At one end of the argument for the development and pursuit of youth is Real Madrid, a club for whom much has been said about their lack of recent youth promotion. The question of whether Castilla’s players are good enough should be the biggest concern for Jose Mourinho, but Alvaro Morata’s winning goal against Levante on the weekend would certainly have forced more questions Mourinho’s way about his youth policy.
At the other end, you have clubs like Arsenal who still seem very much about buying for the future, picking up some of the best talents this country has to offer (and notably only this country) and pushing them to fulfil the potential that has everyone talking.
Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha may be the next high-profile youngster to be snapped up by the Gunners, furthering their commitment to this risky but somewhat romantic idea of a team growing up together to become world beaters. And while it is never a bad thing to show a desire to bring through young players, as Real Madrid fans will give evidence to, there’s something greatly concerning about Arsenal’s priorities in what is their weakest period under Arsene Wenger.
The move to the Emirates Stadium has forced the club into shifting their approach to the transfer game, looking to younger stars as much as the established. It’s more often than not a frustration, but it’s equally understandable considering the current climate of football.
But the problem for Arsenal is that much of their future and even present is built on hollow promises, the idea that there will be a great light at the end of the tunnel for which a flurry of success will follow. That’s one way of looking at it if you’re an optimist, citing the future of Arsenal as bright and that the club will continue to churn out and pick up players who show endless commitment and loyalty.
The reality is hugely different.
Arsenal have established a cycle of starting all over again when their young projects finally fulfil their potential and are snapped up by the bigger fish. There isn’t an Arsenal fan at the moment who isn’t fearing the departure of Theo Walcott, and the biggest regret is that so much patience, schooling and false dawns have been put into the six years Walcott has been at the club.
It’s not that patience isn’t necessary and that fans aren’t willing to wait, but that tunnel never ends, the great light promised at the end remains a tiny speck way off in the distance. It was the case with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, and there are many fearing that Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be next following the likely depressing result of the Walcott saga.
Arsenal have become an advanced school for the extremely talented, and certainly for some who are not. If Crystal Palace’s and Southampton’s facilities were good enough to create their young stars, Arsenal take up the task of educating them in their final phase, making them ready for the bigger stage. They never turn out to be the answers for Arsenal’s problems, and if they, do it will likely only be for a season.
Never before has so much desire been placed into seeing Theo Walcott on the pitch, while Jack Wilshere has been portrayed as the English equivalent of Lionel Messi during his absence. Zaha may be an outstanding prospect and the best player in the Championship, but why should it be him or someone else instead of both?
A smaller fraction of Arsenal fans also bemoaned the signing of Oxlade-Chamberlain last season, and for good reason. A huge fee was spent on the player, who at the time was still only 17, when that money could have been better spent on reinforcing the squad with proven quality. The former Southampton player did make a spectacular impression in the second half of last season, but once again it’s all hollow promises and the idea that he will produce moments of quality like that on a weekly basis. I don’t think any Arsenal fan is doubtful of that, but the real question is will he produce those performances in an Arsenal shirt.
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing Zaha with the idea and intention of building him into one of the finest young players of his generation in England. There is something wrong when that is the sole drive in the transfer market and in furthering the club.
Arsenal are currently at a low with no real hope for the immediate future; even the fantastic infrastructure and all the resources in place can’t lift the spirits of many of the supporters. But as has been the case for a number of seasons, the club as a whole need a massive lift and something to drive them forward.
Right now, as is usually the case in sports, that lift comes via the market and with the injection of real quality and leadership on the pitch. Arsenal are right to keep chasing the best starlets in the country, but certainly not if it’s at the expense of what is needed for the here and now.