Football is such a beautiful game. Every summer before the major European league seasons kick off, millions of players, managers, backroom staffers, board members and supporters all share the same dream. This is the year for our club. Every player will remain fit, focused and perform to the utmost of their as of yet untapped potential. The manager will brew up the perfect tactical ether that best utilizes every player in the squad. Wins and Glory will follow. Hey if Leicester City can do it, right?
There do remain certain clubs, however, whose supporters tend to take a more measured view of the future. There is always an underlying belief that catastrophe is one mistimed challenge or bobbled cross away. Arsenal are absolutely one of those clubs. With the Wenger Out brigade growing by the week, frustrated in their belief that the Top 4 status quo is not good enough anymore, Gooners are something of a divided set these days. The problem is that many seem to forget just how competitive of a league the Premier League is or how much more money some teams are willing to spend (and lose, in certain cases) for what still only amounts to a better chance at title glory.
It is with this in mind that I have decided to partake in some good old fashioned small club hope. This is a look at the Arsenal squad in a purely optimistic sense. I maintain zero delusions that this is how events will transpire next season, but I want to see hope return to the Emirates. The cynical nature of football punditry has completely undermined many of the reasons why millions of people the world over love the game so much. Gooners have been gifted a twenty year run of mostly successful, almost always beautiful football. The squads have contained a varying mix of talented youth and established class throughout those years. The 60,000 or so lucky supporters that are able to watch the team play do so inside a modern football palace, with its perfect pitch and seats large enough for a service station pasty enthusiast. Arsenal supporters have a lot to be thankful for, with a history and facilities that are the envy of all but a select few clubs. So it is without further delay, that I present my Optimists Guide to Arsenal Next Season.
1. The Development of Youth
As supporters have gotten to see in the preseason tours and domestic cup runs that have become commonplace in the Wenger era, Arsenal is not without its share of precocious young talent. Some of the best already on the cusp of the first team are future superhero pair The Incredible Hyphenated Duo (that would be the slick and swift Reine-Adelaide and the strong and versatile Maitland-Niles, to wit), and Alex Iwobi. Though he has experienced some burnout in the second half of the season, which is to be expected considering the much lighter games load experienced at the youth levels, his promise is unquestionable. It seems more and more that his intelligence, vision and escapability might make his best position in the center behind the striker, but with a player of Ozil’s calibre already written in pen in the center of the team sheet, he is making due in his interpretation of an inverted number 10 out on the left flank. We have not seen the top level foot speed out of him consistently enough to make that left wing his own, but at his age, athletic gains are still certainly possible. This author loves how he plays with his head up on the ball and his happy go lucky attitude.
As you move deeper and earlier into the ranks, what becomes apparent is that most of the highest rated youth talent, either at Hale End or London Colney, ply their trade in midfield. Specifically, there are an abundance of attack minded central midfielders, in true Wenger fashion. Two of the more promising players, Gedion Zelalem and Dan Crowley, have seen their progress and star fade a bit as they struggle to cope with the physicality and the maturity required at the more senior levels, respectively. Both will be hoping their January loan moves to the continent are marked with success and a return to the first team fast track. Fellow midfielders Vlad Dragomir and the more attacking Chris Willock have first team potential as well. Donyell Malen and Stephy Mavididi show glimpses in front of goal for the youth side that could suggest a future. Mavididi in particular, whose recent horrific hamstring injury was possibly caused in part by The Addicks overplaying him out of excitement for his abilities. At the back end, really only Krystian Bielik and maybe Julio Pleguezelo have a chance in the center, and obviously Cohen Bramall snagged a few headlines with his purchase the only bit of incoming news for Arsenal in January. His raw speed and skill make him seem an exciting foil to Hector Bellerin on the left side in the future. There is a lot of potential in this group, and much like the first team, the concentration of talent is in the midfield.
2. Two thirds of the roster have not yet reached the prime of their careers
A bit self-explanatory here, but there is an abundance of world class talent and potential under contract at Arsenal. Assuming that Prime Aged for a Footballer is generally between 25-30, allowing for many factors such as early or late bloomers or even long term injury. The number extends further into the 30s for positions such as goalkeeper and central defence where intelligence and experience carry more weight than pure athleticism. The likes of Granit Xhaka, Hector Bellerin, Danny Welbeck, Francis Coquelin, Jack Wilshere (at the end of this group, age wise, along with Welbeck, but injuries prevented the potential from being realized sooner), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Shkodran Mustafi, Mohammed Elneny, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Gabriel can all be expected to improve given their age and trending levels of play. That is a large portion of any first team squad expected to still improve, let alone one of a team competing amongst the elite clubs in Europe.
