Arsenal Under 23 and under 18, what on earth is going on

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.

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

Player Position Loan Club
Takuma Asano Forward Stuttgart
Joel Campbell Forward Sporting Lisbon
Wojciech Szczesny GK Roma
Calum Chambers CB Middlesbrough
Jack Wilshere Mid Bournemouth

And finally we have 8 of our Young Professionals on season long loans

Player Position Loan Club
Tafari Moore RB Utrecht (Holland)
Dan Crowley AM Oxford United
Julio Pleguezuelo CB Mallorca
Stefan O’Connor CB Maastricht (Holland)
Kelechi Nwakali Midfield Maastricht
Jon Toral CM Granada
Ryan Huddart GK Eastleigh
Glen Kamara DM Colchester

So maybe everything is ok.  We have young quality players out of loan plus five under 21s in the first team squad

Player Position DOB
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.

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22 Replies to “Arsenal Under 23 and under 18, what on earth is going on”

  1. Ah, the long view Tony. Winning everything at youth level has done nothing for young Chelsea players. Meanwhile we turn attacking midfielders into world-class wing backs and the manager gets scant credit. The bleaters will soon start bleating at Wenger because of the position of the under 23s in the league. What do they know? The bleaters wanted Balotelli didn’t they?

  2. Sergio Ramos recalls that he started out as a striker in U-14s and Fernando Torres started as goalkeeper at 12. Even our own Hector Bellerin started as a right forward/wing but was later made to learn and change his position as a right back. After reading all this, my thinking is that the Arsenal youth coaching are trying to get out the most of the growth of every individual player technically possible by compromising the overall results in the youth league.

    Players like Ben Sheaf, Bielik, Jeff Adelaide, Bennacer, were played in different positions last season, and even this season. If I recall correctly Iwobi earlier last season played as CM and a second striker on lot of occasions (two totally different positions). Now he plays as a left winger for us in the first team.

    Anyhow, good work Andrew and Tony.

  3. Curious to learn if many of the current Gunners were watching the game against Milan? Or the Arsenal youth?

  4. This is what Isaac Hayden had to say:

    ‘When I was growing up, (aged) about 18 or 19, the manager at Arsenal pushed me back to centre-back so I could hone my defensive skills,” said Hayden. “It wasn’t necessarily that he could see me there in the future, it was about working on my defensive skills as well as attacking skills.’

  5. I have no wish to knock Arsenal or anyone connected to the club but I did watch the U23 match against Liverpool on the Arsenal web site and thought the Arsenal were appalling. Not so much individual skill, but a complete lack of understanding that it was a team game. Players were constantly out of position, very little effort was made to track back, any thought of making a tackle seemed out of the question and when going forward the ball was held much too long before losing control. It really was poor, whereas Liverpool did seem to want to win, Arsenal just stood around and watched. Probably harsh but I did get annoyed at the time.

  6. Firstly Neil Ashton is just a crap as all the other ‘hacks’, so it’s impossible to know which bits of his article are truthful and which bits are stuff he’s create in his imagination.

    As for the teams. The club uses them as training and very little more, although they obviously want them to be successful and for the kids to get a taste for success.
    Seeing U18 players in the U23 team and being replaced in the U18s by U16s players shows how they regard these phases of a players development.

    The kids appear to be signing pro contracts which immediately pay them a salary above the national average (certainly for their age if not irrespective of age), which of course seems to have a bit of an effect on the ego of many of them.
    The best will prove themselves and the 2nd raters will drop out (although their basic talent should allow them to continue at lower levels.

    As for young CBs, some teams just want a CB who will kick or head the ball out of the danger area, but we want ball players. Not Wilshere or Santi playmakers but players that can make a very high portion of successful passes as well as interceptions and ‘kicking/heading the ball away’. So it’ll always be a difficult position to fill at that age(s).

    Overall, we’re more successful bringing through the youngsters than most other clubs and that’s the ultimate aim. I’d expect MaureenO to reduce any success DisUtd have with youngsters for a few years to come, although they’re usually one of the best (the best even) on bringing them through..

  7. Not surprised by Mark Hamsey’s comments. Costa was allowed to go free by the FA after his ‘red cards’ that were ‘not seen’. The whole FA/PGMOL corrupt treatment of football is sick. Why do TV pundits scream about some incidents & ignore several others? Why do the FA only refer ‘what the butler didn’t see’?

