Vinai Venkatesham, the new Managing Director at Arsenal, spoke to the media about the importance of maintaining a high-level academy at the club, and how Per Mertesacker is helping with that.

For a long time now, Arsenal have had a big focus on youth development as a club. The likes of Alex Iwobi and Hector Bellerin are in the starting lineup for the first team most weeks nowadays, after coming through the academy setup.

That’s largely thanks to Arsene Wenger, who gave them chances in the first place. Venkatesham says that in the new Unai Emery era, it’s just as important that the club keeps the same focus. He believes Per Mertesacker, the new head of the academy, is the right person to make that happen.

“We need to make sure our academy pathway continues to drive great talent into the first-team,” Venkatesham said. “We have obviously had the change at the academy with Per Mertesacker, who now heads up the academy.

“I have got to say, I am absolutely blown away by Per. It is almost impossible to believe it is only a few months since he retired playing football. He has been extraordinary already.”

Bukayo Saka Professional Terms
Bukayo Saka signs a contract for Arsenal with Academy Manager Per Mertesacker. Arsenal Training Ground. London Colney, Herts, 11/9/18. Credit: Arsenal Football Club / David Price.

The problem with club academies is it always takes a while to see results. Arsenal appear to have an extremely talented group right now, but we won’t know how well they transition to senior football for a few years. The same goes for younger age groups joining up with the u23s or u18s, and so on.

Venkatesham accepts that this is the case, but he’s happy with how things are going for the time being.

“Clearly, we are not going to see the fruit of Per’s efforts for a number of years because that is how the academy works. But this year we have had Emile Smith Rowe, again early days, but he is breaking into the first-team and I think Emile joined us at 10.

“We’ve got Reiss Nelson, who is obviously on loan at Hoffenheim, again is doing well and I think he joined us when he was nine.”

There are still more players who deserve opportunities this season. Eddie Nketiah was just a few seconds away from entering the pitch before Stephan Lichtsteiner’s injury against Sporting Lisbon, and he’ll surely get a game soon enough. Joe Willock is a changed man this season, and he should get another chance too.

Then there’s Xavier Amaechi, who was looking very impressive before his injury, and Bukayo Saka, who has stepped up well in Amaechi’s place. Tyreece John-Jules, who can’t stop scoring goals or Daniel Ballard, who is doing a great job of keeping them out with his goalline clearances.

That’s all on Unai Emery’s side though. From an academy standpoint, all they can do is make sure the players are ready for those opportunities when they arrive.