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July 2020
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Are Arsenal really awful at holding onto talented youngsters?

by Tony Attwood

There has been of late a growing number of attacks upon Arsenal over its transfer policy.  And one regular line of this assault concerns the allowing of young players to leave.  Players who then go on and have a great future with another club – Serge Gnabry is often quoted in this context.

And some sites are now saying we are doing this really regularly.  One site says that Bennacer left in 2017 for €1 Million but now might be going to Real Madrid for €50 Million.  And then with Malen, the negativists claim that he scored “27 goals in his 67 appearances for our youth sides, before being sold to PSV, with his fee believed to have been under €1 Million.”

Now “TuttoMercatoWeb state that Napoli are amongst the names chasing Donyell, with PSV in want of around €60 Million for his signature.”

Contrasting this we have the oft repeated tale of David Luiz with the claims that Arsenal paid 60% of the transfer fee to an agent, instead of the normal 5%.  Although why Arsenal did this, no one is saying.  We covered that tale here.

Add to this the case of Aubameyang and Arsenal look like a hopeless case of gross transfer incompetence from top to bottom.  And this may well be true (there simply is no evidence) but there are certain gaps in these stories when they are reported that make it at best hard to come to a clear understanding of the subject, and at worse make it likely that these reports are at the best incomplete, and at worst, downright misleading.

Of course the fact is that in the time of Mr Wenger, he took a very close interest in every detail of the transfers in and out, and many in the trade said that he had a remarkable ability when it came to spotting talent and getting it on the cheap, while also selling players he didn’t want, at way beyond their real value.  Not in every case of course but quite often.

Now with all of Mr Wenger’s recruitment team having been forced out of the club by a minority of fans, the AST, and their media allies, such knowledge and experience has gone and we may well be suffering as a result of that.   But is there more to the story?

Lets have a look at the gaps in these reports of Arsenal’s alleged total cock ups which might make anyone who really wants to get the full story, think again.

1: Lack of comparison with other clubs.

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The reports about the players Arsenal have let go  never seem to have decent comparisons with what happens in other clubs.  Arsenal might have let Gnabry get away, but is it really true that other clubs don’t ever have this sort of situation occurring in which a highly talented player is able to move away at a low price?  It might seem to happen to Arsenal more than to other clubs but that might only be because as Arsenal supporters we look at Arsenal more closely than at other clubs.

Without any comparative figures we really don’t know if Arsenal are losing more talent than other teams – and that lack of detailed comparisons in an oft-repeated tale, is invariably a sign that the story is not what it seems.  If we came out of such comparisons poorly you can be sure the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal would be publishing them.

2.  Being trained by Wenger was a big draw for many young players

Mr Wenger had such a reputation for bringing out the very best in players that youngsters and their families always saw an opportunity at Arsenal as something to be cherished.  Now of course that is gone, and the reputation of the club has sunk significantly because of the behaviour of some of the crowd during his last couple of years.  Players are now less likely to want to stay because they have seen what the Arsenal crowd can do to players they don’t like.  .

3: How much control do we have over young players?

Young players are influenced by a whole raft of outsiders in a world in which rumours and fake stories swirl around on a daily basis.  Anyone who has run a business with over 40  or 50 people in it will know one can be surrounded by advice from people inside and outside the firm about everything from who one should “move on” from the company, to what area of work we should move into, from what machines we should buy, to how the market will change next year.

In the end the management makes decisions, but then so do the members of staff.  I’ve seen talented young employees leave seemingly on the advice of a parent or partner who is saying, “they are exploiting you” or “you could do better elsewhere,” and as a result the young person who we’d like in the company leaves.  It is not our fault, because we can’t override advice from elsewhere.  We can only work with those who give us the chance.

But there are other issues.  Give in to higher wage demands or requests to move departments for one person and one can easily upset others in the company who may well ask, “why is he given this special treatment?”  In short one is both trying to keep all employees content, while also making guesses as to how things will work in the future.

Sometimes I know that a person we should have kept has left and done exceptionally well elsewhere, but with others I have seen a person leave, and then leave the next employer and the next seemingly endlessly believing that each time they have happened to land up with a bad employer and everyone else is working for much better firms.  It happens in all walks of life.

3.  People change

An individual who is talented but not making the most of his talent can change into one who really does knuckle down and work hard.  And vice versa.  And I’ve never seen a way of predicting this completely.

And what we have to remember is that all these complaints about Arsenal letting top players go are made with the benefit of hindsight and without comparisons with comparable clubs.

4.  Where are the gaps in our team

The above focuses entirely on the individual.  But football is a team game, and if one suddenly has two brilliant number 10s in the same age group it is never going to be possible to keep both of them happy.  One is going to feel that he is being back by the presence of the other.  So a judgement is made as to which one should be kept and one has to go.

