Arsène and Arsenal Youth: Riding the downward curve of modern football

We look at how Arsenal, a club known for promoting youth from within their ranks, are losing that touch, and how it’s reflective of the norm across England.

Arsène and Arsenal Youth: Riding the downward curve of modern football

It is slowly dawning on me that, at 27 years old, I may not, in fact, ever play for Arsenal Football Club. Yes, it may be time to give up on that particular dream. But we’ve all had it, right? I mean, what football fan hasn’t dreamt about playing, scoring, or single-handedly winning a match for their beloved team?  

Close your eyes and think about it now, just for a second. Imagine you’re eighteen, a striker, and for the first time just made the bench in a cup game. Your team, which is expected to win this one relatively easily, go one-nil down early on.  The minutes are ticking and, playing poorly, your side is in desperate need of a goal. Deep into the second half, the boss tells you to get ready. More minutes go by before finally, finally, your numbers are held up.

What would be going through your mind right now? This, right here, is your debut. You’ve got ten minutes if you’re lucky. Ten minutes to make an impact, save your team from being knocked out, show them what you’ve got. No pressure.

It’s your corner, so you jog over to the penalty area. It’s pretty clear that the other team are a side of half-giants; their huge, hulking frames tower above you, jostling for position. The ball’s driven in. Your instinct takes over and you dart. A flick on, and it’s there. Two yards from the goal. It’s a gift. You can’t miss; you don’t. 1-1.

Here’s the tricky bit. This is it, your moment. All the years on the training ground and in the gym have led to this. How do you celebrate? Do you wheel away, arms out wide? Do you slide on your knees Henry-esque? Do you point to the name on the back of your shirt? Or do you allow your emotions to get the better of you, do you roar in unbridled joy, or pure relief?

But wait, it gets better. In extra-time, you win another corner. This time it’s swung in high and deep. You rise high, higher than the giants, and the ball flashes off your head. 2-1. The crowd, 50,000 people, is singing your name. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie…oh, yes, sorry. This isn’t your dream.

This is Eddie Nketiah’s life.

Eddie Nketiah, minutes after grabbing his 10-minute debut with both hands and winning Arsenal a cup game on his own at 18 years of age.

***

Arsenal is a club, and Arsène Wenger a manager, with a reputation for nurturing and developing young football players. Nearly ten years ago, on a late September evening in London, Arsenal hosted Sheffield United in the League Cup. It had all the elements of a classic banana skin. Sheffield United were a competitive, Championship team with nothing to lose, playing a second-string Arsenal side, with a 20-year-old Nicklas Bendtner starting upfront. Having travelled all the way from the city of steel, and enjoying their trip to London, the away fans were raucous. We almost knew what to expect – Sheffield United would throw in a few ‘robust’ tackles and Arsenal’s pampered boys would wilt under the strain of it all.

Except, that’s not what happened. Instead, the Arsenal boys ran rings around those tackles. The Blades chased shadows and Arsenal scored 6 goals. Indeed, the scoreline flattered Sheffield United. It could have easily been ten. Only heroic goalkeeping, and some poor finishing kept the game anywhere near the bounds of respectability.

We knew they were a good set of lads at Arsenal, but nobody knew how good they were,” said Sheffield United’s manager Kevin Brackwell after the game. “They were awesome at times and would have beaten most teams. A lot of people would like to know how Arsene Wenger can do it.

As it turned out, the 20-year-old Dane was one of the more senior Arsenal players on the pitch that night – the average age of the starting eleven was just nineteen. Having barely finished their GSCEs, Jack Wilshere (16 years old and one-time ‘saviour’ of both Arsenal and England) and Aaron Ramsey (17) formed the midfield three with Alexandre Song (21). In defence, Kieran Gibbs (17) showed speed and ambition and came close to scoring twice. Johan Djourou looked like the calm, collected, ball-playing centre-half he probably should have become.  

