Sunday presented a slight shift in Arsenal’s poor start to the season. Wenger’s men produced a stalemate at the Bridge against Conte’s rampant Chelsea. This is the first time that the Blues have failed to score at home since the Italian took charge. But should this performance and result be allowed to mask the underlying problems surrounding the Gunners?
The game against Chelsea posed a significant switch from the outdated, predictable tactics that Arsenal typically resort to against the big sides which has often been one of many complaints that Gunners fans have held over Wenger. For the most part, Arsenal have been short of flair and innovation against top sides which predates this season.
For the first time in 20 years, Arsenal failed to secure Champions League football and underperformed with a dire fifth place finish last season. Fingers have been pointed at Wenger whose position has been perceived as untenable for a number of years now but this hasn’t forced the Frenchman out of the driving seat. Others have held the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil responsible who surprisingly remain at the club despite disputes over contracts and transfers.
What is more interesting is how Arsenal’s academy system seems to be deemed unaccountable. But could there be a more telling solution to Arsenal’s problems than first considered?
You only have to look as far as the world’s best teams to understand the importance of an academy. Take Barcelona for example. The most widely recognised team whose system works in cooperation with La Masia to produce some of the most technically gifted players the world has seen. Previous graduates have included Carlos Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Pepe Reina, Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and most importantly, Lionel Messi.
You’ll notice a lot of the names on that list and realise that all have featured heavily during Barcelona’s glory years. There’s no coincidence between the two. They integrate youth exceptionally well which is an approach that Real Madrid have tried to replicate also. Lucas Vazquez, Dani Carvajal, Marcos Llorente and Nacho are all part of Real Madrid’s senior squad. And while only one of those four may be a permanent fixture, the others are more than capable in their respective areas of the field and provide the Spanish side with an incredible amount of depth.
This is sadly a depth and outlet that Arsenal possess. Last season, Arsenal topped the list of clubs to give youngsters the most game time. Only Manchester United fielded more academy players than Arsenal. With the Gunners lowest finish on record under Arsene Wenger, it’s difficult to see beyond this current problem.
If we look as recently as Sunday against Chelsea, Alex Iwobi earned himself a start at Stamford Bridge. And while it was a reasonably disciplined performance from him, Wenger seems to have employed a rotation system which will likely see Iwobi absent for the next game. Bellerin has become a mainstay in this team and is a reliable full-back for the club, offering a professional performance on Sunday. Beyond that, Maitland-Niles was the only available youth graduate who never made an appearance from the bench.
You can turn the attention to Chelsea and wag your finger accusatorily at their lack of youth implementation but the two don’t quite compare. Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal since 1996 and has utilised this previously so what seems to be the problem?
Well, notable examples of youth prospects that have failed to breakthrough into the first team picture properly have included Serge Gnabry, Kieran Gibbs, Emmanuel Frimpong, Nicklas Bendtner, Wojciech Szczesny and Hal Robson-Kanu. It’s not unheard of that youth players either aren’t good enough and are sold on or decide to move away to forge a new path for themselves but Arsenal’s list seems to only fall short of Manchester United’s who have arguably the strongest and most prominent academy in the country.
Coquelin, Iwobi and Akpom have enjoyed several chances in the first team but these have often been thwarted, leaving them on the fringes. Cesc Fabregas had plied his trade for Arsenal after being promoted from the youth system but left the club for Barcelona before returning to the Premier League via Chelsea. There’s also a distinct lack of goalkeeper activity through the youth ranks, also.
If you focus your efforts towards what the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool are both doing, you’ll notice the balance that both have managed to achieve. There’s a strong list of players gaining first team football via league and cup competitions as well as a list of loans that will prepare the next wave of talent to breakthrough in years to come.
And while it’s a familiar sight in relation to Klopp, Mourinho was notorious for his lack of activity in this department when managing Chelsea. So, if Mourinho can develop his approach, what does that say? Is this further proof of Wenger being out of touch? Or is it highlighting the quality of the academy at Arsenal?
A guest Post by Jon from missingstudsfootball