Preseason is good for getting an idea of which young players Wenger thinks are the most ready. Given we don’t quite use the League Cup as the opportunity to showcase our kids the way we used to, pre-season is really important for the kids knocking on the door. In terms of figuring out who looks like they can play with the big boys, Arsene has proved he’s pretty good at it, probably as good as anyone to be fair. It’s amazing because if you look at the state of our youth setup over the past few years, then on the face of it, it’s pretty poor, to be honest.
Our U18s and U23s haven’t really had eye catching seasons for a while, and players that we’ve sent out on loan to the lower leagues or abroad haven’t generally made waves. Yet every season, we seem to get at least one young player establish themselves in the first team e.g. Bellerin in 14/15, Iwobi in 15/16, Holding in 16/17. Let’s contrast that with say, Chelsea who have a youth setup which let’s be honest, right now, is much better than ours. Their kids dominate youth tournaments and a lot of their players on loan in recent times have looked seriously promising e.g. Bamford, Ake, Chalobah. However, how many get the chance to establish themselves in the first team? Many people will say that’s because Chelsea managers are under more pressure to win trophies than Wenger and therefore don’t feel they can be patient with a young player who will inevitably make mistakes and have bad games. I think that’s a fair argument, but I also think Wenger is just one of the best at looking at a young player and understanding whether they have the character to play for Arsenal’s first team and then facilitating their integration and development.
However, on the flipside, why is it that over the last decade the majority of our higher profile young players have clearly failed to live up to their initial expectations? Let’s look at Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. Four players who had immense promise when they started playing in the first team, but if you take every single one of them and look at where they are now, you’d have to say they’re all well below where we expected them to be (some more than others). It’s too easy to blame injuries for the likes of Jack and Rambo but in any case, what excuse do Theo and Ox have? What is it that we’ve done wrong with them? These guys all had the potential to be world class footballers, and the chances are none of them are going to be able to really achieve world class status.
One idea is that all four of those players have been made to play in a number of different positions and roles in their Arsenal careers instead of focussing on just one. However, the Arsenal coaches surely know better about player development than most of us, so if they think that’s the best way to develop a player then what do the critics know? However, there’s a different angle to be considered here. We assume that the Arsenal coaches (including Arsene) are always having player development at the forefront of their decision making. In reality, this probably isn’t the case. What I mean here is that if we take Wilshere as an example, it may be that the coaches have always thought his best position is a number 10 and that for his development he needs to keep being played in attacking midfield. However, given the needs of the Arsenal squad itself, it’s likely that the player’s development takes a backseat to where the immediate squad requirement sits. In Wilshere’s case, if Wenger thinks he needs a deep-lying continuity player who can link up play with defence, bring the ball out, draw fouls etc, then he may just think Jack is his best option. Now, in this case, this is Wenger putting the needs of the team ahead of the journey to turn Jack Wilshere into the best footballer he can possibly be. That’s not to say Jack won’t learn from playing a deeper role but it may not be the position that gets the best out of him.
Ox another fantastic example. Wenger has always indicated that his end game is as a CM and Ox himself wants to play as a CM. However, he’s been at Arsenal for 6 years now and he’s playing as a wing-back. In the last 6 years he’s only played a handful of games in CM, so now at the age of 23 with 6 years of development under Wenger, when exactly is the Ox going to be played at CM consistently? Has it got the point now where it’s too late for him to be given a role in a big club as a CM? Basically, have we effectively just systematically ruined his chances of being a top class CM?
So who’s in the wrong here? Can we really criticise Arsene for putting the needs of the squad ahead of the player’s development? No, I don’t think we can. However, is the crucial compounding factor here poor recruitment? Should Wenger be making better signings in the positions where he’s essentially just using talented younger players to adapt to? I think that’s an area where management can be criticised. Effectively although Wenger talks big about signing players killing the development of younger players in the squad, he’s being disingenuous in my opinion because our recruitment strategy is pretty reactive. Both Ozil and Sanchez were players signed as a result of a knock on effect of another big signing. It was more a case where those players became available for a good price and we went for them, as opposed to us being fixated on signing a player with their specific profiles & positions in that window. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sanchez and I love Ozil, but if in those same windows it was Busquets and Benzema that came available respectively instead of those two, then I think we would have tried to sign Busquets and Benzema, and not tried to get Madrid and Barca to sell Ozil and Sanchez for bigger transfer fees. So really, there’s no plan.
So I look now at how Arsene is playing Ainsley Maitland-Niles at wing-back and I don’t have as much faith that this is part of a development plan as much as it’s part of Wenger trying to fill a position which we may need backup in. It’s obvious that AMN is a decent footballer technically, but he really looks like he doesn’t like playing there. He hasn’t got the concentration for it and when he was out on loan, he played in midfield. Why wouldn’t Wenger find a club for him to go on loan to that would play him at full-back if he thought the guy’s career at Arsenal was going to be in that position?
Until our recruitment strategy changes to a more focused approach of targeting quality in our weaker areas then I don’t think we can hope to see our young players reaching their potential. In fairness, this window has been good in that respect. We needed a LWB and we signed a proper LWB. We needed a striker, and we signed a proper striker. So maybe we’re going in the right direction. It might be too late for the likes of Jack Wilshere but let’s hope the Iwobis, Holdings, AMNs, Nelsons and Jeffs of the Arsenal world become as close to world class as they can possibly be by playing in the positions they are destined to play in.