Then there was the 19-year-old Carlos Vela, who looked, on this night, like he had all the makings of a superstar. Quick, skilful and absolutely ice-cold in front goal, Vela scored a remarkable hat-trick, including a piece of ball control which stuck two fingers up the laws of physics followed by a chip so outrageous it was almost offensive.

It wasn’t just in League Cup matches that Wenger fielded young players, it was in the Premier League and Champions League too. A couple of months after that Sheffield United game, Cesc Fabregas (another saviour) was made club captain at just 21 years old, following in the footsteps of such legendary figures as Patrick Viera and Tony Adams. Regular starters in the Premier League included the likes of Denilson, Theo Walcott, Gael Clichy, and Samir Nasri. Despite having not won the Premier League since 2004, the future looked bright.

This was 2008, a year into Wenger’s now long abandoned ‘project youth’. The construction of a new stadium, The Emirates, burdened the club with £260 million worth of debt. It was a move that the board felt was needed to secure the club’s long-term future, but at the time placed restrictions on what it could afford to spend on player transfers and wages (the annual servicing of the debt is said to have been in the region of £20 million a year).

In the face of such restrictions, Wenger looked to youth. A short-term impact on the success of the team was probably predicted, but the hope was these young players would eventually, once they matured, be able to once again reach the heights on Henry et al. By raising a young team in such a manner, Wenger wanted to instill both a playing philosophy and a loyalty to the club that would keep the lure of the European giants at bay.

And so the Invincibles were broken up and sold on. Viera, Bergkamp, Pires, Cole, Campbell, Ljungberg and Henry all left the club over the course of two summers – and the likes of Van Persie, Adebayor, Nasri, Clichy, Senderos and Fabregas moved into the breach.

If Project Youth can be said to have properly begun with the departure of Henry in 2007, it ended four years later in 2011 with the loss of both Fabregas to Barcelona and Nasri to Manchester City. The resulting chaos, and the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United that followed saw Wenger recruit Yossi Benayoun (31), Per Mertesacker (26) and Mikel Arteta (29) to steady the ship. With his two young protégés forcing moves away from Arsenal, Wenger was compelled to abandon his great work. In the years since, Wenger has continued to bring in the likes of Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Mohamad Elneny, Petr Čech, and Mathieu Debuchy. All of them represented the new policy of recruiting seasoned professionals – with Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez the additions that would provide the quality necessary to, in Ivan Gazidis’ words, “compete with the biggest clubs in the world” (ahem).

This new policy naturally had an impact on the prospects of Arsenal’s youngsters who were pushed down the pecking order. Jon Toral, for example, a creative midfielder plucked from La Masia, was sent out on loan four times by Wenger before being sold to Hull City this summer aged 22. Similarly, youngsters such as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Calum Chambers (both from Southampton) and Serge Gnabry were unable to secure regular starting positions.

Then there was the academy. If the last generation of young players to come through from the Hale End included Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere, what followed in later years was somewhat a drought. Since the Wilshere generation, only one academy graduate has played regularly for the Arsenal first team – Alex Iwobi. Certainly, the recruitment of more senior players had an impact here, but at the same time, the Hale End conveyor belt wasn’t producing the quality required. “If you look at where many of the scholars from recent years are now, a lot of them are either playing non-league football or aren’t involved in the game at all,” Jeorge Bird, who runs the blog Arsenal Youth, told me.

“Perhaps if some of those other youngsters had been given opportunities to impress then they may have seized them, but many simply weren’t good enough.”

However, the generation coming through the academy right now might have what it takes. “I think these players seem more ready both mentally and technically than a lot of the others that have come through in recent years,” says Bird. It seems Wenger agrees: “Now we have a generation of 18-year-old players who are exceptionally strong.

Do these exceptionally strong players have a way into the first team? The answer, it seems, is not really. Last summer, Chris Willock, a nineteen-year-old attacker, rejected a contract offer from Arsenal, instead choosing to join Portuguese giants Benfica. Willock trained with the first team as a schoolboy regularly played in age groups above his level and was one of the youngsters tipped to make the step up. Wenger talked up Willock himself in 2016: “[Willock is] a very gifted player with natural talent…I believe as well he has the needed character. When his back is to the wall he responds in a very strong way. Despite Willock’s talent, at nineteen, he had made just two competitive appearances. With no clear route into the first team, Willock’s move perhaps should have come as no surprise.

