The Glory Days
Youth players used to be an exciting prospect for high-ranked Premier League sides. Many top sides now treat their youth academy like a stock room, loaning players out until they reach a high enough value to sell.
Arsenal have been guilty of this to some extent, and despite the best efforts of Arsene Wenger, very few youth players have broken through the ranks into the first eleven.
In 2008/09, Arsenal turned Championship side Sheffield United into whipping boys by beating them 6-0 at The Emirates. The first eleven had an average age of 19.18, including 16 year old Jack Wilshere and 17 year old Aaron Ramsey.
No Premier League team could risk using such a young and inexperienced side against a team at any level now. Even against Lincoln last season, Arsenal still used Walcott, Sanchez and Giroud to ensure that the job got done.
This isn’t an indication that young players aren’t good enough anymore. Quite the opposite, as Iwobi, Bellerin and Coquelin will inform you. The problem is that of those 11 starters against Sheffield, all but 4 have gone on to have meaningful careers at Arsenal or another club.
The Current Problem
Nowadays, unless a player at a top team breaks into the first team by the age of 18 or 19, they are unlikely to make the team at all. For example, Arsenals team against Brighton at the weekend had players with an average age of 18 when they made their senior debut.
This suggests that there is a shift in top clubs, as young players need to be able to make an immediate impact to be considered for long term first team football. If 11 youngsters took to the field for a Premier League side in an Carabao Cup game this year, it’s unlikely we’d see many of them again next year.
Many youth setups now will have a large number of decent looking young players, who will show flashes of quality and will make occasional appearances in the league cup. There will be one or two stand-out players who rise into the first team and make that position their own, or who become subject to a huge transfer bid from another top team.
Hope for the Gunners?
6 Premier League teams were knocked out of the League Cup last year by lower ranked opposition, and 8 in the FA Cup. Contrast this to 2008/09, where 2 Premier League teams were knocked out of the FA Cup by lower league sides, and 10 in the League Cup. Not only does this demonstrate a major shift in how Premier League sides approach each competition, but it demonstrates that top clubs can’t afford to utilise only their youth sides against lower opposition.
Except, I would argue, for Arsenal. Without trying to sound too optimistic, there is a wealth of quality in the youth sides at the moment, featuring Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock. With European games switching Bayern for BATE, it may be easier for Wenger to blood these youngsters too.
A lot has happened already this season, and who knows how the club will fare come May. What is likely, however is that this will be the year in which we see many new faces in the Arsenal first team, and hopefully they will be successful.