By Tony Attwood
If you have been paying attention you will know that recently Andrew has written a series of detailed articles on Arsenal’s players, including the “25” list of registered players, the loanees, and what is going on with the under 23 and under 18 teams.
- Top of the league and bottom of the league. Is Arsenal’s youth system working properly?
- The Arsenal Youth System – Part 2 Comparisons with other clubs
- The Arsenal Youth System – Part 3 Questions and (some) Answers
There is a lot of detail here, but at the risk of gaining Andrew’s ire I want to pick out a couple of what seem to me key points.
First, Arsenal seems particularly good at bringing players up through the youth teams, and then into the first team. Iwobi, Coquelin and Bellerin are perfect examples.
Second, although I have not checked in detail I am not so sure that we used to be this good at such progression in the days when our youth teams were winning the youth cup and causing havoc in the league cup.
Third, other clubs are much better at us in the under 23 league, and previously in the under 21 league, and yet didn’t seem so good at bringing their own youth players through. Others, Chelsea is an obvious example, have taken the loan system to extremes, generally with 30+ players out on loan at any one time but not too many making it through to their first team. We have 13 such players as Andrew’s earlier report into the “25” shows
We have 5 members of our First Team Squad out on season long loans
|Joel Campbell||Forward||Sporting Lisbon|
And finally we have 8 of our Young Professionals on season long loans
|Tafari Moore||RB||Utrecht (Holland)|
|Dan Crowley||AM||Oxford United|
|Stefan O’Connor||CB||Maastricht (Holland)|
So maybe everything is ok. We have young quality players out of loan plus five under 21s in the first team squad
|Rob Holding||CB||12 Sep 1995|
|Alex Iwobi||Forward/MF||3 May 1996|
|Hector Bellerin||RB||19 Mar 1995|
|Chuba Akpom||Forward||9 Oct 1995|
|Jeff Reine-Adelaide||Forward||17 Jan 1998|
Holding is not one of Arsenal’s youth players but the other four are.
But still there is a nagging doubt. Should we not be doing a bit better in the under 23 league? Bottom of the league is after all as low as it can go.
This issue was raised in particular by Andrew’s last article in which there was talk of players out of position, no players in certain positions, no one willing to shoot from distance, no centre backs worthy of the name… but could there be another explanation? If not, this suggests incompetence.
And yet, and yet, we have four fine players listed above who are in the first team squad, plus Francis Coquelin now over 21 but who made his way up through the ranks as did Jack Wilshere. On the other hand having the U18s top of the league U23s bottom, suggests these youngsters start off ok but then we are unteaching them and they end up no good.
But we need to be cautious with incompetence claims. Arsenal’s supposed tragic injury record was considered incompetence, and S Robson was still claiming this, during the summer, although Arsenal’s injury record is pretty much middle of the range for clubs that play fast attacking football. Arsenal’s record in being able to buy good players has been under attack, but when we look at the amount spent and the quality of the players attracted (from Santi C to Ozil to Alexis to… well, whichever of this year’s buys looks like a bargain – and so far it is Holding by a mile) there is no incompetence.
Arsenal’s forwards display has been considered incompetence, except that we scored only 3 fewer than Leicester. The Guardian’s infamous “only two Arsenal players got into double figures” suggested goalscoring incompetence, until we realised the sentence should have been “Arsenal were one of only PL five clubs that managed to have two players scoring in double figures.”
So caution is needed, as well as a bit of searching for other explanations.
First this lack of natural central defenders could be that they are very hard to find. I don’t just mean at age 21, but rather that natural central defenders are hard to find who are natural aged 21 and then who also develop into first team ability.
In other words kids who are naturals at 18-20 don’t go on to be brilliant at 23 because they get set in their natural ways which don’t work in the Premier League. Remember Koscielny, who joined Arsenal aged 24, who had to play in the first team, but really wasn’t utterly reliable. He was “retrained” the Arsenal way, and has been superb now for several years.
This gives us a hint – that playing at what was the under 21 level and is now the under 23 level doesn’t actually aid progress. In fact it is possible that it hinders progress, which is why players are these days becoming accelerated in their progression.
Also there is a case to be made that Mr Wenger is superb at seeing what is possible, as opposed to those managers who simply see what is now. But the move from what is now, to what is possible, takes time, and indeed a certain amount of un-learning. It is a bit like a 13 year old English child trying to learn French. What they do at the start is translate word for word, and it comes out as rubbish – they have to unlearn English as the language of thinking.
Or a dancer who has just learned the formal moves but has no experience of freestyle dancing. They have to work through the rigid formalities of the dance moves before they can express themselves – and the first time they do express themselves it looks gawky and awful. But the experienced dance teacher, like the experienced piano teacher, French teacher and football coach can spot a youngster with that certain something about 20 miles off.
This takes us to the view that there are two types of players – the absolute natural who develops perfectly with only slight nudges, and the gifted player who needs to unlearn some natural habits and relearn others – and quite possibly change position (having been through school and early youth training being told “you are a central defender” only to be told “actually son you are attacking midfield”).
In fact it could all come down to something very simple: that some youth trainers are rubbish at spotting a youngster’s best position. Just because a teacher says to an 11 year old child “you play centre defence” doesn’t mean the child is best suited to central defence.
The fact that Arsenal has StatDNA suggests that something like this is going on. The only other explanation is that no one in any of the Arsenal training zones, nor in StatDNA knows anything about football. But history suggests otherwise.
Explanations of this sort do explain why we don’t want to play in the expanded lower league cup, and play more games open to the public. I think we are developing a different system from other clubs and it could well be that trying to win these games is not the prime aim in the under 23 team. We are wanting certain players to experience their new roles and get used to them. We are working on technique, style and development.
After all, in three years time, winning the u23 league or the FA Youth Cup will just be a memory. But changing a player from one position to another, and very much for the good, could be for the future.
Maybe this explains why, when Arsenal did win the Youth Cup, so few of the players actually made it as top flight footballers. Most ended up in the lower leagues. Some gave up football totally.
I’ve no proof of course. But I do think it is important to notice that sometimes there are more explanations than seem apparent at first.