Birthday boy Kieran Gibbs is a crucial figure in the recent history of Arsenal Football Club.
He may not seem it, currently stuck behind Nacho Monreal in the pecking order. But the defender’s 2007 debut – coincidentally, coming eleven years after Arsene Wenger ascended to the Arsenal throne and nine years ahead of present day – divides between two eras of the Frenchman’s reign so perfectly, in quantitative, qualitative and chronological terms, that its sheer symbolism verges upon poetry.
Wenger is world renowned as one of the game’s greatest developers of young talent. On the surface, that’s impossible to dispute. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie established themselves as members of the Premier League’s all-time elite under Wenger’s guidance and three of those four boast a World Cup on their CV. The other, RVP, reached a World Cup final in 2010 and won the third-place playoff four years later.
And if Wenger’s devotion to young talent needed statistical proof, 131 of the 210 players to have made their Arsenal debuts under him were aged 22 or younger at the time. 36 of those won 76 major trophies with Arsenal; that gives every Arsenal debutant aged under 23 a 27% chance of winning silverware with the north Londoners. Furthermore, an Arsenal debutant, on average, goes on to make 57 appearances for the club. Impressive stuff, in which the Frenchman deserves copious amounts of credit.
Yet, as I have already alluded to, Wenger’s youth record isn’t as watertight as it may seem. From 21 seasons at the Arsenal helm, only ten players fitting the aforementioned criteria (22-year-olds and younger ) have played for England at some point in their careers and only 46 are still eligible to represent the Three Lions (e.g. haven’t changed nationalities to play for another country). That’s incredibly disappointing for a club that has been at the forefront of the domestic game throughout Wenger’s entire tenure.
Likewise, 71, more than half, were not capped by any country at senior level, whilst 26 made only one Arsenal appearance and 48 never featured for the Gunners again after their debut season.
Of course, such casualties are inevitable. Some players have all the talent in the world but can’t handle the pressures of senior football at the highest level. In many instances, it’s a case of sink or swim.
But the cracks in Wenger’s youth record become most prevalent during the post-Gibbs-debut era. From our sample of 131, there is a significant drop in almost every performance indicator we measured between the 79 to debut before Gibbs and the 51 who made their first competitive Arsenal appearance after the England international’s.
Of course, there are data-skewing factors to consider here. First and foremost, Gibbs is now 27 years of age; those who made their debuts after him are even younger, so there is an obvious flaw in judging the entire careers of those in the pre-Gibbs era to those who may still only be a third or a quarter through or even at the beginning of theirs – such is the case with summer signing Rob Holding.
Secondly, influxes of localised talent like the Class of ’92 are completely a thing of the past; youth recruitment is now a global game and the days of academies being exclusively filled with British talent are long gone. Consequentially, every possible youth signing with world-class potential is being fought over by the majority of Europe’s elite clubs – Arsenal can’t sign all of them, especially amid the era of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid domination.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Premier League has become an increasingly tougher place to blood young talent. The money, intensity of competition and increasingly short-termist thinking have continually radicalised the English top flight to the point where giving chances to young players simply isn’t worth the risk for most managers.
Wenger is seen as one who stands against the grain in this regard, but even he’s become more reluctant to utilise young talent in recent years – Arsenal’s average number of debuts per season drops by almost exactly one over the post-to-pre-Gibbs divide.
As mentioned above, that’s not the only statistic which takes a downward turn. Even with the above stipulations considered, the slumps are significant; 54% capped compared to 31%, 25 average caps per debutant decreasing to just 6, 32% winning trophies with Arsenal dropping to 20% – despite the Gunners winning back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 – and the percentage of trophy winners with other clubs dramatically falling from 18% to a mere 4%.
So why the seismic shift – and what does it tell us about Wenger’s development of young players? This is where Gibbs comes back into the discussion, his 2007 debut acting as the standard bearer to welcome the start of decline.
No doubt, Gibbs is a talented footballer and a decent defender, but he’s essentially the third incarnation of exactly the same player, each one getting a little worse.
