It will act as Arsene Wenger’s biggest and most obvious parting gift to the club and its supporters when he finally leaves: the image of five youngsters, all of British nationality, lined up to sign new long-term contracts. A few weeks later, the one most had been waiting for had been sealed and delivered; Theo Walcott was tied down to the club for the next three seasons.
As with the dawn of most eras, this young group of British players should signal something exciting for Arsenal, yet it’s far from the legacy Wenger will leave. It’s a smaller makeup of his impact in north London, from the post-Anelka funded training ground, to the current stadium. The Jack Wilshere-led British project is just a minor subplot in what Wenger has offered Arsenal.
And there’s plenty to be proud of. Here are a group of players who are either performing to international standard or could become very important mainstays at the highest level of the game in the near future. Barring the episode with Walcott’s contract, you can’t really say any of the youngsters don’t want to be at the club.
What do you owe that to? Carl Jenkinson is a lifelong Arsenal fan and Wilshere came through the youth academy. But what else? You have a club in Arsenal who were strong and a major name in England under George Graham, picking up the club’s first league title since 1971. Under Wenger, Arsenal have become a global brand and a name where everyone conjures up similar thoughts for the identity laid in its foundations.
Under Wenger, Arsenal have played some of the best football England has seen. He has built a reputation where the club a destination for youth where their talents can be fulfilled. Regardless of the performances on the field in recent seasons, Arsenal are still one of the elite clubs in Europe because of Wenger.
But it’s not to say all of that will be enough to help the successor to the Frenchman. Of course, the next in line will need to be at the top of his game to continue (or rediscover) the fine winning traditions of the club, but the base for the next few years has already been set. It would be dangerous to say Arsenal are set for the next decade with this core group of British talent, as recent history shows that the club are often powerless to stop their best moving on. However, that’s why this new model has been adopted, so the best at the club are not longing for foreign shores they call home. It brings back a sense of the earlier years under Wenger when the signings from Europe would complement the English core left from the days of Graham. It’s pride first and foremost.
Wenger’s legacy will remain the league titles won with the club; the completing of an entire league season unbeaten; the unearthing of gems like Cesc Fabregas; the rise of Thierry Henry; and, of course, the most striking memory of his time, the Emirates.
So what happens if Jack Wilshere and his fellow Brits bring the glory back to Arsenal? At that point, it would behove most to look back at Wenger as the architect of any success. He played the biggest role in turning Wilshere into the face of this Arsenal era and perhaps even for England too. He persuaded Aaron Ramsey to join when there were overtures from a much stronger placed Manchester United. Wenger taught these youngsters to play and win for the club, and you can see the anguish on their faces when defeat strikes hard.
Not all of them supported Arsenal, and that’s fine. But each of them have shown unwavering commitment to the club (although Walcott can still be questioned), even when the cards were stacked against them. They want to play for this team because of Wenger. Just like Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, and Fabregas did.