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October 2016
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The Arsenal Youth System – Part 3 Questions and (some) Answers

by Andrew Crawshaw

This is the third part of our series on the Arsenal youth system.  Earlier articles in the series were…

At the U23 game against Liverpool I was talking to gentlemen in front and behind me and we were pondering a number of questions.

  1. Why as a club we have no players in our U18 and U23 teams who are natural Centre Backs.  Our Centre backs on the day were Kris Da Graca and Krystian Bielik.  Bielik came to the club as a Defensive Midfielder but spent much of last year playing at CB.  His initial instincts remain those of a midfielder and all too frequently he was again bombing forward into the opposition half where he would lose the ball and be unable to get back to reoccupy his CB position.  Kris Da Graca is still only 18 and learning how to defend against the much better players he is meeting at this level.
  2. Why we had a specialist right back in Chiori Johnson sitting on the bench whilst Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a midfielder, was playing in his position and badly.  Ainsley is a good player but is a winger / striker and not a Right Back.  What must Chiori think when left on the bench whilst someone less competent than him makes a right mess of things.  I understand the need to develop player skills but surely it would be better to do this through substitutions rather than from the start of a game.
  3. We seem to specialise in relatively small technical players who frequently take control of the middle third of the pitch but fail to keep our opponents out of our defensive third or make effective inroads into the opposition final third.  We fail to shoot from outside the box and frequently don’t follow opportunities into the opposition box.
  4. Our midfielders only seem to wave goodby to opposition players as they run past with the ball.  None of them seem in the slightest interested in making a tackle, indeed most of them have absolutely no idea how to do so.

The lack of defenders has been a recurring feature of our junior teams over the past few years.  Either we are not recruiting players with the right sort of attributes and attitudes who are naturally suited to becoming good defenders or our training processes are inadequate for their development.

Both Da Graca and Bielik have the height to become competent CBs but currently neither have the confidence and discipline necessary.  A short term fix might be for Per to spend some time with them on the pitch to provide some extra positional coaching which is one of his great strengths.

When our first team need for all available CBs is not as great it would also be extremely useful for Kris and Krystian to spend some playing time with their more experienced first team colleagues.  As he recovers from his injury Gabriel could well spend a few games in this role as one of the three over age players allowed in the U23 competition.

Liverpool had the vastly experienced Brazilian Lucas Levia providing them some stability at the back and it enabled his CB partner Jordan Williams much needed leadership and direction.  In comparison Kris and Krystian were like headless chickens.

In the medium term we really need to look at bringing in some of the much bigger youth players from some of the sides we play against.  They may not be as technically competent as our players but all too frequently they manage to stop us dead in our tracks.  If we do this and can manage to instil into them some of our technical ability then we should be able to produce some quality defenders.  Until then moaning about their lack is likely to continue.

I know that a shot from distance has usually only got a maximum 5% chance of going in but occasionally it is still worth trying and I wonder if our players are being actively coached out of shooting.  Against Liverpool there were a couple of occasions when Reine-Adelaide had the ball about 25 yards from goal and was dribbling laterally across the pitch parallel with the 18 yard line.  It looked to me as though he had shooting chances but failed to take them.  Mind you there was no-one inside the 18 yard box to benefit from a ricochet or poor block had he made the shot so in all probability nothing was actually lost.

You will by now be recognising a number of these themes from watching the first team, they certainly seen to be present in the junior levels as well.

I haven’t a clue as to how to teach our midfielders in particular how to tackle cleanly and safely both for themselves and their opponents.  Unfortunately it seems that our coaching staff haven’t either.  If this statement is correct (and it is pretty damning) then we need to bring in someone who does have this knowledge to pass it on to our youngsters.

At the moment we seem to specialise in producing players who are content to get the ball and pass it between themselves in the centre of the park looking good.  Very rarely does anyone seem to want to take the game by the scruff of the neck and take the responsibility for orchestrating the Arsenal game.

