Over the last few years, at Arsenal football club, a lot of young players have been making their debuts and playing large amounts of games. Fair enough. Not only are young players the future of the game, Arsenal had huge debts from building their gorgeous new stadium and as such didn´t have the financial power to compete in the market for the very biggest players. The motto of Arsene Wenger has always been that we don´t sign stars, we make them. He also loves saying that every superstar was once an unknown player. Both of these things are very true. Over the last season or two, things have been changing. And now a relevant question has been posed to me by @arsenalvision, the godfather of this blog. How do we balance youth and playing time now that we have more experienced players and are looking to actually challenge for trophies, probably for the first time since 2007-2008? How do we make sure the youngsters at the club, or even the fringe first team players, get enough playing time to ensure they keep improving? I am going to shed my light on that.
First things first however. The issue of why we are, relatively suddenly, going from using a lot of young players who have been at the club for a number of years, to players who are more established and more capable of performing in the cut and thrust of the PL? Firstly I think we have to see it in a very positive light. The club has managed to make some good money with the real estate projects which we have finally managed to turn over and sell, and with the direct qualification into the CL, we also had a kitty of 35m to spend early in the summer, rather than later. In previous summers we either had to wait for the CL qualification, or if we were straight in, we preferred using the money to pay off our debts. This is not a bad thing but I think that things have changed. Wenger was convinced that we could win trophies with kids. I don’t think he realised how much the influence of money had infiltrated the competition. When Sir Alex won things with kids it was in a far, far weaker PL. With the current power in the league, winning it with kids is no longer an option. Now Arsene is many things, good and bad, but stubborn is one of them. And it took him a little too long to, as the fans say, spend some f*cking money. But he is doing so now.
When people speak of David Dein, who apparently was so brilliant that he sun shone all year long and all Arsenal fans were treated to Champagne and the best pies during matches, they speak of how he gave Wenger the confidence to spend. Now call me crazy, but I think that Ivan Gazidis has gotten Wenger to that same level. Spending 15m in variables and add-ons for an eighteen year old from League One, last summer, is something Wenger would normally never do. I will guarantee you that Gazidis, who really knows his business, was telling Wenger that it was all good. And this was before we even knew we would be selling Na$ri. Every summer, the last few seasons, Wenger has spent some money, but always with the idea of recouping large amounts of it. Whilst last summer was no exception, it did show a different course. The players Wenger brought in weren’t young and exciting, but experienced and ready to perform. Players like Arteta and Mertesacker hardly came cheap either. This was not the Wenger of the last few seasons. Clearly something has changed. And that is why, if you ask me, last summer wasn’t the disaster some people make it out to be. It was a defining, changing moment. I think Wenger realised that players like Cesc and Nasri, who we made to the men they are now, are always gonna be persuaded by success and money. That is the biggest issue thwarting the success. With their leaving, that part of Wenger’s reign was over.
We managed to finish third, despite not replacing either Nasri or Cesc in any real way. This summer we have already righted that wrong, and with the squad seemingly well balanced, much more is possible.
This summer we have spent over 35m pounds with the best sources telling us that the spending is not over, whether we sell RvP or not, and we only expect to get small amounts of money for the unneeded or unwanted players, as well as shifting their wages off the books. That is quite a new policy for the club, buying players like Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla, all of whom are fully developed, demand large wages, and won’t develop much. But all will perform straight away, and all were brought in on amazingly cheap deals, for which Dick Law and IG deserve massive credit. We managed to buy absolute class in places we needed them, without overspending on ‘names’ or even worse, paying the British Premium. All of this was done with the club in limbo on RvP, meaning that we are confident in spending money. Quite frankly, though, we needed to be. Whilst last seasons will rank in my mind as one of the finest Wenger performances of his career, it was still not good enough. This season, with the new player and staff changes, we will go further.
Now Project Youth, as some have rather scathingly called Wenger’s idealistic use of young players, seems over. But it has given the club quite a few things we can be proud of. Now I am the sort of Arsenal fan who realises that there are limits to success, and that building the new stadium was always gonna limit us. People point at Sir Alex Ferguson and his success but that is once in a lifetime. Besides ManU had a much larger fanbase, much larger international reach, an enormous stadium and was the main footballing centre in Lancashire, which is a rather rich area for finding footballing talent. Whereas Arsenal have to share London and the surroundings with a whole range of clubs. Back to the point, we can not expect a club to challenge every season and I was one of those people who, begrudgingly, accepted that and supported it. But it feels like the club has changed it’s view, it wants to invest in the now, not just the future. Investing in the future has brought the club a lot though.
