Arsenal: Dan Crowley, another one who got away?

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 27: Dan Crowley of Birmingham City during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Birmingham and Brighton and Hove Albion at St Andrews (stadium) on July 27, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 27: Dan Crowley of Birmingham City during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Birmingham and Brighton and Hove Albion at St Andrews (stadium) on July 27, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) /

Unai Emery has made it clear he wants to give Arsenal academy products a chance in the first-team this season. However, these opportunities haven’t always been plentiful, something which has led to stagnation, frustration, and, ultimately, the loss of a lot of talent.

Dan Crowley joined Arsenal from Aston Villa in 2013 at the age of 16, and from the moment he arrived, expectations were high. Praise was heaped upon him during his time in the academy by coaches and players alike, where his diminutive stature and silky style of play earned him comparisons to Jack Wilshere, and with those comparisons came pressure, lots of it.

At first he seemed to be not just handling the hype, but actually justifying it, as after impressing for two seasons in the youth ranks, he earned himself a place on Arsenal’s 2015 preseason tour of Singapore. But unfortunately for Crowley, that year’s Premier League Asia Trophy turned out to be the closest he ever got to the Arsenal first-team.

After that first preseason with the senior side, Crowley, who had barely turned 18, was loaned out to Barnsley, where he initially impressed before being sent back to Arsenal early for behavior problems.

It was the same story when he was sent to Oxford the following season; a promising couple of months canceled out by off-the-field issues. At the time, Crowley was seen as solely liable for these failures, and to an extent, he was, but to say he was entirely to blame is more than a little reductive.

For, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s clear that he just wasn’t ready to go out on loan. He wasn’t ready to have to act as a full professional because he just couldn’t handle the adversity that entailed.

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His whole time at Arsenal he had been told he would be the next big thing, and when he finally experienced any sort of real tribulation, he was unable to deal with it, and he acted childishly. But instead of taking it as a failure of the club to properly judge whether or not Crowley was ready for a loan, nor subsequently prepare him for one, Arsenal labeled him a trouble-maker, a prima donna whose temperament would never fit in North London, and released him in 2017.

I find this course of action by the club to be both entirely rash and entirely understandable, as at a fundamental level, young players and the clubs that employ them have directly conflicting interests.

Young players, in order to reach their full potential, require an abundance of time, patience and faith, something which is entirely incompatible with the priorities of a club such as Arsenal. Clubs like Arsenal are much more focused on the now; they demand reliability and consistency from their players; too much money is at stake to accept anything less.

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That kind of short-termist thinking marginalizes the academy and the players therein, who are oft seen as too volatile to trust. For this reason, little care is put into the way in which academy players are treated or how their talent is developed, which can be of active detriment to a club, as it forces talented players, who not only have the potential to be stars but could contribute in a limited fashion, out the exit door.

And ever since Crowley was released, he’s been doing everything in his power to prove it was the wrong decision. The 2018/2019 season served as something of a statement in that regard, as in the Netherlands, far away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, Crowley was outstanding. He contributed to 12 goals in total, scoring five and setting up a further seven for his teammates, a very solid tally for an attacking midfielder, and one that suggests a multifaceted player who is just as capable of putting the ball in the back of the net as he is at providing his teammates opportunities to do so.

His underlying numbers look quite good too, as in the 2018/2019 season, Crowley was completing 2.3 dribbles to go along with 1.7 chances created, both on a per-match basis. These numbers without context suggest Crowley to be a good player, but when one considers that he put them up at just 21 years of age, for a thoroughly average side in Wilhelm II, it becomes evident that Birmingham, who recently purchased him for £700,000, may have a serious prospect on their hands.

His talents are certainly something Arsenal could use at the moment, as the club isn’t blessed with an overabundance of options at the No. 10 position. Mesut Ozil’s ability seems to be declining rapidly with age; he is coming off of one of the least-productive seasons of his career, both in terms of actual and expected production, registering just five goals and two assists in the Premier League from an xG and xA total of two and four, respectively.

This lack of appreciable production makes it hard to justify his inclusion in a side to which he contributes no off-the-ball running, and to which he is an active liability in both defense and the pressing game. And behind him, judging by how Emery has set the team up in preseason, appears to be Joe Willock, a player whom I admire for his pace and dynamism, but who lacks the creative passing ability to play No. 10 for a club like Arsenal, and is probably best suited for a deeper role.

Given this state of affairs, Crowley would be competing for significant minutes at Arsenal were he still at the club; even if he wasn’t quite ready to start, he would certainly be useful as a reserve.

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But alas, he was not afforded the chance to contribute and the club will likely have to spend money in the near future to sign a player in his position, all because the previous regime didn’t have the foresight to develop the talent they already had under contract. Here’s hoping Unai Emery won’t make the same kind of mistake.