Arsenal’s method for building hasn’t always been particularly spectacular. The youth policy approach is often a necessary route for those who wish to ignore the big summers of heavy spending for one reason or another, most likely through lack of ability.
Clubs on the continent have done this to great effect at stages over the past decade, with Spanish clubs having little choice other than to invest in their youth systems in the face of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s overwhelming superiority and the financial crash. Germany, on the other hand, did so as a collective means to create a better product on the international stage. Joachim Lowe is now reaping the benefits but German clubs are so well stocked on young, high-end talent that they can afford to look to their youth system before the transfer market.
Yet Arsenal have produced very little in the way of genuine excitement or potential superstar names – and that’s not to say the club haven’t produced good players.
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The jury is still out on whether Cesc Fabregas can be deemed Arsenal’s own product considering where he is now in his career, or whether he was always likely to reach this stage due to his earlier education with Barcelona.
But then there’s Jack Wilshere, an undeniable product of Arsenal’s academy who has an incredibly high ceiling as a footballer. As a teenager he looked right at home playing alongside the best team in the world in the Champions League, effortlessly duelling with Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta when the two teams met in 2011.
After that, there is cause for some concern and at least a little criticism.
Arsenal rarely push the boat out on bringing in a youngster who is a sure-bet to be a star player in the future. For the club, it’s been a matter of playing it safe with youngsters who may make it to the first team but won’t have that star appeal that’s so regularly associated with those from Spain or Germany. If the players don’t make it at Arsenal, the club will at least make a profit on their initial investment by selling them on.
Ryo Miyaichi, Joel Campbell, Denilson, Carlos Vela (to an extent, though perhaps one of the exceptions), Kyle Bartley, Samuel Galindo, Fran Merida, Francis Coquelin, Ignasi Miquel, and countless others have come through the Arsenal ranks one way or another but have made little impact in the first team. Even Kieran Gibbs may not have as high a ceiling as Ashley Cole did, despite being a regular in the squad.
What does that get chalked down to? The scouting is one area of critique, where the club often miss talents or lack the ruthlessness of others on the continent. South America isn’t off limits, as Denilson, Galindo, Campbell, and Vela have been signed, yet players who go on to have success at other European clubs are passed over, and that includes Porto.
The point about, say, Denilson is that he wasn’t the best in his age group. The minimal fee of £3 million more or less guaranteed you a player good enough to be a squad option but never one to make waves in any of the major leagues in Europe. It doesn’t always come down to simply a matter of price, but there is a lot of evidence that Arsenal go for the second or third tier down in terms of talent when shopping for players for the future.
A couple of names worth mentioning are Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin who arrived from Barcelona’s youth system but were far from the biggest talents in their group. It represents an idea of stockpiling players in the hope that at least one will make it big. Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld are two other examples, and despite the notably high level of excitement and intrigue around those two names, it’s not something that hasn’t been generated for other names in the past. The two German youngsters may make it big at Arsenal, but they, like the others, are gambles rather than guarantees.
The academy is by no means weak, but it hardly contains one or two Mario Goetzes, Iscos or Neymars – the young stars who will unquestionably make a difference in the future. Is that too much of a stretch? Barcelona, Bayern, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, Ajax, Schalke, and many others produce star players in handfuls.
Arsenal made a point to say that they still want to rely on youth for the majority of their squad, looking to the academy first as their primary means of boosting the first-team. And that’s fine, but the investment in the youth system and the return isn’t on par to what we’re seeing abroad.
A case to be made for Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is that all three could, and probably do, represent exceptions. All three were signed for big money and arrived with the prospect of being key players for the future. Walcott has already achieved that status, though not without plenty of frustration along the way. Yet for their age group, they’re not on the level in terms of talent or ability as Goetze or Isco, though Oxlade-Chamberlain has the best chance of reaching a similar peak.
Borussia Dortmund, however, went in search outside their own academy to bring in youngsters like Robert Lewandowski, who, following his apprenticeship under Lucas Barrios, guided the club to a league and cup double, as well as to the Champions League final. Isn’t it worth asking how Arsenal missed him, despite having scouts in the region that found both Lukas Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny? The same can be said for Kyriakos Papadopoulos or the talents in France with the highest ceilings for the future.
It’s not a negative way of building, and it can certainly offer its own brand of glamour and excitement. But a youth policy that sits as the biggest foundation for any football club needs to be far better than hit and hope. Arsenal rarely seem to be going for the fence with their youngsters, overall reducing the risk of losing money if the talent fails to reach his potential but also losing out on a tremendous asset by showing a reluctance in going big.
Is there a flaw to Arsenal’s approach to gathering young talents?
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