During the early to mid-2000’s, supporting Arsenal was a joy. Not only did the senior team enjoy a run of success that remains one of football’s greatest ever, (never mind the unbeaten league run, Arsenal reached a cup final for SEVEN consecutive seasons), but every so often, a cherry would appear on the cake; the youth team.
Whether it was an FA Cup game against a lower division side, or a midweek League Cup game, every so often, we would be given a glimpse into the future of the club, or at least the plan for which the future would be built on. The senior team might have been wowing everyone with their quality, but the youths were always backing them up with potential.
Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy stood out immediately, but there were so many others that looked like they had a chance to follow them; Danny Karbassiyoon, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Arturo Lupoli, Jeremie Aliadiere, Kyle Bartley, Justin Hoyte, Sebastian Larsson, and on, and on, and on. It got to the stage that whenever there was a chance of Arsenal’s kids playing a competitive fixture, it would always be shown live on Sky, such was the interest being shown in them.
Arsenal’s youth team acted as a security blanket for fans. If the senior team wasn’t playing particularly well, then it wasn’t a concern, because there was always a player in the youth team who had the potential to be just as good anyway. This optimism was backed up by the sight of a big name like Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira leaving, and being replaced by Kolo Toure and Cesc Fabregas with little detriment to the team.
Even when it wasn’t a financial necessity to rely on the youth team to provide replacements for departing senior players, there was always a desire to see someone that came through the club at an early age prospering in the first team, in the same way that food is always nicer if you make it yourself. There was the pride of ownership that came with seeing a youth teamer break into the first team. ‘He’s one of ours.’, etc.
But something happened in 2013 that changed all of that. It’s something that has shaped the careers of numerous players at Arsenal, both young and old, and for better and worse. Our desire to see youth promoted as often as possible almost disappeared entirely, and it only took one day for it to happen.
September 2nd, 2013, to be exact. The day we bought Mesut Özil.
Signing Özil not only signalled a change in the way Arsenal operated in the transfer market, but it also showed fans that the need for patience in waiting for someone in the youth team to fill a space in the team was now unwarranted. If someone wasn’t good enough, then Arsenal had the means to replace them externally as well as internally.
Whilst this was great for Arsenal’s chances to compete for silverware, it wasn’t so great for the younger players at the club who needed time to develop their craft. The perfect example of this is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
When Arsenal bought him in 2011, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a superb talent who just needed time in one position to learn his craft. For a while, that position looked like being on the wing, until he almost single-handedly rescued Arsenal from 4-0 down against AC Milan whilst playing in central midfield. Then it was assumed that he would play through the middle.
But that’s where the problems started. Arsenal already had Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey to play at central midfield, so he was occasionally given a start in the number 10 role behind Olivier Giroud. But that experiment ended on the opening day of the 2013 season when he injured his knee and was out for 5 months. When he returned, Özil had arrived and the number 10 role was now taken.
With Theo Walcott still on the right wing waiting for a chance to play as a striker, and Serge Gnabry acting as decent cover, that left only the left wing available for Oxlade-Chamberlain to try to force his way into the first team. But Santi Cazorla found his form there and prospered, and then in 2014, Arsenal bought Alexis Sanchez, who now plays left wing exclusively.
That left Oxlade-Chamberlain back at square one, playing right wing because Walcott now gets to play up front. But even this is only going to be short-lived, as when either of Santi Cazorla or Jack Wilshere return from injury, Aaron Ramsey will be played at right wing in order to keep him in the side, and Oxlade-Chamberlain will return to the bench.
All of this chopping and changing has meant that he has never had the opportunity to have a long run in the team, and have the chance to play himself into form. It must be galling for him to see Joel Campbell get playing time ahead of him, as it would never have happened but for a calf injury at Sheffield Wednesday. But here we are, in his fifth season at the club, and we’re no closer to knowing where to playing him than we were when he signed.
It’s not just the Ox that has found his way blocked. Serge Gnabry now faces a similar roadblock after an unsuccessful loan spell at West Brom. Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem are developing well but both have work to do before we even contemplate them playing in the first team ahead of Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil etc. Even the darling of the Emirates Cup, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, needs an injury crisis like the one Arsenal is going through right now just to be an unused sub.
And now with Arsenal’s increasing financial might, they don’t represent the only alternative to our senior team any more. As impressive as Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been for Ipswich in the Championship, the desire to see him be recalled and playing for Arsenal has been replaced by the desire to see Arsenal buy Karim Benzema or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. We don’t want potential world-class players any more, we want the finished article.
This is why the days of Arsenal having a youth team full of potential stars are numbered, not because of the players themselves, but because of the circumstances they now find themselves in. No longer will the club wait and see if they can be good enough, as the ability to replace them is too readily available. The more we look to the transfer market as a way to improve, the less we will look internally.
In the long-term, it obviously is in Arsenal’s interest to use their financial means to their advantage, but in the short-term, that ability may actually hinder the careers of Oxlade-Chamberlain and others. It may not signal the end of Arsenal’s youth policy, but it is the end of it as we know it.