Not only is the Arsenal Academy nowadays recognises as amongst the best in England and indeed Europe, Arsenal’s scouting network, system and approach are second to absolutely none. In fact, whenever other clubs are linked to players, I can see Wenger sitting in his chair, reading the news, going ‘pah, we scouted him four years ago. He runs ok for twenty minutes, but tires very quickly. Good luck signing him!’. It is also important to realise that these things are gonna help is immensely in the long run. What it also reminds me off, is how close we got to doing things right. Arsenal missed out on Cristiano Ronaldo because Ferguson trumped us, but we had longer standing interest. We missed out on Angel di Maria and Lionel Messi who we had deals to sign, but fell through in the paperwork stage. We had Yaya Touré on trial, and despite people claiming we didn’t sign him because Wenger didn’t rate him, we couldn’t get a work permit. If people are reading this with a negative or neutral judgement of the so called Project Youth, look at these names. Look what we could have accomplished with these players. And that is not ‘what-if history’, that is an observation. At their ages, these players weren’t better than some of the kids we signed, and played. It could have been different, but as a project, as a way of being a football club, I don’t think it was flawed. And I don’t think anyone predicted, even after the influence of Abramovich, how much money would skew the playing field.
So now we have a club with an amazing youth setup and an even better scouting system. Back when Wenger just arrived, in fact for the first 5 to 8 years, that was hardly the case. Back then Stephen Hughes was what we considered a fringe player and Malz was a next big thing. Even in 2007, the talents on show were players like Rene Steer and Paul Rodgers, who were far from good enough for the club. Building an entire network and an Academy takes a lot of time. It is starting to reap the rewards. The generation that won us the 2008-2009 FA Youth Cup and the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 Academy Leagues are now filtering through to the first team. Jack Wilshere has broken through, as has Kieran Gibbs, but Nico Yennaris, Benik Afobe, Francis Coquelin, Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury, Kyle Bartley, Chuks Aneke and (luckily) Craig Eastmond are still on the fringes of the first team. A few players have been sold, and found to be not good enough, but a large part might have a future at the club. It is interesting, if we look at it, that now a generation breaks through which might be something special, just when the patience of Wenger and the fans seems to have run out.
I think many of these players deserve more chances than Denilson or Bendtner, because many of these lads bleed Arsenal and will do anything to wear the colours. But with the sudden, and rather radical, shift of Wenger’s main teambuilding principles, a lot of youngsters find themselves less guaranteed of playing time as they would otherwise have had. Apart from the above-named players we also have Ryo Miyaichi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Campbell, Thomas Eisfeld, Carl Jenkinson and Ignasi Miquel, who are hoping to make something happen, as well as really young kids like Serge Gnabry. Back when Project Youth was in full swing, when we beat Sheffield United 6-0 with only kids, you could bet on the most talented youngsters, like a 16 year old Wilshere, making headlines. Right now, would we start with Gnabry and Olsson, for instance? I doubt it. I doubt we would even start with Aneke. Clearly the priorities have shifted.
Which is, belatedly I must admit, we come to the crux of the article. With so many excellent players in the squad, who are almost entirely matured and ready, what is the future for the youngsters? How do we guarantee them playing time, how do we make sure they keep improving and maturing? It is a very difficult question. Personally I am afraid that some of them, even the ones we rate very highly, are not going to make it at Arsenal if we want to challenge for trophies and keep the current first team squad happy. But let us look at the players themselves. The very highest category of talents, the ones we included Ramsey, Wilshere and Walcott in in the past, will stay and get the minutes they need to improve. A few, like Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain, are good enough, and playing in the right position, to actually contribute this season. One of Yennaris and Jenkinson might be in that same position. But if the rest want continuous first team football for improving themselves, I am afraid they need to go on loan. And loans are tricky things. As someone on twitter pointed out, foreign loans for players hoping to establish themselves are almost always detrimental for their potential. The only players who it has worked on have been Ryo and Coquelin. Of Joel Campbell it is very hard to say how his time at Lorient benefitted him, but the fact he went on loan again is not a good sign. Carlos Vela spent years on loan and by the time he came to us he wasn’t the same player he could have been: lazy, a little bit fat, not strong enough to survive the PL. I will bet that enormous talents like Galindo and Wellington, maybe even Campbell, will go the way of Vela and Botelho.
