Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski may be the Germans currently on the minds and in the hearts of Arsenal fans, as is the ever-green legend and Invincible that is Jens Lehmann, but there are two more coming up through the Academy who might yet be the stars for a future generation of Gunners.
Serge Gnabry (with a Silent G) has had quite the month making his PL debut for the first team in the Capital One Cup game versus Coventry City. Though Arsenal was already cruising to a comfortable win before he came on as a sub, he did impress with his brief cameo. Similarly his substitution was the only bright spot in an otherwise shambolic performance at Carrow Road last weekend. There is a long way ahead for the 17year old half-German, half-Ivorian youngster from the youth team at VfB Stuttgart, but his raw talent is undeniable. A natural winger who is also comfortable playing in the middle right behind the strikers, Gnabry looks strong, very pacy (he had to make a choice between athletics and football as a kid) with good ball-control and direct play. He isn’t afraid to shoot, nor does he hesitate in taking on players or cutting inside by changing pace or direction. He has scored 6 goals in 8 games for the Arsenal Under-18s which led to a call up to the Reserves squad.
These are impressive attributes and while he is vastly inexperienced (it showed when he lost the ball in the lead-up to Schalke’s 2nd goal at the Emirates recently), there is a more than decent chance of him breaking into the first team sooner rather than later. However he will have to work hard, improve and learn what he must to be a genuine contender than simply a perennial exciting prospect, especially with the current competition for places in Arsenal’s midfield. He does resemble a certain Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain which is only a good thing, and he is also being touted as a potential replacement if Theo Walcott doesn’t ‘sign da ting’. I have no doubt about Gnabry’s talent but being a regular top-tier player needs much more than that. With Wenger determined to give him the required first-team experience this season, it’s the best chance he has to prove his worth.
Thomas Eisfeld is another such prospect, albeit from Dortmund’s much praised youth academy. An attacking midfielder who can play in a number of positions, he was born in Finsterwalde and played for local teams SV Quitt Ankum and VfL Osnabruck before being scouted by Borussia Dortmund’s academy. Those familiar with German U-19s football are well-versed with Eisfeld who played for the Dortmund academy with none other than Mario Goetze and Moritz Leitner, every bit as good and talented as his counterparts. But at 19, Thomas is yet to appear for any of the German youth national teams (though he captained the German U-15s) and was never even on the substitutes bench for Dortmund’s first team, while both Goetze and Leitner were called up and became important parts of Jurgen Klopp’s side.
All of this was down to a nearly career-ending injury that the youngster suffered to his anterior cruciate ligaments in late 2009. The fact that he has come back from such a knock shows that he has the drive and determination needed to be a professional footballer. But by the time he did, he faced far too much competition for the first team from numerous well-bedded players as well as 18 year olds like Leonardo Bittencourt and Mustafa Amini who were bought as cover for his injury. Enter Monsieur Wenger who had been scouting him for a while and was impressed by the 6 goals and 6 assists in just 12 appearances for the Dortmund U-19s (second highest scorer the year before he signed for the Gunners)
“He is young but has proven to us that he can play, that he has the attitude and technical ability to be a valuable addition to our squad. We’re very pleased to welcome him to the Club and look forward to his contribution in the coming seasons.” (Arsene Wenger)
Any big injury, whether career threatening or not, is always a difficult place to come back from, more so given the competitiveness of modern professional football. You never really know if the player can go back to being how good he was before the injury, whether he can just pick right up from where he left off, whether there are any lingering mental issues or whether the player has the necessary tools to adapt and reinvent his game and style to suit his post-injury situation.
Arsenal are yet to settle him in one position – he played as an advanced number 10 on his debut for the Reserves, but Neil Banfield feels that he could be a useful false 9 if the game so demanded. The youngster travelled to Asia for Arsenal’s pre-season tour and made a decent impression scoring past Malaysia XI in the 2-1 win as well as in the 2-2 draw with Kitchee FC. Wenger experimented by playing him on both flanks and as a free player in a three-man central midfield. His intelligent runs into the box as well as his tendency to find that extra bit of space showed off a certain versatility and ability to adapt to different positions. He’s recently scored with an assured finish against Bolton for the U-21s.
Thomas Eisfeld definitely shows the potential and ability to become a very good player one day. But when a player has gone through such a major injury, has very little first team experience in the bargain and is coming into the toughest, most physical and fast league in the world, it’s too early to predict anything. He isn’t ready for the big stage, but going by raw talent, he was more than good enough for the Dortmund youth academy for seven years, a place widely said to be one of the best in the Bundesliga and the world. He will need patience and a good set of facilities and support, which no doubt Arsenal can provide, and who knows? It looks more difficult than with Gnabry, but he may still become as good as he was on his way to becoming before the injury.
Only time will tell, all we can do is hope and support. Making the transition from the Academy to the top-flight is tough. The Arsenal fans have a certain tendency to get excited about the slightest hint of above average talent and skills, to put such prospects on a pedestal, compare them to former greats and confidently flaunt them as ‘the next big thing’ or in the case of Theo, Jack and Chambo who are first-team regulars, pressure them as ‘Arsenal’s English saviours.’ With the advent of Twitter, fans are more aware than ever about their club’s academies and youngsters; many players are already ‘stars’ in their own right even before breaking into the first team. It’s a double-edged sword that needs to be handled carefully. Competition for places is great as is supporting our youth teams, but putting such overwhelming and unattainable amount of expectations and hopes on 17 or 18 year olds is more detrimental than anything as we have unfortunately seen. It takes a lot more than natural talent to make a mark in the top leagues. Not everyone will be a Cesc Fabregas. Going by previous records, only a select few will be able to break into the Arsenal team and many will instead chose to move to another club where they have the guarantee of regular first team action. But let’s hope that for this next generation, more make it with the Gunners than not and that Gnabry and Eisfeld are two of them.