Since Arsène Wenger took over Arsenal have won the FA Premier Academy League five times, most recently in 2009-2010, and the FA Youth Cup 3 times, with the latest in 2008-2009, so under him the club have had success at youth levels but as clubs have spent copious amount of money on players and subsequently “bought the league” (I don’t like that term. You still have to go out and win the games.) Arsenal fans, for a time, stood behind their manager and their club saying, “We don’t buy players, we make them”.
Arsenal have cultivated players that have gone on to have a good careers, some excellent ones. But the dream of growing their own stars has fallen a little way off the mark. Arsenal signed talented youngsters with the hope that they would become first team regulars. Players like Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Nacer Barazite, Fran Mérida, Johan Djourou and Sebastian Larsson. Out of all of them, Cesc was the only one to really break through and become, not just a first team regular, but one of the biggest stars of the club in the Emirates Stadium era. Alex Song too made a name for himself at the club, as for the others they had to make a move away from the club to get first team football.
But Wenger has always wanted to prove to the world that they can make their own players with out having to spend money. He has wanted to be able to parade a truly Arsenal product. He ha that once with Ashley Cole, but he well know how that story turned out.
It wasn’t until Jack Wilshere emerged that Arsenal and Arsène Wenger could claim another truly Arsenal made superstar. Other players came through the Hale End academy and through the ranks at Arsenal.
If you look at the Arsenal team, the only players in the first team through those years are Ashley Cole and Jack Wilshere. You could add David Bentley and Emmanuel Frimpong to that list, but they were nothing more than bit part players. Kieran Gibbs, who joined Arsenal when Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes and spent three years there is seen as an Arsenal product, and maybe I am being a little harsh to say he is only 98% an Arsenal product compared to the others.
Jack Wilshere joined Arsenal aged nine after a short spell at time, so you could argue that he is 99.99% a full Arsenal product, but how much could you say Luton shaped his career.
Others English players have come through and then moved on in that time. Steve Sidwell, Jerome Thomas, Jay Simpson, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Henri Lansbury all were given chances, some more than others, but in the end were seen as not what the club needed. In honesty, were those players good enough to play for a club that wants to challenge at the top. Probably not
As the years have gone on, the trophies and success at youth level have, like the senior side, dwindled. For all the talk about how good a youth system Arsenal have, it was Aston Villa who won the NextGen series this year, the junior equivalent of the Champions League for you not in the know.
If you look at the players that are making the headlines for Arsenal’s youth, it is largely players that have been signed by the club and not ones that have come though the ranks. Thomas Eisfeld looks to have a bright future ahead of him at Arsenal, while Serge Gnarby could be a Fabregas or a David Bentley. Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin both joined Arsenal from Barcelona in 2011 and will look to recreate what Cesc Fabregas did at the club, while trying to not follow in the footsteps of Fran Merida. As for a truly home grown player, Chuba Akpom is the only player that looks to be heading for a first team future
The failure to do well in the NextGen and domestic Leagues must, in some ways, hurt Wenger. Chelsea, who spent a lot of money and got nothing out of it for a long time, have now started to understand the youth academy and be successful with it.
Where Wenger had the foresight to see that spending couldn’t or well shouldn’t continue in the fashion that it has, and now with FFP coming in. Youth development is more important than ever. Aston Villa doesn’t have the money to spend big. And in the next few seasons will no doubt be looking inwards for their future stars. Having won the NextGen this season does not mean that in a few years they are going to be the new Barcelona, but it does pose some interesting questions.
You can look at clubs like Southampton, who had Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale on their books at one time, Aston Villa and Everton who continually raise promising young players and that is just in the Premier League and not mentioning any clubs in the Championship.
Even when you look at the mass contract signing of Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere, It is only Wilshere that has not been bought or signed on a free, so to speak. Wenger can stand there and be proud, but really what is he proud of. What he has done there is more or less the equivalent of opening a jar of sauce, adding a few bits and heating it up. With Jack, there has been the seasoning and marinating. That is the only one to be truly proud of.
When you look at the players that came through the ranks at West Ham, Manchester United and Barcelona, Arsenal don’t really have all that much to brag about. Wenger will do doubt be looking to continue to improve the youth facilities and academies and leave a legacy that is more than just trophies won and stadiums built, but at this rate, it may take a little longer than he had hoped for.