of course, as the priorities have shifted this season, the Premier League has gradually become the testing ground for this crop, as Wenger fielded his youngest Premier League starting XI in nearly seven years on Sunday. Having often been asked to play in unfamiliar roles during the Europa League group phase, most of the greenhorns acquitted themselves well in their more natural positions at Old Trafford.

Ivan was keen to play up youth development as a ‘value’ (which is reasonable), but it is also a necessity and, potentially, a sound business strategy. Arsene is leaving behind a squad that needs a lot doing to it and there is, in relative terms, not much money to do it with. The midfield lacks depth and some functionality, neither of the goalkeepers are convincing, Nacho Monreal is 32, Laurent Koscielny’s achilles tendon almost audibly creaks and Per Mertesacker retires this month.

Arsenal have recently awarded new contracts to Rob Holding and Calum Chambers and, in January, Sven Mislintat’s first act as the club’s head of recruitment was to identify 20 year old Greek centre half Dino Mavropanos. There is quite a bit of future proofing going on there. Chambers signed a two year deal which, to my mind, was effectively a trial period for the Southampton graduate. Arsenal couldn’t afford to lose him with other defenders close to closing time.

A 2 year deal was not an emphatic show of faith, but it was Arsenal’s way of parking an issue and making a final judgment on whether he could replace one of Koscielny or Mertesacker further down the line. Likewise, Rob Holding seems to have fallen out of favour this season after ending 2016-17 on a high. But at 22, the club can put off a final assessment on him for a little while yet- especially with more experienced campaigners in defence in the death throes of their Arsenal careers.

Extending Chambers and Holding won’t necessarily have anyone dancing in the street, but they are wise contractual moves at little cost, financially and ‘footballistically’, to borrow an Arsenism. Developing young players is going to have to be part of the new coach’s modus operandi because he will not have the budget to throw away millions on squad fodder with more pressing areas in need of refurbishment.

Developing a mass of young players is a little like trying to handcuff lightning. There are so many variables and more of it comes down to dumb luck than anyone is prepared to admit. This is why ‘golden generations’ are venerated as such- they are seldom repeated. Golden generations don’t become golden conveyor belts, usually because nobody has any idea what exactly it was that they did to produce a ‘golden generation’ in the first place.

It would be a stretch to call the likes of Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Macey, Mavropanos, Chambers and Holding a ‘golden generation’ as such. The vagaries of development mean that at least one or two of these players will drift into relative obscurity at some point. However, a clutch of them could become valuable tools as Arsenal rebuild their squad.

Alex Ferguson only truly availed of one ‘golden generation’ (and even that one included luminaries such as Nicky Butt and Phil Neville), but he continued to fill out his squads with academy players long after the Class of 92. John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans were not as talented or decorated as Beckham, Giggs and Scholes, but they certainly contributed to the club’s success on an ongoing basis.

Ferguson came to value their versatility and, given the right guidance, one of the big advantages of filling out squad spaces with academy players is that you can coach them to be multi-functional. Arsenal don’t necessarily need for the new crop to blossom into a collection of Tony Adams and Cesc Fabregas’ (though that would obviously be wonderful), but if the new coach can get a fistful of Gilles Grimandi’s and Mathieu Flamini’s, then a silver or bronze generation would do very nicely.

This is why Ivan is probably right to prioritise a track record in youth development in the search for Wenger’s successor. It’s nice to dress it up as a “club value”, but in reality, it is probably going to be a fiscal necessity. Sven Mislintat’s brief will, I am sure, heavily involve trying to find a few more Mavropanos types. Arsenal are largely financially disadvantaged compared to their competitors by circumstance, but also partially because this squad has not been well constructed. Its age profile has called for a swift rebuild, instead of a gentle churn.

Three of Arsenal’s highest earners are 29 years old and those three pillars of the Gunners attack will also need replacing simultaneously in a couple of years. The club is more or less entering a new iteration of ‘project youth’, so appointing a manager who will demand significant funds for squad filler makes little sense. This is a process that needs to be managed carefully.

Arsenal have already felt the effects of gambling on too many young players developing in tandem. They will need to be realistic about how much of the emerging talent will be able to make the grade, even as viable squad players. That’s why the next appointment should prioritise capability in that area. The club probably need a good harvest to help rebuild the squad in the short to medium term.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.

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