COVID-19 shows no signs of abating anytime soon and as a result, Premier League clubs are number crunching and forecasting the financial impact as we speak. The massive losses from revenue, coupled with a staggering yearly wage bill of £230m will bring about massive and lasting changes in the financial structure of Arsenal which were completely unpredictable.
The days of big spending may well be over in the transfer market for three or four seasons and Arsenal may well have to sell off certain names before employing many of its young academy stars.
Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, Emile Smith Rowe, Ben Sheaf, Zech Medley, Folarin Balogun, Tyreece John-Jules, Sam Greenwood and Miguel Azeez are names that could replace established stars if the financial future of football continues to be uncertain. It may be the route that many clubs, be it in the Premier League or any other league, will follow with the damage of a lock-down, diminished sponsorship and empty stadiums still being assessed.
Interestingly enough, I explored the possibilities of Arsenal turning to their academy last May and examined the argument of turning to youth and inexperience, but at the time that suggestion was met with deep reservations. Many fans were sceptical that Arsenal could challenge domestically or in the European competitions.
Perhaps those reservations and misgivings will now be replaced by a feeling of inevitability and realism as football tries to stabilise from its biggest challenge since WW2.
We may indeed be heading back to a time before the influx of big-name signings. Today’s game has created a massively inflated multi-billion-pound empire of self-styled, powerful superstars with massive entourages, flamboyant agents and uncontrollable egos.
Football is looking itself in the mirror and there may be a series of changes and casualties at a time when the ceiling has caved in and the floor is uneven.
The argument for youth has recently gained some momentum through Gareth Southgate, England’s waistcoat warrior. Since his appointment, he has managed a small revolution by giving the kids a chance in the national side which led to a World Cup semi-final appearance.
Yes, they fell short but it’s as close as an England side have been since the ’90s and better than the so-called golden generation of 2001 – 2010.
Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson embraced the club’s academy during his epic reign and his recruits included the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt. All came through the United Academy in the early 1990s and contributed to a hugely successful period in the club’s history.
We’ll stay with the Manchester side and who better to illustrate a trust in youth than the legendary Sir Matt Busby. Busby managed Manchester United during a period of great success between 1945 and 1971 and probably had the most famous collection of youngsters in the game’s history (The Busby Babes). The average age of a player was 21 years of age and great things were predicted for the team.
Sadly, that potential was never realised because of the tragic Munich air disaster of 1958 and resulted in the death of 8 of the first-team squad. Busby believed deeply in youth and coined the phrase “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”, which made its way on to the wall in the United dressing room.
In terms of Arsenal’s past, recall if you will the George Graham era at Highbury, which introduced a host of young players such as Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Davis and Paul Merson, all of whom went on to form the core of his most successful sides. These are all good examples of youth with positive outcomes and in all honesty could they do any worse than what we’ve collectively witnessed in the last few seasons.
The big bonus is that youngsters play with energy, desire, and tempo which befits the pace of the Premier League. They are free from constraints and able to express themselves through their appetite, ambition and a lack of fear of failure. They also tend to define a club by developing a unique spirit, which in terms of Arsenal was typified by the late David Rocastle.
Luke Edwards of ‘The Telegraph’ explored the benefits of youth and the possibility of success in his article from May this 2019. The average age of Ajax players is 22.9 but that hasn’t hindered their progression or ability to challenge for top honours, quite the reverse. The success was examined infinite detail and concluded:
“It is not because of their (Ajax) innovative coaching, although that helps, or the wonderful facilities at the Toekomst Academy. It is, according to u (Under-19 coach of Ajax ) caused by something far more powerful, running through the heart of the club. The simple, pure idea that it is always better to produce and improve their own players than buy them from outside.”
“We absolutely believe in our young players, that is the most important thing,”
“We want to give them a chance more than anything. Everything we do is designed to get as many players into the first team as possible. From the age of six or seven, that is what we are trying to work towards”
By contrast, Jose Mourinho had no trust in his youngsters whilst managing Chelsea in the Premier League, loaning hoards of them to other clubs and whilst at Manchester United, he bemoaned a lack of maturity, referring to aspiring footballers as ‘brats’. He said:
“Today I call them ‘boys’ and not ‘men’. Because I think that they are brats and that everything that surrounds them does not help them in their life nor in my work. I had to adjust to all of that.”
“Ten years ago, no player had a mobile phone in the dressing room. That is no longer the case. But you have to go with it, because if you fight that you are bringing about conflict and you risk putting yourself in the stone age.”
Mobile phones aside, one only needs to look at the impact of Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Callum Hudson-Odoi in the Premier League. If you are still unconvinced, look at the exemplary attitude of Jadon Sancho who went to Borussia Dortmund, Reiss Nelson (Hoffenheim) and Emile Rowe Smith (Leipzig) to progress their career’s.
This reinvention of football after the COVID-19 pandemic is as good as any other reason for looking at the homegrown talent. With transfer fees bigger than some country’s economies, a host of famous clubs are starting to look at more modest gambles on its younger players in the hope of finding the next Ronaldo or Messi. It’s slightly unrealistic because players of that calibre don’t come around that often, but if a select few are half as good, they will have struck gold.
Arsenal have a possible superstar in Gabriel Martinelli and if change comes, he is likely to be the cornerstone of a revolution. Playing the majority of academy prospects is a gamble, but it could work. There will be times when they crash and burn but as they grow together, they will collectively reach a level where they can compete and succeed.
On that point, let’s just deal with supporters’ expectations. The reality is that fans have to stop seeing Arsenal as a big club, they were but not now, purely because Kroenke has allowed it to fall behind. Big clubs need to be competing regularly for the top honours, not a couple of FA Cups every 10 years.
Arsenal are in good shape, there are still problems ahead many of which are financial but if circumstances require a greater dependency on youth, the Gunners are well placed to have a successful future in the Premier League as well as abroad.
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