Arsenal’s recent Premier League form has not so much circled the u-bend as done several circuits of the sewer by now. By contrast, in the Europa League, Arsenal’s Hale End powered second string have ruthlessly cast continental superpowers Rapid Vienna, Molde and Dundalk aside.
There is obviously a quality gap between Arsenal’s Europa League opponents and their Premier League adversaries (though I do wonder how much better, say, Burnley are than Molde), but the contrast and the failure of the senior team to perform has led many to plead with Arsenal to ‘play the kids.’ A sentiment that is, if we’re honest, as much about punishing the first team players as it is celebrating and developing the club’s young players.
Eddie Nketiah’s Europa League exploits make him the Gunners’ top scorer this season, while Joe Willock has proved to be the linkman between midfield and attack that “the first team” have so sorely missed. Willock was rewarded with starts against Leeds and Wolves but was something of a passenger in both games.
The problem with the “just play the kids” argument is that this is pretty much the worst scenario to throw them into. Young players should be a condiment for a squad, not the main ingredient. They require guidance and, in any case, even very talented youngsters easily lose their way for myriad reasons.
15 years ago or so, Arsenal embarked on ‘Project Youth’, which involved scouring the globe for the most talented young players available. Even with the amount of raw potential that young squad possessed, how many of those players fully realised their potential? Van Persie? Fabregas? Maybe Gael Clichy? Difficult to list too many more, isn’t it?
Carlos Vela was considered the finest young talent in Central America and he didn’t realise his potential, at Arsenal or elsewhere. Denilson captained Brazil at every youth level but never made an appearance for their senior team. Alex Song earned a special talent visa from the Home Office. Now 33, he is currently playing in Djibouti via Switzerland.
The reality is that most young players do not realise their talent at the top level (I realise I am taking some poetic license by persisting with the notion that Arsenal represents ‘the top level’). Many of Arsenal’s Hale End generation will not be at Arsenal in three to five years’ time, it would be incredible were that not to be the case.
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect the young players to rescue Arsenal’s season and it wouldn’t be good for their development to ask them to do so. Peppering the team with some of the young talent is a different question, admittedly. Giving Reiss Nelson a share of Willian’s minutes won’t super charge Arsenal up the table but neither will persisting with Willian. Being brutally honest, most of the young players simply won’t be capable of reversing Arsenal’s fortunes, even if we set aside the psychological burden Arteta would be placing on them by sending them into a burning building.
As fans, we project onto academy players and our projections are almost always optimistic. We always suspect they will get better and better and go on to be excellent but the truth is that we probably know the level of many of them already. If they have 30 appearances or more and you’re still not decided on their long-term credentials, you probably do know what their long-term prospects are but, understandably, want to be generous with what their trajectory might be.
The bona fide stars usually reveal themselves quickly. We know the talent of Bukayo Saka (who is a first-choice player) and Gabriel Martinelli. Their development might still become stunted somehow, by injury or unforeseen personal issues or any of the multiple factors that can knock a young player off their stride- but we can see a high ceiling. (Assuming he can surmount his physical issues, I would include Smith-Rowe in that bracket).
None of this is to criticise the likes of Nketiah, Willock or Nelson. They should absolutely be key members of Arsenal’s squad, honestly I doubt they will be in three to five years’ time but that is absolutely fine. I would submit that Arsenal’s use of their young players is one of the few things they are doing correctly.
Arsenal got through their Europa League group with 18 points and beat Leicester and Liverpool in the Carabao Cup without troubling the key first team players (whatever we think of them right now). Eddie Nketiah scored goals in those games so that Aubameyang could keep his feet up, Joe Willock scored three goals and notched three assists in Europe.
This is exactly how the young players should be utilised- they probably can’t rescue the first string but they have spared them. In 2016, Arsenal spent £16m to have Lucas Perez do what Eddie Nketiah has provided for free this season. The signings of Stephan Lichtsteiner was a nonsense when he ended up below Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the pecking order anyway.
Two and a half years ago, I wrote about the current Hale End crop and described them as “the silver generation.” Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’ was a golden generation for Alex Ferguson but he continued to use his academy excellently thereafter, plugging the likes of Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Wes Brown into squad roles. A smart club that doesn’t have infinite resources doesn’t spend money on bench fodder, they use their academy.
Not every academy player has to be the next Fabregas, Rooney or Mbappe. It is absolutely fine, sensible even, to use your academy players in the early rounds of the cups, have them perform back-up roles in a few different positions and, if they don’t develop beyond the level of ‘useful squad player’ sell them for good money then move on.
Arsenal’s use of Alex Iwobi was a perfect demonstration of this- in a market not decimated by covid, Ainsley Maitland-Niles would likely have been sold for good money during the summer. In a year or two, Arsenal will probably come to a final valuation point with someone like Joe Willock and they can assess whether to sell or re-sign.
Not only is this a cost-effective strategy but it is absolutely healthy for squad players to churn every two to three years. Squad players should want regular football and leave if they aren’t getting it and that keeps the squad fresh. Young players are far easier to sell and far more willing to leave. Arsenal won’t shift Cedric Soares before 2024 if he turns out not to be what the club needs but Ainsley Maitland-Niles will take the move no questions asked.
Arsenal will reach a crossroads with Eddie Nketiah this summer when he will have one year left to run on his deal. I imagine they will look to cash in because they ought to be able to extract a good fee and if they can get Folarin Balogun to sign a new contract, he can take Nketiah’s minutes in the cups and a year or two hence, we can see what his prospects are of breaking into the first team.
Eventually the likes of Miguel Azeez and hopefully Balogun will squeeze some of the more seasoned Hale End boys out. Arsenal stumbled on this “strategy” of giving young players squad roles out of economic necessity because they can’t afford to spend money on squad players (except Nicolas Pepe, fnar fnar).
The Hale End boys probably can’t rescue Arsenal’s season, but they have already done their job in the early rounds of the cups and all the while, the club has created value for them in the market. Introducing one or two more of them into the Premier League team is approaching necessity status but the current use of the academy boys is one of the few things Arsenal is doing correctly.