Arsene Wenger’s Magical Embryo Farm – Oğuzhan Özyakup
by Jonathan Neale
Snaffled from Alkmaar Zaanstreek, and whisked from under the eager snouts of some of Europe’s biggest clubs including Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, ‘Oğuzhan Özyakup’ is a scary name to try to pronounce. It may also prove to be one to remember.
Helpfully, I am told he likes to go by the nickname ‘Ozzie’. Should he make the grade, perhaps we can invent suitable ditties based on Black Sabbath tunes and bite the heads of bats when he scores. Eh? Eh? Oh.
Clearly, with the plethora of fetuses I have already outlined as competing for Arsenal’s future midfield berths, this lad is perhaps 3 or so years away. Nonetheless, I have seen enough to think that Ozzie might yet turn out to be a bit special and my remit here is to focus on a few of the less famous young charges.
To give you an idea of how good a prospect he is, first a little history of where and how we purloined him.
For those who haven’t been keeping a beady eye on the European leagues, Alkmaar Zaanstreek (known simply as ‘A-Z’) are the current champions of the Dutch top-flight. Congratulations to them. This means that, from next season, AZ will be playing in the Champions League, having left many of the more recognisable names, such as PSV and FC Twente, in their wake.
Louis van Gaal was manager of the club until just 2 weeks ago, when his success (they climbed from 11th place last season) was enough for Bayern Munich to step in and make him ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’. As former manager of Ajax, Barcelona and The Netherlands, I would rate Van Gaal as one of football’s best manager’s. And this is good news for it is said he rated the youngster extremely highly and was very keen to make sure ‘Ozzie’ was retained by AZ.
This was further evinced by the fact he had Ozzie training with the first team, whilst he was still a 15 year old schoolboy. This seems to have been an attempt to demonstrate that they considered Ozzie very much part of the future at AZ.
If this was the ploy it failed, largely thanks to Ozzie’s ambition and determination – he made it clear to the club that he had already set his sights further afield – and it seems he wanted to start playing for one of the big European clubs as soon as possible.
Lurking in the wings, Arsenal are said to have stepped in very promptly to capture his signature by offering a 2 year scholarship (with the option of signing up to a lucrative 3 year professional contract when his youth period ends).
This is a clear indication of the high esteem in which Wenger (and his scouts) held this player – a footballer who was identified and singled out as a priority capture, and offered professional terms, in advance, on the completion of his scholarship.
A year ago Özyakup, then 15, made two brief substitute appearances for the Netherlands in the Under-17 finals, including one against the nation of his parents’ births, hosts Turkey. He was quickly promoted to become The Netherlands U17 captain (at 16) and has since drawn comparisons to a young Overmars, amongst others.
I have seen ‘Ozzie’ play for The Arsenal youth team a couple of times but by far the most impressive performance came watching him last May, on Eurosport, against an England U17’s team featuring 3 of his Arsenal peers.
This performance in particular has long stuck in my mind – his maturity, passing and technique stood him apart from any player on either side, like a mastiff cavorting amongst puppies.
He was certainly up for the game, taking just four minutes to score. Having helped slice through the England midfield, he found space at the edge of the box to pick up an excellent byline pullback which he gratefully smashed past England’s young keeper. My eyebrows were duly raised.
In the months prior to the game, Ozzie had already played out the fixture on Playstation, against Arsenal youth colleague Emmanuel Frimpong. Holland had triumphed that day under Ozzie, beating Frimpong’s England 3-1. Frimpong was denied any rematch!
Prior to the real match Ozzie had said that he wanted to ‘annihilate’ his teammates – a statement of bloodthirsty intent, which I rather admire. Especially as he was as good as his word: minutes after scoring the games opener, he had forced another sharp save and for the rest of the game he was like a lightning rod a conduit through which all of Holland’s best moves stemmed.
Aside from his good passing and a decent turn of pace, what I found especially notable, was the amount of time he seemed to have on the ball. I tend to think that this, more than anything else, regardless of age, is a very good yardstick of a special player. Fabregas has it and this is perhaps the key element of his make-up, which has allowed him to step up to the highest level at such a young age. Wilshere has it too.
By the end of the game Ozzie had twice put players through with incisive passes but had seen them squandered. For good measure he also hit the crossbar with a cute chip from a free-kick just outside the box. Quite a day he was having.
Almost a year on, The Netherlands recently progressed to the final of the U17 championship where they lost narrowly to a strong German side. Though I did not see the games leading up to this, Ozzie was comparatively quiet in the final and the return fixture against England was mostly dominated by one Jack Wilshere.
Overall Ozzie has had a good season for the Arsenal Youths & Reserves and finding the net 4 times. There are a number of quality youths ahead of him but I am hopeful he will progress and make his mark next season.
There is clearly much to come from Ozzie, though given the congestion in the middle of The Arsenal park, it will be very difficult to win a starting berth.
It is notoriously difficult to predict how players will react as they mature but of the few times I have seen him first hand, I felt I was watching someone more mature than his years. This is further supported by the fact that he has, throughout his tutorship, been moved up to play with players older than him. The fact that Van Gaal, Wenger and the management of the Dutch International set-up all earmarked him as a particularly bright prospect bodes well – it’s not a bad set of references.
I hope to see him get a run in the Carling Cup next season though, such is the competition, just to achieve this will be a challenge. I have no doubt that he will not fall short for lack of appetite.
Name: Oğuzhan Özyakup
Age: 16 (17 in September)
Position: Right/Central Midfield
Nationality: The Netherlands (Turkish by birth)
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