Bad News Brits: What Has Happened to Arsenal’s English Flavour?

It’s not easy being English these days at Arsenal Football Club. Fans older than 30 will have little trouble remembering the days of club legends with names like Adams, Cole, Bould, Parlour and Wright, but for younger fans, it is a different story. Arsene Wenger’s arrival to the club in 1996 as a relatively unknown manager with fresh ideas sparked the globalism of the Premier League that we now see at every club in the top flight. Arsenal my have had a battle-hardened core of English veterans, but Wenger almost immediately brought with him a change of focus toward continental players and methods that saw careers extended and trophies lifted.
Most fans remember the now infamous December 2012 photograph of Arsenal’s 5 core young British players (4 English, 1 Welsh) all signing new contracts with their doting manager leaning in just above them, smiles plastered to their faces. Those players, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain represented what the fans and Wenger hoped would become the spine of his modern day Arsenal squad. Despite their youth, all 5 players were either already featuring regularly for the first team, or possessed the talent that left few in doubt as to whether or not they soon would be.
Back then, when asked which young British player, including that group of 5, would become Arsene Wenger’s most trusted, the overwhelming majority of fans would have said Jack Wilshere. The midfielder was just a year removed from perhaps the greatest performance a teenager has ever put on in the Champions League, against Barcelona, and was still being touted as perhaps the most technically proficient and talented young midfielder England had ever seen. I suppose it would have been a nasty shock to most to find out that the correct answer is…Danny Welbeck, who at that time was still a player in the Manchester United youth setup.
Despite injuries, form and competition for places all playing a role in denting that 2012 vision of the future, it wasn’t until this summer when that group was finally broken up for good. Gibbs, Jenkinson and Oxlade-Chamberlain all departed the club for the next step in their professional careers. Of Arsenal’s onetime homegrown future, only Wilshere and Ramsey remain. Though Aaron Ramsey currently finds himself favoured in the starting XI, his inconsistencies and injury woes have not yet subsided. For every world class performance he puts on, as he did against Chelsea in the 2017 FA Cup Final, there is an absolute shocker, as against Liverpool just over 2 weeks ago, waiting in the not too distant future.
If Ramsey’s career trajectory thus far has been frustrating, then Jack Wilshere’s could only be described as saddening. Injuries have already taken such a severe toll on he diminutive midfielder’s career that he already looks like a shadow of the player he was always supposed to be. From being the best player on the pitch in a Champions League match as a teenager against the best team in the world to struggling to make an impact at a small, recently promoted south coast club last season, Wilshere’s career looks to be hanging in the balance. So far this season, even with the absence of the brilliant Santi Cazorla and the struggles of other central midfielders in the squad, Wilshere has still been unable to get a look in a game since the pre-season ended. If left out of the squad entirely for Thursday’s Europa League clash with Cologne, Wilshere’s Arsenal career could be in serious jeopardy.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, issues with the development of English youth is both indicative of a larger problem with the country’s lack of top end homegrown talent and the club’s own decisions about their youth setup. Bringing homegrown, English born players through the academy has obvious advantages for the club. It gives the team a foundation of players that have grown up inside the culture and traditions of the club, something that Arsene Wenger considers very important to sustaining the Gunners long term. This matters little, however, when Wenger also determines that his team play a very expansive and creative brand of football. The archetypal modern Arsenal player, a quick, technically proficient and creative player does not jive with the sort of player that has traditionally come out of England: tough, strong and tireless characters who make up for a relative lack of technical prowess with sheer work rate and determination. The rise of more diverse, continental styles of play in the Premier League has diluted the pool of suitable players even further, with clubs all over England now having use for players outside of the traditional 4-4-2 position moulds, as well as the quality academies to attract them to the club.
A quick glance at what is on offer to the future at Hale End reveals few English players of the same expected quality as Wilshere was at that stage, but is Arsene Wenger to blame, or is it indicative of a larger problem in England? Even with clubs like Southampton doing their part to stock the pipeline full of International quality footballers, it has been no secret that England has struggled on the world stage. In both European club and International competition, England has lagged behind Germany, Italy Spain, and perhaps in the not too distant future, France. This is not to say that there aren’t any quality players in England, that would be completely false. The problem for the Three Lions is a dearth of true world class talent. Where many of the traditional European powers face selection headaches due to an abundance of quality options to choose from, England cannot even figure out who the right manager to bring them forward is, let alone who will play and how they will line up.
So what does the future hold for homegrown talent at Arsenal and elsewhere across the English League system? Players of future generations will obviously have access to more state of the art academies and training centres than ever before, but will the country’s youth teams start to resemble their corresponding first teams, with players from all over the world taking the place of what was once a very homogeneous group. Wenger has already started finding promising young teens elsewhere to add to his youth setup, but will that trend continue, or will we see a renaissance of young British talent rise up once again?

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