I would love to see Jeff Reine-Adelaide step up and do this as I am sure that he has the capability but at present very rarely shows it.  We are generally too nice and not prepared to ‘mix it up’.  I think this point has been recognised and addressed through bringing in players in the transfer process who haven’t been cosseted through our system.

I have no idea how the players are coached, if they are given a right bollocking by coaches or other players when they make mistakes or if it is all terribly nice and polite.  They must know themselves when they make errors, my concern is that at times the errors seem to become entrenched.

Maybe it might be possible for some of the coaching staff to do a short-term exchange with those at another academy either here in the UK or overseas (which might be more acceptable from a political point of view).  I wonder if everyone is becoming too entrenched in their views and something like this might freshen things up a bit.

I have heard Ivan Gazidis the Arsenal Managing Director speak about the role of the Youth System when he said that it is the intention for the bulk of the players in the first team squad to be promoted from within.  Inward transfers being restricted to those positions where there aren’t suitable candidates or for players of genuine quality who are clearly able to improve the overall level of the current squad.

We aren’t quite at that level yet but with 30% of our first team squad we have a good percentage who have progressed through at least one of the three stages of our Youth System.

Winning youth games is not necessarily an integral part of the process of developing players but it is certainly helpful to instil confidence which hopefully will reinforce positive performances.  To regularly lose games is certainly not conducive to player development.

The Untold Preview of the Under 18, Under 19, and Under 21 squads.

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19 comments to The Arsenal Youth System – Part 3 Questions and (some) Answers

  • ClockEndRider

    Spot on review Andrew. I have found attending reserve and youth games so dispiriting over the last 5 years I’m just going to stop going. 10 years ago we were producing some really exciting get players and playing a definite style of football. I’m afraid now that just like the first team i t is often impossible to figure out what plan if any is in place.

  • para

    Finally, someone else notices. All this talk about the beautiful football has gone out the window because we have to adapt and change with the “wind” else we get broken down by the wind.

    When i read Elneny statement saying that AW told him not to shoot but play the Arsenal way, i heard warning bells, but i think now we are in a different state, not least because of the new players bought who bring different dimensions to the team.

    atm the team has so many new options it did not have before and i hope this brings changed ways of playing and it filters down to the youth teams too.

    My impression of Arsenal has long been, “a team that has the handbrake on”, i hope with all the new options (if used properly) the hand brake will come off this season.

    AW needs to release the handbrake now this season and tell his players to:

    “go express yourselves while not forgetting what you have learnt, but play dynamically, spontaneously and not following a pattern all the time.”

    Still, my mind thinks on Elneny’s words! (was on

  • Zuruvi

    Thanks Para. I agree with your analysis.
    If the “LIKE” button was still available I would have given a “like” vote to you.
    Arsenal does not seem to shoot from a long range as often as other top teams do.

  • Zuruvi

    I miss the “like” voting button. I found that it provoked further discussion in that comments which were liked or disliked triggered responses from other Gunners.
    I also liked the “like” button in that it made me know what my fellow Gunners liked or disliked or were indifferent to.
    I didn’t like it when my constructive criticism of my beloved club or manager were “disliked” but I took it in good “sporting spirit”. I was actually hoping Tony would improve the “like” and “dislike” buttons so we can see who has voted for what. Some transparency in the voting system would have made it more interesting.
    Another reason why i liked the “like 👍” and “dislike 👇” buttons is that in cases where there are many responses and I was pressed for time, I could just quickly search for and read the comments that have been liked and disliked the most (because these would have been judged to be the most “interesting” by the Untolders.

    I hope Tony will bring back the “like” and “dislike” buttons.

    Or if there are many people who like me don’t like being “disliked”, Tony should consider just putting back the “Like” button and not the “Dislike” button.
    We will then be able to see which comments have the most “liked” votes and thereby have an indication of the strength of the argument in convincing fellow Gunners to his/her point of view.