    I am surprised that clubs like ours do not make official complaints to the authorities & then take the matter to courts to get sport cleaned up. The FA are a monopoly that has unassailable powers apart from the courts.

    It is easy just supporting a club but it is not easy when you see beyond the reporting. Officiating has been corrupt for a long time but nobody seems to take on the corrupt.

  8. Isn’t the FA & by default the PGMO protected by the catch all “bringing the game into disrepute” rule? I see a certain irony there, but taking them to court would certainly cause disrepute which might impact against litigious clubs.

  9. Arsenal Legends vs AC Milan Glorie

    I hope Overmars is not seriously hurt with that hamstring injury.

    Metro said that Lee Dixon is injured, but didn’t say what.

    It was not nice to read that Hoyte was trolled.

    It was nice to read that Toure had a good game.

    Congratulations to Kanu on the hat trick!

    Congratulations to Arsenal Foundation, and hopefully the children getting the new fields like them as well.

  10. Gord, Overmars was walking around after the game….admittedly limping, but didn’t stop him signing autographs and doing selfies with the pitch side crowd, so hopefully he is ok. I would guess if he was playing, he would be out for a month or two though.
    Toure was excellent, so was Cygan….had a bit of bite about him. Hoyte played well and got a good reception , in the ground at least.
    A very enjoyable afternoon, the only negative, a cry baby behind me moaning that Wenger won’t sign players like that anymore. In the context of this game, this guy is sad , bordering on tragic.
    But just good to see some heroes in the shirt, and the Milan boys. Just a pleasant afternoon , and a nice big crowd for good causes.

  11. Thanks Mandy.

    Good to hear Overmars isn’t seriously hurt.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the game, minus the crybaby.

  12. @ Gord, Dixon said during one of game interview he has an injury to his knee, hence why he didn’t play.

  13. Hoyte and Cygan were both excellent, as was Boa Morte. Grimandi did well too.

    Kanu was superb. Ljungberg’s set-up for the Pires goal was fantastic.

  14. Much said about whether Hoyte is an Arsenal legend, but he has worn the shirt plenty of times, he is Arsenal through and through, he stepped up for a good cause, and on some of the things I saw, did his prospects of finding a new club no harm at all.
    Not sure the circumstances under which he was recruited, but a nice gesture from Wenger to put him out there.
    Some of them looked in pretty good shape, Freddie ran all game, the likes of Keown , Winterburn and Mad Jens don’t have an ounce of body fat, and even the players who age is catching up with could still show skill, and vision.
    I was sat near the pitch, at one point , I think it was Lewin asked one of the ball boys to take a drink over to the other side of the pitch to Nigel Winterburn……we could all hear the kid having to ask ” who’s Nigel Winterburn” !
    The kids of today,

  15. Leon…….the term bringing the game into disrepute is almost uniquely used in the Laws of the game rather than the administration and management side of Football. It basically means behaving in such a manner as to disrespect and bring scorn down on Football and those who take part in it. Here are a few examples (not necessarily unusual):

    1)A player flips the bird (raised middle finger) to the opponent’s supporters who are hassling him. The referee will usually caution the player for bringing the game into disrepute.

    2)A player scores, then lifts his shirt up to reveal an undershirt with a vulgar or lewd phrase or image on it. the referee will caution him for disrepute.

    The sweet FA usually do not have the authority to use this element of the Laws in sanctioning a Club and specifically cannot sanction them when they legitimately raise an issue that the sweet FA should be dealing with.If I understand the FA’s aegis properly, they cannot punish a team or club for a legitimate complaint br Failure of a Club to do that can allow sanctions brought to their attention but rather can require that any EPL Club follow the proper procedures in place to register that complaint. Failure of a club to respect the procedures in place can lead to sanctions and other consequences. Remember that the sweet FA don’t like their membership to go public and use the media to promote a cause or to stir up ¨trouble¨…..

  16. Could coaching be the problem for playing players out of position and also scouting for not having enough player for positions at this level. What is gatting’s record as a coach? Because there has to be an issue if you have an under 18’s team top of the southern division and an under 23 bottom of that league.thats quite a disparity and the only difference between the two teams are coaches.

  17. Having had a chat with jeorge bird, he seems to think it’s more down to lack of quality defensively that under 23 suffering with de graca and pileas being described as poor. Yet the under 18 have an experienced back line with many second year scholars in it.

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