There is both a need and a desire for renewal at Arsenal this summer. Given the level of turnover in the squad in the last two years, that the club is still very much in ‘blow it up and start again’ mode speaks very poorly of how the rebuild has been managed thus far. Arsenal’s squad is an ageing population, sucking up Champions League salaries on a Europa League budget.
The summer ‘war chest’ is comprised of a couple of super soakers and an egg whisk. All of which is to say Arsenal are trying to replenish an ageing, underperforming squad on a shoestring. Yet at academy level, the U-18 and U-23 teams are flourishing and Freddie Ljungberg’s imminent promotion from U-23 manager to first team coach hints at the club creating a pathway between the junior teams to the first team.
This idea has created some excitement among the fans, which is not surprising. Nothing quite fires the imagination of the fan like an academy crop made good. The success of the first half of George Graham’s reign was built on the idea of shipping out established and, frankly, complacent, players in favour of academy graduates and lower division purchases.
Ajax recently captured the imagination of the European game with their youthful dance to the Champions League semi-finals (before they fudged their pampers against Spurs). But the realities of top-level modern football mean that mass migration of academy talent into the first team is not a viable strategy other than in rare circumstances.
Manchester United’s vaunted ‘Class of 92’ remain so, well, vaunted because their success has not yet been replicated nearly thirty years on. However, in Arsenal’s case, I don’t think anyone is expecting the academy to complete a daring coup of the Premier League. Financial necessity dictates that the club need some young players to come good and fill out squad roles.
It is unreasonable to expect the heirs of Mesut Özil, Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey to emerge from the ranks. But a few more Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ would represent a good deal. If Reiss Nelson or Tyreece John-Jules can cover the gap left by Danny Welbeck, then great. If Arsenal can replace the likes of Mohamed Elneny and Carl Jenkinson internally, then all the better.
Ivan Gazidis haughtily described youth development as a ‘club value’ upon the hiring of Unai Emery. This is the sort of corporate double speak for which Ivan was famed. Youth development is not a ‘value’, it is now a financial necessity because Ivan and Arsene blew all the family silver on a failed salvaging operation.
Youth products only develop through opportunity and opportunity is hostage to circumstance. Sometimes opportunity is driven by injuries that allow a player to flourish at just the right time (Hector Bellerin) and sometimes it’s a matter of timing. A young player might just possess the qualities currently lacking in the first team.
An 18-year old Serge Gnabry would be far more of a fixture in the current Arsenal first team than he was in 2013, when the Gunners had Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alex Iwobi was parachuted into the first team because Arsenal had lost Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. They were low on dribblers and ball carriers. He had qualities not realised elsewhere in the team.
Arsenal’s financial pickle is the circumstance that opens up opportunity for the current bunch. Some of them also possess qualities that the first team miss- Reiss Nelson is a goalscoring wide forward. Bukayo Saka is a tricksy wide player that can also operate as a left wing-back. Joe Willock is a central midfielder that has a penchant for breaking into the area (didn’t we used to have a guy like that? A Welsh guy?). Potentially. Potentially. Potentially.
All of this sounds great. But the gap between imagination and reality should be factored in. Arsenal ran a ‘youth project’ just over a decade ago and we know from experience that development is not a linear process. It is often frustrating and a bit hit and miss. It leads to inconsistency- that’s the contract you enter when you commit to blooding young players.
Arsenal have backed themselves into a corner now and blood some young players they must. One of the principal (or ‘principle’, if you’re Ivan) failures of Unai Emery’s debut season was his unwillingness to develop young talent and, I suspect, this is why Ljungberg will be moved into the first-team setup. The Europa League group stages and the early rounds of the League Cup look like a good opportunity to road test some young talent.
Let’s be realistic, this is as much about creating a market for players that don’t quite meet requirements. Arsenal sold Jeff Rene Adelaide for £2m last summer and after a year of first-team football at a fairly modest level, he us being touted for a transfer worth ten times that now. Arsenal need their academy to generate revenue as much as they do to fill squad spaces and they will only do that through exposure.
The squad requires so much surgery, that the club are going to have to ‘park’ a few issues for a year or two. Arsenal can take a decision on some of the young players in a year or two when, hopefully, the squad is a little leaner and the club are freer to take less urgent decisions. It will be easier to sell them on at a good price if needs be.
As an exemplar, if Arsenal were to decide that, say, Ainsley Maitland-Niles were expendable, he would probably fetch a tidy sum from a mid-table Premier League club. Arsenal would even turn a profit on the £2m they paid for Dino Mavropanos on the basis of very limited first team exposure.
Creating a pathway for these young players is a priority for Emery now and the Europa League groups and the League Cup are his most realistic avenues to do so. A potential pathway was blocked up for several young players by the ill-fated loan signing of Denis Suarez in January and Arsenal will need to think twice before making such moves again.
Young players need to be tested, but they also need to feel included because, irony of ironies, Premier League academy talent has never been more in demand on the continental market. The likes of Xavier Amaechi and Tyreece John-Jules have seen their peers move abroad with success, they have other options at a time when Arsenal might just need them.
All of this is easier said than done, of course. Emery probably only has one more season to hoist a flagging club back into the Champions League- his future is on the line. Developing young players is difficult and frustrating, but that’s the job now at Arsenal. Within the process Arsenal need to be prepared to fail fast and learn quickly too.
It won’t be as exciting for us as fans as we imagine either. Arsene Wenger gave some young players their chance in the Europa League group stages in 2017 and it spawned some disjointed, often tedious performances. It’s not just a challenge for the coach, it’s a challenge for us as fans too, of our patience and understanding.
There are going to be weeds to pull, nettle stings to nurse and some pesticide to dish out- not to mention the odd soporific 0-0 draw at home to Spartak Trnava to suffer. But suffer we must, because this is where the club is now, this is where it has been left. Development is rewarding, but it’s also difficult and frustrating.
None of this is to say that Arsenal need to throw the baby out with the bath water and field a purely academy team- even in the early rounds of the, ahem, ‘bridesmaid’ competitions. What the Gunners need is a pathway and that takes skill and patience to develop. Balancing the club’s long-term needs with Unai Emery’s short-term objectives is going to be the internal battle of next season. Just don’t expect it to be an entertaining one.