|2019-20 Premier League minutes
|Emile Smith Rowe
This season, Arsenal gave more than 4,000 minutes to academy graduates [and Gabriel Martinelli] aged 22 or under for the first time in over a decade. They also finished 8th in the Premier League table. This is not to assign blame to the academy players for Arsenal’s poor league season but the two facts are not entirely mutually exclusive.
It’s well established that there is a trade-off between points and development. As Arsene Wenger once said, “You pay for the education of young players with points. At some stage, I must say, as a manager you feel lonely to stand up and say, ‘No, I want this boy to play because he deserves it.’ You learn your job at 23-years of age. 23 to 24 you have a player. Until 23 he will be up and down.”
Now, Arsenal’s 8th placed finish can be laid at the doors of many more decorated and experienced individuals before it finds its way to the Hale End crop. (Excepting Martinelli, who came from Brazil). The vast majority of the minutes apportioned to Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, for example, have been from the substitute’s bench. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is in his third season, and probably final, as a first team player.
Last summer, Arsenal communicated very openly that academy players formed part of their strategy for this season. Freddie Ljungberg was promoted into the first team coaching setup to help manage the pathway for the club’s young players, “Freddie Ljungberg, who currently leads our under-23s, will become assistant first-team coach,” they said when Freddie’s promotion was confirmed.
“We are delighted with the impact Freddie has made in helping to develop our young players into the first team and he fully deserves this promotion. Alongside his new coaching responsibilities, Freddie will have a strong focus on the young players who are moving into the first team group.”
During the supporters’ club Q&A event last summer, Raul Sanllehi said, “The academy is very important, not just financially, because we cannot just buy all the talent. But also because we want people in the dressing room who can teach what the badge is for and what Arsenal stands for. Why certain traditions are important.”
The second part of the quote is fluff, the meat is in his first utterance. Arsenal’s decision to promote academy talent wasn’t a philosophical one but a financial one. Faced with a third consecutive season outside the Champions League, the fiscal reality is that academy players are cost effective.
Personally, I think this is a route Arsenal should have investigated more thoroughly a few years ago. Eddie Nketiah makes far more sense as a supplement to the forward line than £17m Lucas Perez, as a crude example. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has served Arsenal in a number of positions, saving Arsenal some money on squad fodder and now it looks as though they will sell him on for cash money.
Nketiah is a win-win situation. The big six clubs have wasted hundreds of millions on back-up strikers over the last decade [Bony, Balotelli, Perez, Janssen, Batshuayi]. Eddie will either go on to be an Arsenal quality striker on a long-term basis- which would be great- or else he solves an issue for a few seasons and the club creates some value for him on the market- which would also be great.
When people cite Alex Ferguson’s record of developing young players for his Manchester United sides, they will of course look to ‘the Golden Generation.’ Such generations are vanishingly rare in football- which explains why the ‘class of 92’ is still talked about with such reverence nearly 30 years after its emergence.
The ‘golden generation’ tag was a little overwrought considering it contained Phil Neville and Nicky Butt. Scholes and Beckham were stellar talents and Gary Neville was a top-class full-back. Butt and Neville were squad fodder, which is not a pejorative. Ferguson’s real mastery of his academy was to use players like Butt, P.Neville, O’Shea, Brown and Fletcher for valuable squad roles.
It makes sense for Arsenal to try to do something similar with the current crop. Of the players listed at the head of the article, I would say Saka and Martinelli are stellar talents with an excellent chance of being long-term starting eleven players. We’ve yet to see enough of Smith-Rowe to judge and the jury is still out on the others.
Whether Eddie, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, for instance, genuinely represent the future of Arsenal’s starting line-up is open to question. The simple fact of youth development is that most players don’t make it in the long-term. Even in the ‘project youth’ era of Arsenal’s early Emirates years, how many of those players were an unqualified success?
Fabregas, van Persie, Clichy. It’s difficult to think of too many more. The reality is that Bendtner, Vela, Senderos, Djourou, Lupoli, Owusu-Abeyie and co drifted into relative obscurity. Barring a ‘class of 92’ style miracle, the same fate awaits several of these players. Whether or not the club has a specific focus on the academy, the cream tends to rise regardless.
During the Invincible era, the likes of Bentley, Pennant and Aliadiere struggled for minutes. Were they 15 years younger, all of them would have found regular game time in this squad but none went on to enjoy the sort of career Serge Gnabry is enjoying, for instance. Arsenal weren’t making youth development a policy when Bellerin and Wilshere came through but they forced their way into the side.
I watched a lot of the youth team in 2012-13 and it was very clear that Bellerin and Gnabry were the most promising talents. Bellerin made it and Gnabry was accumulating Premier League minutes before a couple of serious knee injuries enervated his progress at Arsenal. Again, were that team six or seven years younger, Chuba Akpom, Thomas Eisfeld and Chuks Aneke would have played plenty of Premier League minutes this year.
None of this is to say that playing academy players is a bad thing. Alex Iwobi is a huge success for Hale End. He played a first team role for a couple of seasons, probably saved the club some money they might have spent on a squad player and then sold him for huge profit. Selling Iwobi also made way for Martinelli and Saka in a sense.
If a similar fate awaits the likes of Willock and Nketiah, it’s still very worthwhile. I would argue that talents like Martinelli and Saka would come through in any era. In other, more successful seasons, they might not have clocked up quite so many minutes so quickly, but there would have been a pathway for them.
Maitland-Niles seems to have reached the Iwobi crossroads where he wants to go somewhere else and really establish himself as more than a Swiss army-knife type squad player. I would rather have kept him but entirely understand why he might want to establish himself elsewhere.
It is understandable that fans feel sentimental about academy products and the club will play on this, recasting expedient decisions to integrate young players as ones informed by ‘club values’ or some other such fluff. The brutal reality is that most young players don’t make it at clubs like Arsenal and a lot of these players probably won’t either- which is fine if Arsenal can get have them take useful squad roles before selling them on for good money at the age of 22 or 23.