The Arsenal youth in good health

Earlier in the week I blogged about the crisis Arsenal are facing at U23 level with goalkeepers.

One response to the blog was “that sums up Arsenal’s academy, it has stood still for a decade”. This opinion is completely wrong, outdated, and shows that the Tweeter in question has no idea about the you set up.

Had the comment been made 5 years ago, I would have agreed. But a lot has happened since then.

In 2013, our academy (which is U9s to U16s) was in a state of decline, to the point where it was in danger of nearly losing its elite academy status. A decision was made to part ways with Arsenal legend Liam Brady who had been Head of Youth Development and Academy Director since 1996. Brady would leave his role as Director of the Arsenal Youth Academy in May 2014.

Andries Jonker was then announced as the new academy manager, with a remit that he was to completely modernise and revolutionise the academy, bringing it back up to the minimum standard -it was a similar job to what he had done with the Dutch set up in the late 80s

It was never going to be an overnight success.

Many of the older players – the likes of Chuba Akpom – were already well integrated in the system, already been let down.

What was important was that we did not lose the next generation of Arsenal superstars. Those who, in 2014, were 12 or 13; still making their way, finding their feet, developing.

Whilst Jonker left the club in 2017, we are beginning to see the fruits of his – and others – labour.

Firstly we have Alex Iwobi. It is easy to forget that he is an academy graduate at times.

Still just 22, he has had a very good start to this season.

Whilst there is a debate whether he is good enough to start week in week out or not, it is clear that he is a very strong squad player.

Iwobi is the reason I hate the “non Englishman” stories that the press put out. You know the ones. Where the media highlight how many games Arsenal have played without someone English.

But Iwobi is English. And Nigerian.

He came to England at 3 years old and played for England up until U18 level. Just because he then decided to play for the country of his birth, it does not make him “non English”. Just like Raheem Sterling – who came to England at 5 years – is as much Jamaican as he is English.

Iwobi has already played over 100 games for Arsenal.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles is next up.

40 games for the Arsenal first team, that would have been more had he not broken his leg at the beginning of the season.

He has a future at Arsenal as a utility man – competent enough to cover central midfield, both full back positions and on the wing. He should look at James Milner and understand that being a jack of all trades can be valuable with restricted squad numbers at both club and country level.

One man doing bits abroad at the moment is Reiss Nelson.

The 18-year-old has recently spoken about wanting to become an Arsenal legend. Out of all our youth prospects coming through, he is most likely to become a first team regular over a long period. He is a superstar in the making.

Expect him to return from German next summer and go straight into the Arsenal first team.

Whilst Nelson opted for a move abroad, Emile Smith Rowe decided to stay at home, turning down loan offers.

He has been rewarded with starts in both the Europa League and League Cup, scoring twice in 5 games, becoming the first player born after 200 to score for Arsenal.

I would not be surprised to see him go out on loan for the second half of the season – Ray Parlour has recently spoken about Thierry Henry’s Monaco being interested.

Smith Rowe is one reason the club decided to take Aaron Ramsey’s contract off the table.

One who has struggled to break through this season – but is clearly a talent – is Eddie Nketiah.

His lack of game time in the first team has been slightly detrimental to his future but with Danny Welbeck now out injured, he should get his chances in the cup competitions.

He can count himself unlucky not to have played in the last 2 cup games.

Nketiah would have played some part in the League Cup game against Blackpool, but Matteo Guendouzi’s red card put paid to that. He was also set to come on in the Europa League before the injury to Welbeck.

It is clear that Nketiah is too good for youth team level, he is just finding it hard to get near the first team with Alexandre Lacazette & Pierre Emerick Aubameyang ahead of him.

Coming up behind these players who are in and around the first team, we also have some exciting players in the youth teams.

Xavier Amaechi is certainly a name to keep an eye out for.

and some have claimed that he is the quickest player at the club. Currently injured, he has a big future, with some claiming that he is already the quickest player at the club.

Just 17, expect him next summer to go on the summer tour and be on the bench for the League Cup games.

Coming up behind Amaechi is Bukayo Saka, who has only just turned 17. The youngster has taken advantage of his older team mates injury to cement a place in Arsenal’s U23s. He has also appeared for England U19s.

Saka is perhaps a year behind Amaechi in terms of development. Despite both being born in 2001 (how old does that make you feel?), they fall into different English school years. That does have an affect on development and when they could start playing more competitive football.

I expect Saka to continue his development and we will see more of him in the summer of 2020, before he pushes into the first team in 2021.

That might seem a long time away, but Saka will still just be 19 when the 2021/22 season starts!

Tyreece John-Jules is the 3rd of a trio of 17-year-olds currently making a name for himself at youth level with two goals in the EFL Trophy. During the recent international break, he was on fire for England U18s.

Last season we made the FA Youth Cup Final for the first time since 2009 (the Jack Wilshere team). We were also crowned Champions in the Premier League 2 (the U23 league) and our U18 team came second in the Southern Division (behind Chelsea).

This season we top the Southern Division of the U18 league and are in the race for a 2nd Premier League 2 title. Our performances in the U23 PL2 have been exceptional considering that the majority of players are U20. We are also through to the knock-out stages of the EFL Trophy.

Our academy is certainly not “standing still”.

One issue is people look at the Barcelona team of the 00s, the Manchester United Class of 92, Arsenal’s 89 title winning team, and see that volume of youngster as a sign of a successful academy.

These eras are a once in a life time – just look at Manchester United, they have not exactly been blessed with talent since 1992; Kieran Richardson, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Jesse Lingaard & Marcus Rashford. None are fit to polish the boots of the 92 lads, and that is all that has come through in the last 25 years.

IvaLast year Ivan Gazidis publicly stated that he wanted to see one player progressing from the youth academy into the first team squad every season, with a future target of two players a seasons.

This is a similar soft target that they use in Germany football, where clubs try and introduce two players into the first team squad every year; and develop one first team regular every 5 years.

This should be a minimum target for a successful academy.

Arsenal have a pipeline of players coming through. They might not all make it at Arsenal, some might become squad players (like Iwobi and Maitland-Niles), others might become the next superstar, the next Raheem Sterling or Ray Parlour.

Another positive is that the club have “gone young and Arsenal” with the academy set up – with the likes of Per Mertesacker, Freddie Ljungberg, Ryan Garry and Greg Lincoln all holding significant management roles within the set up.

For anyone wanting to keep more up to date with our youngsters, and how they are getting on, firstly follow the JW Diaries and make Jeorge Bird’s Arsenal Youth Blog a regular read. Both are also well worth a follow:


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