February 14th 2005: The night Arsène Wenger failed to include a single English player in his squad to face Crystal Palace. It had been coming but nevertheless this was a rather unwanted first in the history of English football. It wouldn’t be the last occurrence either as over the following weeks, months and years many a team sheet would be handed to the referee completely composed of the names of footballers from a myriad of different countries overseas. The selections were predictably jumped on by all and sundry and though some reactions certainly had more than just a hint of hyperbole to them, the continued absence of any player with the potential of wearing the famous ‘Three Lions’ crest was a damning indictment of the quality of truly homegrown player coming through the ranks at Arsenal Football Club during that period.
Of course, there is no obligation for any manager to field players simply based on their nationality, even now with rules in place in the Premier League designating spaces for at least 8 homegrown players in a club’s 25 man squad for the season. These ‘homegrown’ players don’t even have to be English; merely training at an English-based club for 3 years before the age of 21 is enough. Simply put, if one wants success then it’s only logical to pick the best players available and often these have been plucked from foreign lands. Selection based on quality and attitude, not an individual’s passport is Wenger’s mantra and it’s an extremely valid one. The bar shouldn’t be lowered just to let English talent in. The aim for these youngsters should be to work hard on improving, reach that bar and then raise it further.
The summer transfer window just past saw the permanent departures of two players some hoped, possibly more than they genuinely thought, may be able to reach that bar: Kyle Bartley and Henri Lansbury. Both were members of the FA Youth Cup winning squad of 08/09 and their talents, especially those of the latter, were frequently showcased in matches for a wide range of England youth teams. After a while, Reserve team football was simply not testing them enough; their development had stalled and they craved the fresh impetus of regular competitive football. This meant embarking on a trip to the vortex that is the English loan system. In the best of cases it can be a brilliant exhibition of one’s ability. If conditions aren’t favourable, however, a youngster can spend what must seem like an eternity bouncing from one club to another, with the ultimate dream, making it back at the parent club, agonisingly slipping through their grasp.
It may well be the case that both did not possess the sufficient talent to break through at Arsenal and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better judge of talent than Arsène Wenger, but as with the careers of many a young footballer circumstance played its part. Being on loan, as well as having the potential to be a great boon to one’s development, can sometimes have unfortunate repercussions. Depending on injuries and suspensions in certain positions chances can arise and be given to those perhaps less talented or at an earlier stage in their development simply because they’re still physically present at the club.
Comparing the ability of players who play in different positions is always liable to some inaccuracy (ability itself can’t be quantified so there’s an immediate difficulty posed) but it can be argued that Lansbury is a more talented player than Craig Eastmond for example. Yet, due to injuries in defensive midfield and a plethora of squad options further forward, the latter acquired 10 appearances in the Premier League, League Cup and Champions League over the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons; a decent number for any young tyro while Lansbury, trying to prove his worth to the club from further afield, received less. After a youngster is given chances obviously they need to impress to make the subsequent permanent step up but being awarded these chances in the first place is a luxury only a select few are granted.
It’s these select few that have seen other English talents leave Arsenal for more regular opportunities. Luke Freeman, a talented left-sided forward, departed for Stevenage last January after he found chances, even to join first team training, hard to come by. His parting words carried more than a hint of frustration: “It is more difficult for English talent to come through at Arsenal at times. They have their favourites and stick with them.”
In a way it’s only natural that this should be the case. If a club spends more money bringing in a foreign import than they do on an individual homegrown talent there’s likely to be an immediate, conscious desire to give the bought-in talent more openings in an attempt to develop the player to the best of their ability and therefore benefit the club either by performance in the first team or by generating further profit. Hopes are especially high for the swashbuckling German Serge Gnabry who manages to combine pace, power and finesse while the elusive movement and delicate touches of Swede Kris Olsson certainly stir excitement in those who are keen followers of the club’s youth. These foreign talents are arguably the most talented in the youth ranks at present but the tide is turning, potentially leading to fewer acquisitions from abroad in the future.
Ultimately, to get the necessary game time to improve, the quality has to be there regardless of nationality and it’s being seen with increased regularity amongst the homegrown talents emerging from Arsenal’s academy at Hale End. Since its official birth in 1998 the academy has been the breeding ground for talents in and around the N5 area to hone their game and it seems that finally the sheer excellence of the facilities available to these youngsters and, most importantly, the standard of coaching they receive is starting to reap rewards. Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke and Nico Yennaris are the latest gifted English prospects to have made the fabled trip from Hale End to the hallowed turf at London Colney, training and playing with the 1st team on occasion.
As has been the case with many a youngster, though, promise alone is not enough to make a career in the top flight, even more so at Arsenal, so caution is advised and excessive hype to be avoided. One only has to look to the aforementioned FA Youth Cup winning squad of 08/09 to see that talent is far from a guarantee in achieving what most can only imagine. From the 1st leg XI of that final (Shea; Eastmond, Bartley, Ayling, Cruise; Frimpong, Coquelin; Lansbury, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas; Sunu) only Frimpong, Coquelin and Wilshere, the jewel of Hale End, are actually members of the current first team squad.
The hope is that the English youngsters previously alluded to heed the warnings of their predecessors and it does seem that the key tools, namely the players’ mentality and technical attributes, are already firmly entrenched within their armoury. Whether they actually become fully embedded in the Gunners’ 1st team structure is up for debate, up to the players themselves and, of course, Arsène Wenger but the signs are promising.
Look further down the ladder and you see the likes of Chuba Akpom, an intelligent striker with an exciting skillset who has made tremendous strides in the last year befitting his rangy frame. His mature performances for Arsenal U21s this season have resulted in a call up for the England u19 squad at the tender age of 16 – certainly no mean feat. There’s Jack Jebb, a robust attacking midfielder with a useful penchant for the perfectly-weighted through-ball, and the versatile Isaac Hayden who you’ll either find at centre back bringing the ball forward with considerable ease or dominating the centre of midfield with an imposing presence and composed touch.
A cursory glance even further down the club’s youth system, at the U18s XI for their latest match, a 2-1 comeback victory at home to Everton, reveals an interesting fact: Of that starting XI (Vickers; Mugabo, Fagan, Hayden, Ormonde-Ottewill; Kamara, Jebb; Dawkins, Iwobi, Jeffrey; Lipman) all are England-eligible – A situation not often associated with Arsenal. Though not every member of that team will make the trip from Hale End to Colney and perform the subsequent 30 yard walk from the U21 team dressing room to that of the first team such numbers can only be seen as a positive when considering the future complexion of Arsenal XIs, from an English point of view at least.
This complexion is something that’s actually being reflected at 1st team level this season, though understandably to a somewhat lesser extent. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all on the pitch as the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of Arsenal’s recent match at Stoke. Building an English core is the aim now; or rather it always has been, just that this goal is far more achievable with the increased numbers of technically-proficient talents nationwide and within the club itself at the present time. With the structures now firmly in place there’s certainly optimism that, sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to watch a homegrown nucleus grow together with their love of the club almost as unconditional as that of the very fans that chant their names.
Wenger’s dream was “always to produce 60 per cent English and 40 per cent foreign young players” – a far cry from his team selection at Highbury on that night in 2005. Of course, actions speak louder than words but it’s looking increasingly like that dream may become a reality. Patience is still required and cases like Bartley and Lansbury are bound to arise year-on-year but it will be the upsurge of success stories, the kids that do make the grade, the Jack Wilshere’s of this world that will dictate the future of Arsenal and England. I, for one, hope it’s a bright future for both.
This piece first appeared on England Football Blog