And remember if the club refuses to release a player in such circumstances, the club quickly gets a bad reputation and finds it harder to bring in new young players thereafter.

5.  We should nevertheless be better at holding on to players longer

Highly talented young players are surrounded by advisers some of whom are often complete idiots and some of whom do their homework and give detailed supportive advice.  The latter will look and see who else is in the current squad, and may well suggest that a move elsewhere could be advantageous because team X is particularly lacking this sort of player.

The club looks after its own interests – and that includes showing that it helps and supports youngsters even if that means helping them move on.  Otherwise the source of young players dries up.

6.  How is this working with other clubs?

What I have never seen is a list of the players in other clubs who have come through the team with success and those who have left early to make a success elsewhere.  Is Arsenal really that much worse at recruiting and retaining players than everyone else?   That is certainly what many imply.  I doubt that very much, given the list of 20 or so youngsters we have on the books who stand a chance of making it in the next couple of seasons.

7.  Is it easy to judge without hindsight?

As you may know, apart from writing Untold Arsenal articles I run The Arsenal History Society which publishes a daily rundown of the day’s anniversaries relating to the club.  And I was recently struck by several newspaper reviews of games from the unbeaten season.  One from October in that season said that the Arsenal fans who had gone to a particular away game were in no doubt that this was the worst Arsenal team they had ever seen.

That was in the unbeaten season.

Young players who show early talent but then never make it are forgotten, and instead we highlight the players who really have made it but not with Arsenal.  But even under Mr Wenger’s tutelage we often only had a handful of players who had come up through the ranks.  Who were our home grown players then?  Ashley Cole, Ray Parlour…   And coming up through the ranks who really made it later?  Cesc Fàbregas, Gaël Clichy…  I am sure I have missed some out but I am not sure we have often had a lot of home grown talent in the team.  The youngsters around the 1st team in that season included Tavlaridis, Aliadiere, Papadopulos, Stack, Bentley, Hoytme Simek, Spicer, Jermome Thomas, Owusu-Abeyie, Ryan Smith…  Which of those really made it?

When we have an analysis over time which shows that Arsenal are consistently selling off their youngsters cheap, or simply letting them go, while other clubs are holding their youth team together for much longer, then that will be an interesting analysis.   And I don’t mean just from one year group – most clubs get a magic group from time to time.  I mean showing that Arsenal are consistently much worse than the rest at developing and retaining young talent.

Otherwise it is just another Arsenal hitting tale from the AAA.

3 comments to Are Arsenal really awful at holding onto talented youngsters?

  • Mikey

    My understanding was that Gnabry wanted to go back to Germany even though we wanted to keep him. What do people expect us to do? However, good someone is, if they become unhappy, they will not perform at their best so having tried ways to keep people you let them go albeit reluctantly.

    I recall losing many people from my organisation I would have preferred to keep but, as you infer, if young talented people don’t see an opportunity for promotion in the short-term, they look to progress their career elsewhere. I also recall on occasions people, having left, later telling me they wish they’d stayed as the grass wasn’t greener elsewhere. Alas there chance has gone if I don’t have a suitable vacancy.

    Of course there are also talented people who are completely unmanageable, believe they are better than they actually are and become disruptive to the whole team with their over critical approach……I wish I’d been able to “sell” some of those sooner rather than later!

    It just seems to me that the people who are most critical are often those who the least grasp of the bigger picture. And I’m not talking about the players now, this is the media and the fans who believe the garbage they print.

  • What you say is correct.

    Players leave for a variety of reasons, usually because they see no future in the club because of the more experienced players ahead of them.

    It seems to me that the number of players who left and did well is very few, so for every Andy Cole and Serge Gnabry there will be 10 or more others who have disappeared without a trace.

    So, just as the myth of the alleged negligence of the club in “allowing players to run down their contracts” is nothing more than a myth, so is the allegation that we have let too many talented players go.

    It is usually players and their agents who run contracts down in order to get better terms and more money that they can never spend, either form their own club or another one.

    So, it is usually the players and their agents who do the same when youngsters leave.

  • John L

    Mr. Wenger felt an obligation of pastoral care for players, which would on occasions, allow them to leave to develop their career elsewhere, rather than insist that they stay.

    There are lots of players throughout the leagues who acknowledge that they are grateful for the career foundation that they received at Arsenal and from Arsene in particular.

    I believe also that I did read that Arsene would have preferred Olivier Giroud to stay, but could not guarantee him a starting place, so allowed him to leave so that he could safeguard his prospects for playing for France in the World Cup.

    All of this is to Arsenal’s credit

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