Bright Future At The Emirates?
Luton Town. Swansea City. Doncaster Rovers. Carlisle United. MK Dons. Crawley Town. Birmingham City. Darlington. What do these eight clubs have in common? They have all won a trophy in the past six seasons; something that Arsenal have failed to achieve in that very same time period. This is the team that has invested nigh on £100m in their current squad, and is recognised as the third greatest team in English football history. Has everything gone badly wrong?
After The Invincibles of 2003/4, The Gunners seemed to be on the crest of a wave. They had proven, much as Man Utd did this year in overcoming Man City, that you don’t need money in order to win the title. Chelsea were the moneybags back then, and despite Crespo, Mutu and Veron all arriving in the summer, Arsene Wenger’s carefully created team sauntered to the title – unbeaten. The only issue was that these players all came to a peak in that season. Viera, Pires, Henry, Lehmann, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell never reached that kind of form again. The staggering success of this season put the FA Cup win of 2005 in the shadows. The team were outplayed for 120 minutes in Cardiff, and penalties left Manchester United feeling robbed. This though is Arsenal’s last trophy to date.
The youth system of the time was the Barcelona of today – for potential anyway. Clichy, Fabregas, Hoyte, Owusu-Abeyie, Thomas, Bentley, Aliadiere, Jeffers and Senderos put Arsenal in a great light. With a strong first team, the youth could be used for League Cup commitments. Francis Jeffers famously was sent off in the 2003 Community Shield of course. At this point, Reyes was only 21. Arsenal looked imperious and unstoppable for years to come. Wenger got his team playing football that was slick and sexy, which the youth team would surely follow.
Look at the list of names again in the Arsenal youth team. How many of them can you affiliate to a club today? Clichy at Man City; Fabregas at Arsenal still; Bentley at Spurs; Senderos at Fulham. Number of trophies between them? One – Bentley, winning the League Cup with Spurs in 2008. If we look at the current Barcelona youth in six years time, I highly doubt that tally will be the same. Youth development is obviously down to how the coaches train the players and the facilities, but a small ingredient is luck. You never know how a player will turn out – you can only try your very best to mould them into a perfect piece for the jigsaw that is a football team. Wenger was criticised for spending too little, and then failing to use his youth correctly. The best way to defend a manager is recalling the number of trophies he’s won. A big fat 0.
Barcelona are the only team currently who can present their youth team as the answer to their successes, and it’s a model that rivals must follow to succeed. The issue is that in Spain, there are no limits on how much youth teams can train. In England, there are restrictions, which in turn stunts the growth of youth players. Therefore, pre-season friendlies are the perfect opportunity to try out your youngsters, and look into the crystal ball as to what could happen in years to come. I had the pleasure of seeing the Arsenal youth team travel down the A21 to Hastings, my home town, to play Hastings United in a friendly. Narrowly avoiding relegation in the Ryman Premier League last year, this was more about commercialism to Hastings than the result. More than six times the average attendance squeezed into The Pilot Field to see as masterclass from the Arsenal team, who ran out 9-0 winners.
The strength of the team was interesting. Wilshere of course was on tour with the first team, but well known players such as Sanchez Watt and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who were on loan at Leeds and Cardiff respectively last season, made an appearance. Despite the fact they were playing a team six divisions below them, Arsenal were impressive on the ball, and strong off it. Thomas stole the night though. I was lucky enough to be standing on the wing he patrolled. His strength was superb, rarely losing a header, and was equally adept when dancing through the U’s defence. He capped the night off with a wonderful chipped effort, leaving Josh Willis helpless. However, it was by no means a one-man show. (JET has now left Arsenal and joined Ipswich Town)
On the same side, full-back Nico Yennaris played arguably the best out there on the pitch. He never lost a tackle, and bombed forward allowing Thomas to drop deep or cut inside with ease. This may sound ludicrous, but it reminded me of how Barcelona played in the Champions League final. Whenever Pedro and Messi went forward, Dani Alves and Abidal were close behind, meaning they effectively played as wingers, not full backs. Yennaris was highly impressive in this role. Sanchez Watt, the star man of the night pre-match, was quiet, but of course, unstoppable in midfield. His through balls cut the Hastings defence into two with ease, as well as bagging a goal. He will be in demand for another loan move, possibly to the Premier League with one of the newly promoted sides if he plays his cards right.
It will be interesting to see how many of the players who featured in this low level fixture make a first team appearance this season. However, it’s all very well having youth, but if they aren’t any good, what can they do? Well, Arsenal are in luck. There were two lasting impressions from the warm July evening. Firstly, it was evident that it was Arsenal playing. The passing mentality that made The Invincibles is present seven years on. However, not in the first team, which has become about wide players such as Walcott and Van Persie making an impact. Wilshere and Fabregas have arrived too late. If they were part of the historic team of 2004, the success would surely have prolonged. However, what Arsenal can count on is that the players coming up from the reserves have the passion and talent that echoes their predecessors. The trophy drought will end soon, and the potential is there to emulate Barcelona’s domestically driven success. England will benefit, but Arsenal will be the darlings of English football.
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