Sunday, July 21, 2024

Stale End?

The 14 minutes Ethan Nwaneri played at West Ham in February, with Arsenal 5-0 ahead when he entered the field, were the only Premier League, FA Cup or Champions League minutes played by any player under 21 at Arsenal last season. Charles Sagoe Jnr played for 67 minutes in the Carabao Cup tie at Brentford in September.

Domestic cups are usually the ideal laboratory to spawn budding talent but Arsenal were slightly hamstrung by being drawn exclusively against Premier League clubs in the FA and League Cups last season. It does feel strange to observe the small number of minutes played by teenagers given that Arsenal is one of the youngest teams in the league.

However, most of the first-team players are bunched in the 23-26 age category. The story of the imminent departure of Armario Cozier-Duberry as well as speculation around Chido Obi-Martin’s future has led many supporters to question whether Arsenal have an issue integrating academy talent.

I have to say I do not share this anxiety at all, not at this stage anyway. I think the biggest difficulty Arsenal face in integrating young talent is that they accumulated 89 Premier League points last season and it still wasn’t enough to win the league. The margin for error is non-existent.

Arsenal don’t have the points to sacrifice and for a young player to be good enough to get into a team amassing that sort of points total, they essentially have to be a generational talent. When Arsenal were finishing 8th and playing Europa League football, it was easier to assimilate the likes of Nketiah, Nelson (both of whom are now surely surplus to requirements), Maitland-Niles and Willock.

When those players were integrated into the squad, Arsenal had six Europa League group games to play with and they were essentially an upper mid table team. Manchester United have been able to blood Garnacho, Mainoo and Hojlund because they are competing for spots with the likes of Antony, Anthony Martial and Sofyan Amrabat.

Last season, Arsenal had a good bill of injury health too. Arsenal had eight players who were able to start 30 Premier League games or more last season. Young players often barge their way into the team through circumstance. Ashley Cole had Sylvinho’s passport to thank for the expedience of his breakthrough while Hector Bellerin can probably ‘thank’ Marko Arnautovic for shoving Mathieu Debuchy through an advertising hoarding for his.

My personal view is that you cannot leave too much space for academy prospects in your squad. I think the players that will be good enough to turn out for a title challenging team will probably force their way in one way or another. Arsenal didn’t clear a space for Bukayo Saka, he simply bowled Pepe and Willian out of the way. I accept the argument that neither were especially stiff opposition, of course but the intention was for both to be senior first team players.

The space wasn’t left for Saka, he simply took it by force of talent. Some players need to leave elite clubs to plough their furrow. Cole Palmer left Manchester City and playing for a mid-table team has given him the chance to grow. Similarly, Dominic Solanke struggled at Liverpool before finding his feet at Bournemouth.

In Arsenal’s case, I also think the current squad is carrying some puppy fat that ought to be shed over the summer. It is unlikely that Smith Rowe and Vieira can both continue at Arsenal (maybe neither can), Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson should move on for the betterment of their careers at this stage as well.

With the exception of Vieira in this example, I think one generation of Hale End talent could end up making way for another. With Cedric and Mo Elneny already out of the door, I think there are some minutes that Arsenal could make available for someone like Ethan Nwaneri, for example.

Not least because we now enter a more convoluted version of the Champions League, where Arsenal will be asked to play two extra group games. The need for effective rotation multiplies. It’s a delicate balance because, as much as I don’t think you can leave an important squad place for an untested teenager, you do also have to show that there is a pathway for elite young talents, especially when you compete in the market at academy level.

If your club has a record of not playing academy talent, maybe the next Bukayo Saka (although a player like that really does only come along once a generation at the absolute most) decides to join another London club when mapping out his future. The club managed to convince Nwaneri to sign a new contract recently and he plays in a position where there might be opportunities.

If one or both of Smith Rowe and Vieira leave this summer and Kai Havertz continues to excel as a striker, one of those number eight roles looks a little freer. I am not saying they will be free enough for Nwaneri to become a starter but maybe enough to get some League Cup minutes and make some more matchday squads.

In short, I suspect we will see more ‘teenage minutes’ for Arsenal next season- a few kinder cup draws would facilitate this. We also need to prepare for the idea that our injury record might not be quite as kind next season. With the expansion of the Champions League, I think the FA Cup is likely to continue to follow the path of the League Cup as a competition to develop young players.

Not least because there are now two Champions League group games in January when the FA Cup begins for Premier League sides. During the Invincibles era, the likes of Jermaine Pennant, David Bentley and Jeremie Aliadiere just could not compete with the talent Arsenal had at their disposal and Arsenal are at a similar level in terms of league points as they were 20 years ago.

As supporters, we tend to fish for issues with our clubs if we can’t find obvious ones. The primary issues for Arsenal fans at the moment seem to be integration of academy players and a failure to secure good fees for outgoing players. I think there is a lot of overlap between these scenarios. Essentially, Arsenal are really good, which makes it difficult for squad players and academy talent to earn minutes.

100% efficiency is not possible in any sporting organisation. If the primary issues for the club right now are a failure to give academy players a few more minutes and to not be able to raise another £5m for Nketiah and Nelson due to their failure to earn more minutes, I think that indicates good health in the areas that really push the envelope.

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