    I think Untold has lost a little of its spark and vibrancy by removing the “Like” and “Dislike” buttons. It is still a brilliant Forum because of its evidence-based analysis. I suspect the number of participants in discussions might fall (but time will tell). I hope this doesn’t happen because I want Untold to be the biggest and best pro-Arsenal Forum on the web.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Very interesting, if slightly worrying reading. outside looking in…..perhaps a bit of a change of coaching needed? I know most long shots don’t hit the net, but they can also lead to rebounds, which can lead to very dangerous situations with alert strikers.
    all a bit strange……but maybe there is more going on in their training and playing than we can see?

  • Samuel Akinsola Adebosin

    With this comprehensive assessment that has been done by Andrew Crawshaw on the current state of poor performance individually and as a team by our U23 players as evident in their recent match against Liverpool U23 at the Ems, it has urgently becomes imperative for the Arsenal hierarchy to intervene in this ugly situation to put a stop to it.

    I will suggest Le Prof in conjunction with the Arsenal CEO Mr Ivan Gasidiz should setup a top level committee of football experts that comprises former Gunners, experienced senior current ones and some football gurus from outside the club to audit the general performance of our U23 squad overtime to a certain the root cause for this abysmal performances by them before and after their League2 bad outings against Liverpool U23. And put forward recommendations which can arrest this undesirable performances by them.

    Otherwise, the purpose for which our academy schools are being setup which is to be turning out top quality graduates players in their numbers for our senior squad to avoid overspending in the transfer windows will not be met.

  • Rich

    Sounds like Liverpool game made for more troubling viewing in the stadium than at home (and it was not at all comfortable from home!)

    I figured you might think I was too negative in my post yesterday ,Andrew, but I can now see that wasn’t the case.

    Stick with what I said as the most important thing being getting good players through, but who knows maybe we can improve the likelihood of that with a few tweaks to our approach.

    The game in question did play nastily on some old questions and frustrations : Liverpool gained a clear edge through aggression, which we had no answer to; a simple, familiar plan from them- defend in numbers, be patient, then break in two’s and three’s- was completely effective and, worryingly, felt like it was almost guaranteed to defeat us.

    My old bete noire was right to the fore : we didn’t pick a team which respected the role of defensive midfield or protecting our defence.

    Tough night. I think Gatting probably deserves some slack as I doubt he is behind a lot of the selection decisions; seems more likely he is instructed about who has to play, as well as when someone is to be tried in an unfamiliar position.

    It may be that when he goes to tournaments abroad he has a bit more leeway. Interestingly, in the two tournaments we won in South Africa, Ben Sheath has seemingly done very well in central midfield, somewhere he only rarely seems to play back here.

    Easily our best youth team of the last ten years had two tough cb’s and two tough-tackling, defensively-minded midfielders; while the best performance I’ve seen from the u21s in the last few years had Diaby and Coquelin anchoring the midfield, allowing all the offensive talents- Crowley, Zelalaem, Maitland-Niles, Akpom- to flourish.

    As for the aggression aspect, I remember a game from the u21 cup against Chelsea about three years ago. We had Daniel Boateng playing. Was certain by that point he wouldn’t have enough for the 1st team, but he was tough as hell. Put in a monstrous challenge early on, and just having the presence of one guy who was extremely tough seemed very beneficial for us and to subdue Chelsea’s normal aggressive approach against us.

    I think it helps to have a couple of players like that around at youth level but it doesn’t seem to enter our thinking.

    I’ve been far too negative here but as you can tell it frustrates me a lot not to provide the right platform for our attacking players.

    Everything I’ve seen of them over the years suggests we are better off having,say, four attack-minded players and two defensive ones rather than six attacking players, all of whom are undermined by us being too vulnerable to counters.

  • Rich

    Anyway, forget my grumblings, far more important stuff for us to consider today :

    Mark Halsey claimed on twitter last night that he was told by PGMOL to say he hadn’t seen incidents that were up for review (like Aguero’s)

    That’s basically what we’ve claimed and been after the whole time : evidence they are up to no good.