3. The potential for new coaching blood
With the news that Andries Jonker left to manage Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, bringing former Invincible Freddie Ljungberg to assist, there are vacancies to fill in the youth development side of things. While it is never a good thing to lose a club legend from your coaching ranks in Ljungberg, there had been whispers of a fractious relationship at times between Jonkers and Wenger. There is also a certain level of dissatisfaction with the academy amongst some fans, with many feeling that the level of top end talent being produced from the youth teams has not been of quite the same standard as seasons passed. For every Iwobi and Bellerin these days there seems to be five that fade away. Obviously not every youth player becomes a successful professional, but it seems to have been since Jack Wilshere that Arsenal have had a youth player that simply refuses to be denied a run out in the first team.
These vacancies should make Gooners optimistic. It gives the team a chance to evaluate their youth program and all of its strengths and weaknesses. Arsenal are fairly unique in that they are a big club with big club resources that has always been willing to build the squad through its own youth systems. In this author’s estimation, perhaps a pilfering of the Southampton academy staff would make sense. It would be hard to resist, one would imagine, for someone to turn down a move between the two clubs, where much like for the players themselves, the facilities and salary and potential glory on offer provide a massive draw. Looking elsewhere, the youth setups of Schalke, Ajax and Lyon should warrant interest from the board. Schalke has been a feeder of German talent in recent times, with Gunner Mesut Ozil being but one of a myriad of world class footballers to spend time with the club as a youth. Ajax has been a talent factory for many many years, with its aptly named De Toekomst (“The Future” in Dutch) having been presided over by the great Johan Kruyff for a time. Perhaps former Gunners Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp, both currently with Ajax, can be convinced to return to Arsenal in some capacity. The final club Arsenal should consider hiring from is Lyon. For those that don’t follow Ligue 1, Lyon is practically France’s Football Academy. They operate on a small budget, relying on their youth system for a constant influx of top end talent that can then be sold off at a healthy profit as timing suits. They are very similar to Southampton in this regard.
Wherever Arsenal look for their replacement, the hope is that whomever it is comes with new ideas. When there has been one man in charge at a club for 20 years, sometimes the only way for fresh ideas to come in are from the outside. Having someone that he respects and offer a differing opinion with conviction is something that Arsene Wenger could use. I see this as a very exciting opportunity for the club.
4. Money in the Bank
A source of serious ire for the Emirates faithful, the annual release of financials showed that Arsenal currently have the most money in the bank of any club in the world. While these figures can be seriously misleading, and ignore such trifles as payments still owed on transfer fees. What this should mean, no matter how you look at it, is that Arsenal should not have any issue coming up with the cash for almost any player they want, should the opportunity present itself. Wenger’s reputation for keeping his purse strings tight will no doubt be thrown around all summer long, even if Arsenal go on to spend around £100 million as they did in last summer’s transfer window. Since optimism is today’s theme, let’s look at this positively: every year that Arsenal have NOT spent every pound they could, they saved more for future years so that they could! Put another way, every lean year Arsenal have gone through in the last ten or so years has put the team one step closer to being able to spend without consequence, the very thing every unsatisfied Gooner wants in the first place!
As far as this contributor is concerned, this column will never be a place for transfer rumor. Frankly, I am rubbish at playing darts blindfolded, and the odds are similar. However, looking ahead, I believe it is safe to say that some hard truths may finally be sinking in this season, and I expect to see some new faces with healthy price tags in red and white next campaign.
5. A Fairy Tale Ending
I could wax poetic all day about Arsene Wenger, but since we are about thirty times beyond the range of the average attention span in this paragraph, I will be brief. This is a principled man. One who has never broken a contract. Ever. In football, that is rare indeed. He doesn’t just care about how his players play, he cares about the men that they are, their families, their happiness, their wellbeing. He will defend a player struggling for form as if bound by blood. He treats his club’s money as his own. He lives for his club. Arsene Wenger is Arsenal. He is—
Sorry I was carrying on a bit… But my point is clear. There are some men who give the game so much during their careers, devoting so much of their precious life to football being played at its highest level. Some revolutionize the way the game is played in a country, and others still win just about every honor they can during their careers. Seldom do both of these things happen for a manager, let alone in a run at one club lasting twenty years.
Whether he leaves today, tomorrow, or in 2025, he should do so to the universal appreciation of English football for all he has done. It would be that much better, however, if he went off into the sunset holding the Premier League trophy aloft on top of a bus rolling through the streets of North London. A more deserving man, football may never see again.