Unai Emery: Restoring Arsenal’s superstar factory status

“We don’t sign superstars, we make them.” – Arsene Wenger

In September 2007, then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger stated the above phrase in defence of his perceived lack of spending in the summer transfer window, as reported by the Daily Mail. Setting aside the legitimacy of concerns over the Gunners’ notorious thriftiness, the Frenchman was correct. 11 years ago.

At the time, the emergence of Cesc Fabregas – the enthralling, diminutive little genius that he then was – was still fresh on everyone’s minds. At the start of the 2007/08 campaign, the Arsenal squad included the likes Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner, as well as the aforementioned Fabregas – none of whom were older than 21.

Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor were both 23-year-old whippersnappers themselves. Big things were expected from all of them.

Wenger’s reputation was built upon his ability to turn exciting prospects into world class stars. Iconic figures such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Ashley Cole are all evidence of this. The Arsenal of then were certainly a club known for developing young prospects into champions. Then came the generation that failed. 

Between 2006 and 2014, the North London outfit endured a trophy drought that greatly damaged the club’s standing on the world stage. Throughout this time, Wenger continually invested his faith in young players who each failed to reach the heights that the manager had believed they were capable of. Both the boss and the players share the blame for this outcome, and slowly but surely the Gunners’ reputation for developing young talents eroded. 

Between 2013 and 2018, Wenger broke the club’s record transfer spend on three occasions. The first time saw him bring Mesut Ozil to the Emirates Stadium; an event which must now be viewed as a paradigm shift at the club. Silverware soon followed the German’s arrival, and the increasingly expensive acquisitions of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came after that.

On the one hand, these conspicuous investments in ready-made stars indicated the club’s concession to moving with the times. However, they contradicted the statement quoted at the outset of this piece.

The point is not to criticise Arsenal for spending, but to highlight the decline in the club’s ability to produce and hone top class talents in-house. The summer release of Jack Wilshere –  the Gunners’ last great hope to emerge from their youth academy – all but closed the book on a generation of Arsenal prospects who failed to make the grade.

This season, however, the club’s most exciting young players no longer look to be stagnating or playing without confidence. There is no finer example of this than the recent form of Alex Iwobi.

The 22-year-old has frequently been excellent when called upon this season and strengthened his bid for a regular spot in the starting XI with a fantastic display against Fulham last time out. Like many at the Emirates, Iwobi appears to be responding very positively to Unai Emery’s methods.

The Nigeria international first broke into the Arsenal team in the 2015/16 season, when he regularly displayed the fearless, energetic approach to the game often found in emerging players. In the last two seasons, though, his first as a settled member of the first team squad, Iwobi’s progress has plateaued, and the aggression and flair in his game receded.

Iwobi is far from being the only young Arsenal player to have burst onto the scene only to then rapidly become enveloped by a conservatism and lack of confidence in recent seasons.

Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin are both young members of the first team squad whose development, or lack thereof, has previously been criticised by fans and pundits alike. Both, however, like Iwobi, have been revitalised since the arrival of Emery. 

The waning of Wenger’s powers was a symptom of progress. The game simply moved on without him. The ex-Arsenal boss endeavoured to cultivate players who operated with freedom, without the burden of extensive instructions, and who were capable of adapting to circumstances on the pitch without guidance from the touchline.

The modern breed of top level manager does not seek to work in the same way and subsequently, the current (and recent) generation of players is not suited to Wenger’s ideals. 

The likes of Iwobi, Holding and Bellerin are equipped to flourish under the tutelage of a manager like Emery. The Spaniard, as with many modern coaches, plays the role of puppet-master, conducting and orchestrating his team from the sideline. He will provide all the players at his disposal with strict instructions, and the young players especially will thrive as a result of this.

This fresh approach is part of the new Arsenal, which in this very positive aspect of successful youth development, could soon see the club looking very much like the old Arsenal again.