    If they tell them to say they haven’t seen something, it seems sure they’ll also tell them to say they have seen it on other occasions; if they do that, then it is entirely plausible that they are guilty of other kinds of malpractice.

  • Fishpie

    Gotta say Andrew, a great trio of articles. Fascinating stuff and thank you.

    So look, I can be very critical of the way Arsene sets his first teams up to play and reading your criticism of the make up of the current U18/U23 squads plays to my deepest fears about our Manager’s approach but I find myself wondering:

    1) I guess/hope the over emphasis on good-on-the-ball-midfield players in our youth squads is deliberate and calculated. I mean by that I hope this is a designed and not just a random construction. Is the idea that Arsene sees the role of the youth set up as single-minded function: to teach lads to develop their technical possession and creative talents such that these and these alone become all they need to become great players. In otherwords he just wants the Arsenal youth system to focus on that. Attacking, possession , thinking players. Feeding the talent pool for the first team: more Jack’s, more Iwobi’s. Because the positions of centre backs and defensive mids are not predicated on the technical aspects of the game, you won’t see many of them in the Arsenal youth structure. Arsene will buy them from other clubs when he sees them or thinks we need them but doesn’t ask the youth set up to create them. Other clubs can coach the tacklers and headers. That’s easy. We’ll do the harder stuff, the beautiful stuff. It’s a strange approach for sure but , on the evidence, is that the plot?

    2) If that isn’t the plot, and that plot is worrying in of itself, what else can be happening? Are we so incompetent we can’t actually see how inadequate our battling, tackling, closing down, chasing back is at youth level? Has the club which produced Simpson, Keown, Adams, Kelly, Storey, Thomas, Rocky, Cole, The Romford Pele, simply lost all of that teaching heritage and know-how? And To such an extent it is blind to it as a critical component in football? When I see top successful teams (teams that are capable of lifting the top two trophies), I see, first and foremost, desire, discipline, organisation, battling, tackling and physically impressive players whether its tall, or strong, or energetic, or combative, or high off the ball work rates. Yes technical abilities for sure, but not just technical abilities. Surely?

    3) It’s been a while since I watched youth or reserve teams. Mostly I went when the first team were struggling and I wanted to see what hope we had for the future. I was lucky enough to see quite a few matches reserve and youth games featuring Paul Davies, Chris Whyte and then later Tony Adams, Rocky, Martin Hayes (who dribbled past everyone), the Merse, and others. In those days, the club knew how to build the core of a youth team that would then form the basis for a first team a team. The Bertie Mee team, the Brady team, the George Graham team were all products of a clutch of strong youth players. If Mr Wenger does not renew his contract at the end of this season, I will be hard, in my view, not to question whether he left the club in better shape than when he found it in terms of the youth set up.

  • insideright

    Ever since Wenger arrived he has been trying to up the skill levels at centre back. The plan (I believe) was to move both Vieira and Petit to those positions towards the end of their careers but Petit had left by then and VIeira didn’t fancy it. He might have extended his career if he had of course.
    Having a sweeper-type playing alongside a stopper-type (Per/Kos) isn’t new but, back in the day, we very much favoured two stoppers and that very much restricted our ability to play out from the back and required central midfielders to sit very deep in order to get their central defenders out of trouble. Alex Song was tried at the back on several occasions but his weakness on his left side put paid to his career there and indeed in midfield. Turning defensive midfielders into centre backs at an early age seems like a good idea but maybe they need an older head alongside them while doing it. Maybe the plan is to have two sweepers (left/right) – but what it does to the teams confidence while it’s being developed is another question.
    As for turning wingers into full-backs – that’s been done for years and we have one of the finest examples (Bellerin) in the world.
    Over the years, to counter the styles that seem to be effective against us, there has been a move to reduce free kicks given against us by going away from the old fashioned tackle to a more interception based game. Referees have slowly clamped down on tackles with the wrong foot (as well as the Allardyce inspired assaults on the keeper at set pieces) so we have continued to make progress and remained near the top despite all predictions to the contrary. The underlying strategy can be seen to have worked but eggs have been broken in the ommlette making process!