Another academy star, Kaylen Hinds, who hadn’t made a single competitive start for Arsenal, moved to Wolfsburg in June on a three-year contract, following the departed Arsenal academy coach Andres Jonker. Hinds has scored three goals in five preseason games for the German club.

So, Arsenal are in a position where its most talented young players are seeking moves abroad for more opportunities to play first-team football. For a club whose identity is so strongly forged around giving young players a chance, this feels like a misstep. And I’m not sure Arsenal are doing any favours to those young players it has managed to keep on its books, either.

Iwobi, Bellerin, Coquelin. All graduates from the Arsenal academy, but can they do one better and make illustrious careers at the club? (Picture source: @ArsenalLK)

Currently, Reiss Nelson is the outstanding Arsenal youth player. At just 17, he has made some promising appearances in both the Europa League and League Cup. Experiences like recently in Serbia, playing in front of the Red Star Belgrade ultras, will no doubt be important for him. The problem is, he’s currently playing as a wing-back – not his natural position – to accommodate Walcott, who plays the League Cup and Europa League games as the right-sided forward. This reeks of favouritism – a senior player receiving preferential treatment, not because his performances have warranted it (they haven’t), but I believe from a desire to keep him content with his minutes.

The League Cup is no longer used as a training ground for young players, as it was in the past, but more to keep the ‘second string’ match sharp. Senior players like Elneny, Walcott, Mertesacker and Giroud are all given game time in an effort to keep them match fit as well as appease any complaints about playing time. The relative merits of this approach are up for debate. Due to injuries, Mertesacker has been recalled to the starting line-up for Premier League fixtures and it will, of course, have helped that he’d had a few games under his belt.

At the same time, developing exciting young players must be a priority, especially for a club like Arsenal which still cannot compete financially with Chelsea and the Manchester clubs. It should be Nelson, not Walcott playing as the right-sided forward during these games. Similarly, Elneny’s playing time shouldn’t be prioritised over that of young talented midfielders such as Joe Willock (brother of aforementioned Chris).

***

This isn’t an issue that’s limited to Arsenal. There is a growing trend of young players from Premier League clubs now moving abroad as a means to gaining first team experience. Most notably, the 17-year-old Jadan Sancho, previously of Manchester City and very much the proverbial jewel in the academy’s crown, who completed a move to Borussia Dortmund last summer. Sancho made his debut on 22 October, becoming the youngest player in the Bundesliga this season.

That, young players should be looking abroad for playing time is supported by the statistics, too. According to a report by The Football Observatory (an arm of the International Centre of Sports Studies in Switzerland), the Premier League features the least amount of club-trained (those that have spent at least three seasons at their clubs from the ages of 15 – 21) players in Europe. In August 2011, the percentage of minutes played by club trained players in the Premier League sat at 13.6%. This has decreased over the years and currently stands at 6.1%. In comparison, the numbers stand at 21.6% in La Liga and 20.6% in Ligue 1.

Similarly, during the last six months of football played up until April 2017, the percentage of minutes played by U21 footballers was 5.2% in the Premier League. In comparison, this figure is 10.1% for Serie A, 11.1% in La Liga, 13.3% in the Bundesliga and 15.7% in Ligue 1. Young players in England and Wales get nearly half the playing time of the next closest league (Italy) and just a third compared to in the French League.

It will come as no shock that the Premier League also has the highest percentage of minutes played by expatriate footballers – 61.4% this season In the Bundesliga this number sits at 50.7%, 37.2% in Ligue 1, and 40.4% in  La Liga.

