Don’t expect any transfer business from Arsenal on Monday, you’ll probably be left disappointed.
However, in Friday’s press conference Arsène Wenger confirmed that the Gunners are set to clinch the signatures of Nigerian youth starts Kelechi Nwakali and Samuel Chukwueze. The teenagers helped their country win the u17 World Cup in 2015 and are the latest young talents Arsenal have made a significant effort to bring to London.
The deals are allegedly worth a combined £3.5m and appear to underline a clear effort Arsenal have been making to invest in youth players over the course of the last year. Are we returning to our previous method of building a team?
As we prepared to move stadium a decade ago, the Gunners focused on signing and developing young talent as they couldn’t afford to compete with established players with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United. Gael Clichy became an Arsenal player at 18, Cesc Fabregas was poached from Barcelona at 16 and Robin van Persie was purchased from Feyenoord for £2.75m before turning 21. Abou Diaby, Philippe Senderos, Mathieu Flamini and Alex Song were just a few more of the young players to be attracted to Arsenal around the same time, all before they reached 21.
Of the current squad, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Iwobi are academy graduates while Theo Walcott and Wojciech Szczesny (both 16 in 2006), Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey (17 and 18 in 2008), and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell (17 and 19 in 2011) signed for the Gunners before reaching 20 and before they had played at the highest level for any other club. Those players are now either in or approaching their mid-20s and the transfer policy has changed in north London. As young talents departed, Wenger looked for more reliable and experienced heads looking for a step up to the highest level. He welcomed Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla, and Olivier Giroud to the club in the space of 24 months. Nacho Monreal joined six months later before Arsenal entered their third phase of Emirates Stadium squad building.
Mesut Özil signed for £42.5m in the summer of 2013, a year later he was playing alongside Alexis Sanchez. Petr Cech was the third world class signing in as many summers (though at 33 he didn’t cost as much as the German or the Chilean), but what next? Transfer fees are still going up and Arsenal still can’t quite compete with the Manchester clubs or Chelsea, let alone Real Madrid and Barcelona. There’s little doubt Wenger would love to add Raheem Sterling and John Stones to the squad but he didn’t even bother trying last summer when others went for them.
Arsenal have the money to spend big on one, maybe two players each year. The trouble is, everyone else still has more. Spending big on the odd player won’t be an issue, but the new plan appears to be to mould our own quality squads from younger players once again, just like we did over the last decade, before adding the touches of quality we need to put the icing on the cake. Signing a bunch of teenage talents isn’t foolproof, and they won’t all make it at the very top. But some could.
Since signing Alexis, Arsenal have spent a fair amount and managed to sign: Krystian Bielik, Joao Virginia, Ismael Bennacer, Vlad Dragomir, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Yassin Fortune and Donyell Malen from abroad.
Closer to home, Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Chris Willock and Reiss Nelson appear to be some of the most exciting players to come out of the Arsenal academy in quite some time and Gedion Zelalem is having a good season on loan at Rangers. Finding and developing our own local talent is something we’ve surprisingly struggled with over recent decades, but things may be about to change. Now we’re also adding Nwakali and Chukwueze, the plan seems to be working but we’ll have to ave patience to see how successful it’ll be.
Back in the summer, Arsenal were constantly linked with Karim Benzema. The new name on people’s lips appears to be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. These players are unavailable and would be so expensive that our record deal to bring Özil to N5 would begin to look like pennies. You can’t just sign world class players, so starting to produce them ourslves again is a great way of going about it. Imagine how much a young right-back as good as Hector Bellerin would cost on the market, for instance.
In Malen, Arsenal could develop a player with raw talent to become the first team starter everyone is crying out for. The same can be said of Reine-Adelaide or Dragomir. There’s a long way to go for all of these players, but it’s possible that, five years down the line, Arsenal don’t need to sign top players in their positions.
The latest additions are exciting ones, particularly if the u17 World Cup is anything to go by. Kelechi Nwakali was named the best player at the competition, scoring a few goals along the way to lifting the trophy. An all-action midfielder, he’s been compared to Patrick Vieira but I won’t go into that – it adds unfair pressure and each player is different. The reason behind the comparisons is clear, he’s got long legs and superb bursts from midfield, but he is more attack-minded than the former Arsenal captain generally was for us. His vision appears to be very good and he looks like a good striker of the ball. Nigerian journalist Colin Udoh wrote for Eurosport on Nwakali and his attributes:
“It is something that would make him come across as the love child of Vieira and a female Mesut Özil.”
Much less has been written or said about Chukwueze, who is just 16. He played on the wing during the tournament and is incredibly fast, apparently his technique can match his raw physical attributes:
“He could be as fast as Messi or faster with the ball at his feet,” a former manager said of him.
Again, this seems over the top. A good performance against Chile was probably Chukwueze’s best at the u17 World Cup but to leap to Messi comparisons is unfair, unrealistic and a bit ridiculous.
Nonetheless, it shows that Arsenal have indeed signed two more teenagers with huge ambition. The Gunners had veered away from a ‘youth project’ after the disappointments of the past, but it seems that is back on the agenda. This time around, though, the players who make it can be supplemented with the odd ready made world class signing. Whatever happens in the next few years, we have an exciting future ahead of us.