  • Polo

    According to this research it seems shots from range is quite effective.

  • Bobome

    Thanks for this very enlightening report of the state of Arsenal Youth Teams as regards how they fit into the overall objective of providing inputs for the Senior team. Having read the first two parts, this third part, for me was an anti-climax. Your questions and apparent conclusions have raised some concerns in my mind. Firstly, did anyone in the Arsenal hierarchy contribute to your research on the youth set-up? This is key because it would give their perspective to your work and enable you to take their contributions into consideration in expressing your concluding views.

    Secondly, do you plan to send this report to the Club for their information, at least? Again unless the Club hears constructive criticisms, such as those in your 3 part reports, it would continue to walk a path to self delusion that all is well with what they are doing. There is no point scoring 10 goals against your opponent but end up conceding 11 goals from them! You still lost the match; at the end of the day the trophys really do count because that is one very strict criteria for being a football club.

  • Andrew Crawshaw

    @Polo, thanks for that link, the author has clearly done a lot of work looking at moves originating in a central area of the pitch and 25 to 39 yards from goal. He found that within 30 seconds of the move commencing just under 4% resulted in a goal – either direct or through the follow up play. Roughly 1 in 25.

    I was using (from memory) figures from 7amkickoff that shots inside the 18 yard box are converted at about 18% and that shots in ‘prime areas’ central and within the 6 yard area are converted at about 30%. My memory is sometimes not as good as I would like so I may be a bit out but I know I’m in the right ballpark.

    A shot from distance will result in a goal at about 4 protesters cent – on average you would expect a goal from every 25 shots you take. They are not very likely but are great crowd pleasers and will frequently cause confusion within the opposition defence.

    Shoot (or head the ball) within the 18 yard area and you should expect a goal every 6 shots on average. If you take the same shots as necessary to (statistically be likely to) score from distance you would expect to score at least 4 and prssibly 5 goals.

    Get into a prime area before you shoot and your 25 shots should result in something like 8 goals.

    That is the maths that explains why shooting from distance is generally frowned on by coaches and that getting the ball into the box first is a far better option.

    That option becomes somewhat academic though if you can’t get into the box which seemed to be the case for most of the U23 game against Liverpool. Under those circumstances it would seem quite reasonable to try the shot from further out.

  • Polo

    @ Andrew, your welcome.

    Off topic: reminder that the legends game is on at website

  • Andrew Crawshaw


    No I have had no input from the club. I do have infrequent contact with one of the player’s fathers who is extremely circumspect in any information he tells me and nothing he has said played any part at all in these three articles.

    The most important part of the Youth System is player development, giving them the skills they need to make careers as professional footballers, if not at Arsenal then somewhere else in the world.

    For the most part we are pretty successful in that aim, as spectators and supporters we cannot usually be aware of the full picture and that at times can be extremely frustrating.

  • Polo

    @ Andrew, thank you for the detailed analysis in your comment, very informative.

  • Andrew Crawshaw

    Here is a starter for a link to a great goal that Ainsley Maitland-Niles scored for the England U20 team against Brazil this week. As I said shots from distance are genarally not going to go in but, oh boy, when they do they don’t half please the crowd and give the players a lift

  • GoingGoingGooner

    I think it is useful to shoot from long range from time to time for the simple reason is that it puts pressure on the defenders. They have to commit themselves forward to stop a clear opportunity on goal. This opens up space behind them, makes lateral movement more difficult and creates uncertainty and will create possibiities for deflected and rebound goals. I remember the criticism that was written of Frank Lampard and the number of deflected goals he scored. Personally, I never thought the goals lucky but rather a product of a team putting pressure on a defense enough that the defenders were out of position. Of course, most of our goals will come from closer in but if the opportunity is there it should be taken.

  • Gord

    Shots from distance also keep the goalkeeper “on his line”, which means it is more difficult for the goalkeeper to act like a sweeper behind the defense.

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