The Premier League represents the biggest drop in playing time for club-trained players across all leagues: from 13.6% in 2011 to 6.1% in 2017. In 2011, playing percentage for U21 in the PL was 8.9% – this dropped to 5.2% in 2017. In 2011, minutes played by expatriates in the PL made up 53.3% in 2011, a number which increased to 61.4% in 2017 (this season, the percentage of minutes played by expatriate players at Arsenal is 87.4%).

The Premier League is also the biggest spending league in Europe. And it’s not hard to make the connections here. As Raffeale Poli, head of CIES Football Observatory, told me: “Of course, the high incomes of Premier League clubs partially explain the high percentage of expatriate players, as well as the low employment level of club-trained and U21 players.”

A young player in England surveying the scene described by the statistics would, of course, come to the conclusion that they might have a better chance playing abroad. The issue is that young players trained in England might not be good enough to play abroad either. The blockage of the conveyor belt at Hale End was, for a long time, replicated around the country. Young English players simply were not good enough. Poli describes an “insufficient expertise in the training at the youth academy level…If you look at past results of English youth teams and the number of top-level English players until the recent past, you can suppose that expertise was not optimal.

There is a twist in the tale here. This summer, England teams have been utterly dominant at youth level. The U17 and U20 teams have just won the World Cup. The U19s team won the European Championships. The U18s won the prestigious Toulon tournament. In fact, the director of Borussia Monchengladbach Max Eberl told The Times: “They develop great players. That age group [born in] 2000 in England, you could take every player. It’s unbelievable…That age group of 1999-2000-2001, there are a lot of top English players. For me, they’re the best in the world in that age group.”

There it is. From the mouth of a German nonetheless: England’s young players are now the best in the world. In a couple of years’ time, when those players are more physically ready, it will be the responsibility of the clubs and managers to pick them, to give them the minutes needed to become stars of the men’s game, too. If not? Well, it seems clear that clubs on the continent are not blind to the talent being produced here.

***

Why is all this important? If football is basically just about winning as many games as possible, why does it matter who actually plays? Why bother with an academy at all? Premier League clubs are probably rich enough to recruit nothing but the best from abroad, anyway, why does it matter that clubs don’t play young players?

Leaving aside the arguments relating to the national team (which, despite the current ambivalence towards international football, we all want to see succeed) and arguments about the footballing merits of playing young players (statistics seem to show a correlation between successful clubs and those playing the youngest players), I think there’s something else at work here.

How many managers will field a team full of teenage academy-graduates in a Champions’ League final today? Louis van Gaal did the unthinkable with Ajax in 1995.

I like to believe that I’m fairly a sensible and rational human being (he says as he’s putting the finishing touches on a 3500-word article about football). Likewise, I’m sure most football fans are, on balance, also sensible and rational. But put us in front of our football team and we lose all sense of perspective. Suddenly, nothing is more important than the result of that game. The team’s success is our success, its failures, our failures. There is nothing else quite like football. Why? To be honest, I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure this is all old ground for experts in that field.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s rooted in ideas of community and belonging. Football clubs are historically built from their local communities, after all. Despite the globalisation and commercialisation of the sport, despite the huge gulf that now exists between players and the fans, despite everything that’s wrong with modern football, despite seemingly all efforts to drive it out – a deep sense of community remains. And, I think this should be cherished.

And there is nothing that better represents this community in the modern sense, I believe, than young players. Especially those who have come through the club’s academy. As an Arsenal fan, I enjoyed Wenger’s project youth, despite the lack of trophies. There was a pride to be taken in Wenger’s new footballing style, and more than that, there was a great sense of hope – that something special was being built.

The Scouser’s reverence of Steven Gerrard, the Gooner’s love of Jack Wilshere; local boys done good. This is what football comes down to, still, despite everything else.  

And what could possibly be better, than a young London lad scoring two goals on his debut for his childhood team, sending them through to the next round of the cup. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.

That is football and it’s bloody brilliant.

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Harry Becker-Hicks

Fan of Arsenal, Wenger-ball and Dennis Bergkamp. Good at watching football, bad at playing it.