As Mikel Arteta prepares for his first week of matches as Arsenal head coach, I’d like to stress the importance of the new boss trusting in the club’s youth prospects.
There’s no doubt Arteta has a huge task ahead of him in the short, medium and long-term. He has broken relationships within the squad to mend, confidence to rebuild, a club identity to reforge and most importantly, points to pick up.
For me, though, he also has a big responsibility to show belief in the club’s young players.
In the immediate future, Arteta might not have much choice. Who will play left-back in Tierney and Kolasinac’s absence if not a youth player? Where are the wide options coming from if you exclude Martinelli, Nelson, Smith Rowe and Saka?
It’s after that when the new head coach needs to keep showing his commitment to youth.
The biggest reason why Arteta should trust in youth is the huge amount of talent available right now.
We’ve seen some of the top prospects stepping up this season, with Bukayo Saka making himself a regular and Emile Smith Rowe making his Premier League debut over the weekend. There’s more to come in the academy though.
Tyreece John-Jules is a striker with a fantastic all-round game for a youth player. He can play multiple positions in the front line and he’s in good form. He’s still waiting on a first-team debut, but he made the squad as the 19th man against Everton.
Folarin Balogun is another striker in a different mould. Balogun is a goalscorer through and through, but he also brings pace and strength to the attack. He has 12 goal contributions in 12 u23 games in his debut campaign for the team.
Those two are at the front of the queue, but there are more coming through all the time. Arsenal can’t waste that potential by leaving them to youth football permanently.
Another big reason to keep giving youth players chances is that it’s a part of the club’s values. As I mentioned earlier, a major aspect of Arteta’s task is to rediscover the Arsenal identity, and that includes the youngsters.
Freddie Ljungberg may not have managed to turn things around for the team, but he did at least bring that philosophy back. The small positives in Ljungberg’s interim spell came from the u23 group.
Martinelli sparking a comeback win against West Ham, Saka snatching a draw from defeat in Liege, Saka and Maitland-Niles shining at full-back keeping a rare clean sheet against Everton, a Premier League debut for Smith Rowe.
It gave the fans something to be proud of, at least. The supporters want to see players who really care about the club giving their all for it. They get that with the academy prospects.
Don’t repeat Unai Emery’s mistake
As I wrote about recently, Unai Emery wasn’t nearly as good with Arsenal’s young players as many in the media seem to suggest. The biggest sign of his lack of faith in youth came in the second half of the 2018/19 season.
Arsenal’s senior form rapidly declined when all they needed was a few wins to secure Champions League football. Meanwhile, the u23s were in their best form for a long time.
All the same, Emery ignored the youth talent at his disposal. Eddie Nketiah sat on the bench every week. After three goals in three starts, Joe Willock didn’t get a fourth start until the final day of the campaign.
Bukayo Saka played 11 senior minutes from January to May despite 24 goal contributions for the u23s. Xavier Amaechi left for Hamburg after a number of snubs.
Emery was too scared to drop any of the underperforming senior players (except Özil!), and they showed that was a mistake as the season fell apart in the latter stages.
Positive first impression
With no senior matches to judge from, the only evidence we have of Arteta’s philosophy on young players as a coach comes from the things he’s said. On that front, the new boss made a good first impression in his debut interview with the club.
“I’ve done a lot of research and we are very lucky because we have some really talented young players here,” Arteta said.
“I’ve spoken to Per (Mertesacker) as well, a lot, we still hold an incredible relationship. He’s made some changes there and you can see the product we are able to bring to the first team.
“I’m really excited. I love working with young players, I love giving them the opportunity if they are ready, they are right and they are willing to learn. With me, it’s up to them.”
That all sounds very reasonable to me, as long as he sticks to that line. No young player should feel entitled to opportunities, but anyone with the right talent and attitude should get a chance. As Arteta says, after that, it’s up to the players themselves.