With Roy Hodgson bemoaning the lack of English players available to him as he attempts to, where so many others have failed before him, turn England into a major force on the international stage, assistance is coming in the most unlikeliest of forms, Arsenal and their connoisseur of foreign talent, coach Arsene Wenger.
After supporters used the recent AGM to voice concerns towards chief executive Ivan Gazidis and Wenger himself over a transfer policy that has seen a line of high profile player departures in recent years, most recently Robin Van Persie, and a run of patchy form leaving the Gunners 6th in the Premier League after 13 games, already a full ten points behind leaders Manchester United.
These seem to be times of unrest for Arsenal fans, who, as they made clear in sections at Villa Park on Saturday evening, “want their Arsenal back”.
The Arsenal that unsettled supporters are referring to are of course the behemoth of eight years ago that went a whole season unbeaten and a year later won the FA Cup which turned out to be their last trophy to date. Such a barren run is repeatedly held against Wenger but dig deeper and things at the Emirates aren’t actually that bad. Consider qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League for the 15th consecutive year and a fresh influx of sponsorship money coming from another bumper deal with their middle eastern associates and the picture suddenly becomes rosier.
That is before you factor in a bright crop of players that promise to take Arsenal into a new era where success, as Wenger has maintained all along, may not be too far away. Jack Wilshere, billed as the great hope for both his club and country, has returned from a 15 month injury lay-off while Keiran Gibbs has developed into a brilliant left-back following the departure of Gael Clichy to Manchester City. Theo Walcott is Wenger’s top scorer this season with 9, whilst 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has progressed by a fair rate of knots, now an integral member not only his club, but his country too.
Add Carl Jenkinson to the mix, the 20 year old right-back who started opposite Gibbs at Aston Villa on Saturday and recently receiver of a call-up to Hodgson’s friendly squad, and you get five first team players available to Wenger who are all under the age of 24. If that is not unusual enough in the modern game dominated by big-money foreign imports, they are all English. Welshman Aaron Ramsey, at the age of 21, is also challenging for a spot in Wenger’s side that is, to much surprise, developing a British core.
This is a far cry from Wenger’s teams of recent past that have been heavily influenced, with the likes Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Sylvian Wiltord, Nicolas Anelka and Robert Pires, by his native France. As recently as 2010, foreign players accounted for 93% of playing team in Arsenal’s season and back in 2005, Arsenal became just the second Premier League team to name a first eleven devoid of an Englishman player.
It is ironic that Wenger played a huge part in pioneering the domestic game’s shift to embrace overseas talent, that has hit extreme lows this season with just 66 English-qualified players out of a total of 198 starting in the Premier League the weekend before England’s qualifier against Ukraine, and now, with Emmanuel Frimpong, Craig Eastmond, Conor Henderson, Benik Afobe and Sanchez Watt all English talents learning their trade out on loan, the Frenchman is attempting to lead it back a production of homegrown crop. This is also not to mention Nico Yennaris, a 19 year old right-sided player, who has been given first team action for Arsenal as well as representing England at every level up to the under-19s.
There is more to come too, striker Chuba Akbom’s form for the under-21s has seen him receive a call up to the England under-19 team at the age of 16, Jack Jebb is a highly spoke of attacking midfielder at Arsenal’s Hale academy while Isaac Hayden displays composure and intelligence as a ball-playing centre half or a deep-lying centre midfielder in Arsenal’s under 18 team. It is that under-18 side that started the year containing a make-up of entirely England-legible players all hoping to become the latest talent to make the move from Hale to the first team training ground in Colney.
Perhaps Wenger’s intent all along was to integrate more English players into his senior ranks, he speaks often about his idyll of a 60-40 ratio, and with the academy now starting to produce with the blueprint being Wilshere, the outlook is beginning to look very clear for Arsenal. With Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Gibbs and Jenkinson all training with the superbly talented Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Mikel Arteta, the outlook maybe beginning to look clear for Roy Hodgson too.