So if not foreign loans, where can players play that will guarantee them top level football? That is a difficult question. Whereas Ryo is considered good and exciting enough for a top flight loan, I think the others are not so lucky. When a player is loaned out to a level below, at times this does not work out. The manager might play a very different style of football, the facilities aren’t up to scratch, or the player doesn’t adapt to the physical style of lower league football. Here again I fear some might fail. We all had high hopes for players like Luke Freeman or Henri Lansbury but their loans failed to help them. Others, like Benik Afobe and Wojciech Szczesny, benefitted enormously. If we can get loans in the top half of the Championship, that would be excellent. For the abovementioned group of players, however, I fear anything below that might half their improvement.
With the players we keep, probably including the likes of Bartley, Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Oxlade-Chamberlain, what should the strategy be? Are these players good enough to play week in, week out, and challenge for trophies? No, probably not. Do we wanna take the risk of halting their progress, or do we take the risk of losing out on trophies? It is the debate that will continue to rage, and I think it is a tough task for Arsene to find the right balance. Last season, in PL, CL and cup competitions, these players all showed potential, which was on show again against Koln this weekend. If we face lesser opposition, especially at home, I can see some of these younger guys starting. But is that enough? Will we sacrifice cup competitions to have these players play? And what of the fringe players? Say we keep someone like Chamakh, or Arshavin, who are unlikely to play often, do we play them in cup competitions, or do we use the youth? So many questions….
To me it is simple. If we have a chance, any chance, to play younger players, players who need playing time, then we should take it. We have a very strong backbone right now. The last time we had a backbone this strong we almost won the league. A lot of rotation is needed to keep a team ready to win a competition and amongst that rotation should be the youngsters too. I don’t need to see Gnabry in the PL or anything like that. But if either of Coquelin or the OX play less than last season, Wenger will have let them down. And I think Wenger is unlikely to completely rid himself of the idea of youth. Even when we won the league unbeaten, we often played younger players. That is going to be the crux of the current season. For sure, if halfway through we are no longer in the title race (god forbid) then we can play the youth even more. If the opposite is true, we play them only when we can afford it. The current setup, both in facilities and staff, is good enough to have players improving without regular first team football. But some of the talents at the club are too big to waste. And I really think we need to keep them occupied with football.
If we don’t, then we are no better than Man City. And even though football is not about morals, ethics and standards, or philosophies, it is an important part of the game. If the OX can’t get a game, something in the club is slightly out of kilter. I would still rather see us build on our future than throw away a generation in search of trophies. Wenger has done the combination before, winning things and integrating youth. When he did it, and when Ferguson did that, they had older teammates to look up to. That was something that didn’t work in Project Youth, because there were no real role models. Players like Arteta, Cazorla and Podolski however are. So now is a good time for players to learn from them. So in fact, there is no real argument for us not using our youth from time to time. Of course, we have the NextGen series, and the restructuring of youth football will give some older players on the fringe chances to play at a good level, but the first team squad should not forget that youngsters need playing time too.
At the end of the day it is a tricky combination. With an amazing batch of young players emerging very rapidly, we suddenly have a wall of established players blocking their entrance into the first team. Some should go on loan and profit from the experience. Some should stay and train with the first team whilst playing at U-21 and NextGen level. Some, as we will see, will not make it, perhaps already this season. For the very best a role in the first team will be possible, and with players of the maturity of the OX and Coquelin, not having a place in the first team is unthinkable. We have an excellent setup, and we all know Arsene isn’t going to let it go to waste. With the financial future of the club set to explode in 2014, having a slightly larger wage bill is no problem. As long as players show promise, we should keep them. But like every Gooner out there, I want the trophies too. And you know what, if Arsene mixes the formula right, we can have them soon… and keep them going long term….