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By Tony Attwood
One of the really good feelings I get watching Arsenal is the sense that among the players on the pitch are some who have come up through the ranks of Arsenal’s youth team, or been recruited at a very young age for a modest fee. Saka and Martinelli are of course the two that sit in those two categories, but we do have others. Smith-Rowe likewise and we are told was very much not on the list to be sold, which I was glad about.
Of course over the years some players from the academy have been lost… we remember Ashley Cole particularly, but recall that Martin Keown left and saw the error of his ways and returned. But Merson, Adams, Fabregas, Parlour, they did Arsenal proud.
And of course, this is continuing. Three academy players have moved into the first team squad this year. One you’ll remember as the League’s youngest ever player, Ethan Nwaneri. The others are Myles Lewis-Skelly and Reuell Walters.
But one of our regular correspondents from Europe who feeds in many of the European stories that are not covered in the English media and blogs because of their Anglo-centric focus, raised the question: how is Arsenal doing in comparison with other Premier League clubs when it comes to bringing forward youngsters?
It is surprisingly difficult to get a good clear answer on this – a lot of generalized comments exist, but the actual data is harder to find, except that CIES has done a report on the subject. And although not answering the question exactly, their review of 277 academies found that in terms of playing time given to academy graduates Chelsea and Arsenal were right at the top while at the foot of the table was Newcastle, whose full back Emi Krafth got three minutes 22 seconds in a solitary appearance on loan.
In fact, success with academy graduates is very hard to come by. Only seven clubs managed to get more than nine academy players into a first-team side. Chelsea were top with 16, Manchester United with 15, Manchester City had 14, and Arsenal and Southampton 13 each. Liverpool on 11 and Tottenham on 10 were the only others in double figures.
There are also analyses of the number of minutes players played. Chelsea and Arsenal had academy players on the pitch each for 21,000 minutes – Chelsea won however by a small number of seconds. The next three places were taken by PL clubs: Manchesters City and United and then Southampton, before the first non-English side enters the charts: Ajax. After them is Liverpool in seventh and Tottenham in eighth.
In terms of player value the “total estimated transfer value of the 78 Chelsea’s academy graduates identified is €630m, while that of the 102 footballers trained by Barcelona is €581m.” (Transfer values were assessed through a statistical model exclusively developed by the CIES Football Observatory research team).
Arsenal we know have a long history of finding local players and nurturing them. Saka, Nketiah, Smith Rowe, and Nelson are the four in the first team squad who are locally developed with a transfer value quite possibly approaching a couple of hundred million euros.
But how did Chelsea get to rival us?
What is fascinating here is the two utterly different approaches that lie behind Arsenal and Chelsea in this regard. Arsenal have at the top four ex-Arsenal players who appreciate the culture of the club: Arteta, Edu, Mertesacker and Wilshere.
As for Chelsea, well, for their secret we have to go back to the Abramovich era when Chelsea bought in vast numbers of young players, and then immediately loaned them out, with the aim of then picking up the two or three talents they happen upon while at the same time getting around FFP. The youngsters were loaned out en masse across Europe and the tiny number who made it were mostly sold in order to balance the FFP books, or on occasions retained.
In 2019 Uefa investigated Chelsea’s activities in terms of 29 young players, and they were then banned from signing any more young players for two windows and given a hefty fine. But the scam worked as a way around FFP.
Interestingly Chelsea are now using another scam – that of giving players eight-year contracts so that the cost of players can be written down over eight years. They could be left with players who they have to keep paying but have no use for, and don’t put in the first team squad, but they are gambling on the notion that most such players will opt to leave on a free and go somewhere where they can play.
So if we discount Chelsea, because of Uefa’s investigation and subsequent ban, we can say clearly that Arsenal has the most successful youth policy in the Premier League – probably in Europe.
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