First came Ashley Cole, a member of the iconic Invincibles, a record seven-time FA Cup winner and arguably the greatest left-back of his generation – certainly England’s best of all time.
He was succeeded by Gael Clichy who, although unspectacular ability-wise in comparison to Cole, will be remembered as a proven winner by the history books, boasting three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups throughout spells with two of the biggest teams in England.
And then there’s Gibbs – a double FA Cup winner but nothing more. He’s claimed more than ten times less England caps than Cole (107) and for that matter half the amount of Frenchman Clichy (20), who is only four years his senior. Likewise, whilst it’s taken Gibbs ten seasons to muster up 128 Premier League appearances for Arsenal, Clichy took just six to surpass that total and still stayed on at the Emirates for two more campaigns.
It’s a pattern that emerges repeatedly throughout Wenger’s reign. Fabregas never quite reached the heights of Vieira at Arsenal, who he directly replaced in the engine room, whilst Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are still some way from paralleling the Spaniard’s peak.
Van Persie was the eventual successor to Henry, both former wingers converted into strikers. But whilst Henry produced seven top-scoring campaigns at Arsenal, went on to win the Champions League with Barcelona and a World Cup and European Championship with France, RVP managed just three top-scoring seasons and enjoyed one title-winning year at Manchester United, before letting his injury-hit career fizzle out in Turkey.
Although there are mitigating factors, it’s hard to dispute Arsenal’s young players have overall worsened with every generation since Wenger took over the club back in 1996.
What the stats do tell us – quite clearly – is that Wenger’s changed his emphasis during the post-Gibbs era towards English talent, with a higher percentage of England-eligible players and a 2% rise in Three Lions internationals. Those increases become all the more significant when considering what we’ve already discussed; namely that Arsenal players have been less successful during this period and Wenger has, on average, handed out fewer debuts per season.
Likewise, Wenger’s bias towards true academy products rather than those imported in (those who played for another academy previously and spent less than three years at Arsenal’s) has shifted from 46% to 53%, suggesting he’s made a conscious effort to promote a home-grown core.
Once again Gibbs epitomises that trend; he’s the oldest member of Arsenal’s British cabal, also including Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, Calum Chambers and Rob Holding, and one of two from the club’s academy. Far from the Anglophobic insinuations during his early Arsenal career, Wenger’s attempted to build a vibrant British cohort over the last decade.
Yet, it may well be this batch that has let Wenger down the most, at least in terms of living up to his expectations. Much like Gibbs, Wilshere’s career has been disrupted by injury and he now can’t get into the Arsenal first team, to the extent that he’s spending the season on loan at Bournemouth, whilst Walcott, Chamberlain and Chambers haven’t progressed to the levels expected since joining the north Londoners from Southampton. Even Ramsey, the pick of the bunch, has only proven his talent in fits and spurts – and most convincingly, away from Arsenal with the Welsh national team.
Whether it’s his eye for juvenile talent or ability to nurture it, it seems Wenger’s losing his touch when it comes to young players. The decline has been steady and ongoing for some time.
Amid Arsenal’s regression from an ‘invincible’ Premier League force to annual also-rans, Wenger’s record in the transfer market, most specifically his reluctance to spend, has received the majority of critical attention.
However, Gibbs’ career and the statistics drawn from either side of his debut suggest the other end of the spectrum is what’s truly made the bottom fall out. The Gunners were once blessed by a conveyor belt of young talent that always had a few world-class stars in the making along the production line, but not since Cole has a player risen from Arsenal’s academy to that top bracket and not since van Persie has an import done the same. Their debuts were five years apart, but Wenger’s now gone 13 without handing one to a future world-class player.
So happy birthday Kieran Gibbs – but at the age of 27, this should be the defender’s peak. Instead of enjoying his best years, the Englishman’s spending the majority of his time on the sidelines. Whilst every footballer has a limit, and Gibbs may have well reached his some time ago, he has a right to feel aggrieved. In the late 1990s, Wenger was getting the absolute best out of his formerly juvenile debutants; today, they can’t even get into the Arsenal first-team.