Arsenal must change the definition of a successful Hale End academy graduate.
After securing a 14th FA Cup trophy in the club’s history, Arsenal seemed poised to push on and improve upon a torrid 2019-2020 season. Unfortunately, the frailties and deficiencies throughout the organization, from the playing staff and up to the executive level, could not be glossed over with a trophy and enthused atmosphere during the summer.
The current campaign has been wrought with its own challenges but one silver lining that fans can cling to is the impressive development of the youth prospects.
Relatively inexperienced himself, Mikel Arteta seemed to lean on experienced players throughout the early stages of the season. The manager customarily turned to new signing Willian to fill the team’s creative void and bring an end to Arsenal’s attacking issues. The Brazilian has fallen well short during his brief Gunners tenure and just as Arteta seemed to be running out of rope, the club’s Hale End contingent threw him a lifeline.
While Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, and Joe Willock have all impressed in flashes periodically under Arteta, it is the duo of Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka that has truly stood head and shoulders above the rest.
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Indeed, Saka continues to underline his immense talent with a slew of sterling performances on the right-wing and the silky Smith Rowe has revitalized the starting XI playing as the new No. 10.
There is no denying that these two players, especially Saka, embody the future of Arsenal Football Club. However, that is not to say that their other Hale End alumni should be deemed failures by supporters. In fact, it is crucial that we begin to view what a successful youth prospect really means for the club.
Not every player will have the versatility and precocious talent that Saka possesses. Neither will there be many players with Smith Rowe’s perseverance to fight through injury. These two youngsters are distinguishing themselves as truly exceptional talents but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the value of a Willock, Nelson or a Nketiah.
There seems to be an odd trend among Arsenal fans to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because a player isn’t quite ready to break into the starting XI does not mean they should be summarily cast aside.
In fact, this is exactly one of the biggest issues that fans have bemoaned about the club for years: Arsenal is a very poor selling club, with players often departing for nothing or close to it on a regular basis.
In the current market, especially with Brexit taking effect, young English players are garnering eye-watering transfer fees. Taking the time to develop and guide these youngsters is perhaps the best way that a club like Arsenal can balance the books. This isn’t to be cold or thoughtless, but players like Alex Iwobi and Serge Gnabry should serve as a guide.
Both players came through the ranks at a very young age, and while one of these players has gone on to hit massive heights and the other hasn’t quite matched that success, both have moved on to solidify careers at top clubs.
Some will view Iwobi as a flop for not making it at Arsenal but at the moment he is playing somewhat regularly for an Everton team that currently sits above the Gunners, tied for points with fourth-place Sp*rs.
If Arsenal is going to pull itself out of mediocrity and back up to Champions League heights then a serious examination of our youth philosophy needs to be had. Not every player will make it at the club and that is fine.
It’s imperative that their development, confidence, and values are kept intact, however. Players like Folarin Balogun, Miguel Azeez, and Ben Cottrell are also waiting in line to fill those positions as time marches forward as well. Creating a seamless and organized progression of youth prospects is of paramount importance.
Perhaps as fans, we view success simply as ‘making it’ at Arsenal, but we need to amend that definition and lean into the club’s strengths to begin the hard work of resurrection.