A banter era line up winning us a game 5-0, yes that is the reality of supporting the Arsenal in 2017 and how happy we all are that this is the case. Three double-barrelled young guns in the midfield slots combined with two returning heroes on the wings and an oft forgotten/neglected Spaniard in the number nine role. You would wish this could happen every week, alas it cannot. While everybody else celebrates a well played win, I would like to draw some attention to the transformation at youth level we have been seeing in recent years.
A midfield two involving the Ox and Maitland-Niles was interesting to say the least and add to that the fact that Arsene played the Jeff in the Ozil role in the 4th round of the FA Cup, a competition that has been important to us in the past few years having won it in 2014/15 and 2013/14. This speaks to massive faith from the manager in the abilities of the aforementioned players in their respective positions, and to be fair Arsene has said for a while now that the Ox has a future in the middle of the park. The Jeff has also received glowing reviews on ability from the boss and fans tend to discount that fact because Arsene is a great orator and his vocabulary is rarely far from using spectacular words to explain minor details.
However on Saturday we saw what he means when he says that the young ones are special and doing well. JRA bossed the game, Maitland-Niles had a good game by any standards and the Ox showed us glimpses of the Pirlo hiding in his right peg.
This brings me neatly to the academy and the behind the scenes work put in by Wenger’s team. It is infuriating to me to see that we as fans tend to rave about Pep Guardiola switching players from their positions and working wonders. The total football concept has been blown so far by Guardiola himself that his team is now facing the repercussions of it. It is all very well and good switching Philipp Lahm to CDM because he is one of the most intelligent footballers the game has seen in quite a while and his reading of the game is supreme. However when he has tried to do that with players of a slightly lesser standard it has failed and spectacularly so, resulting in Mad Hatter like interviews after matches.
The myth of Guardiola is on the wane in my opinion. Even though he is unfairly treated by the media who see him as some sort of greater than England figure, a feeling that they try to put down all the time. At least they pick up on his tactical switches and his constant tampering with the very fabric of a formation in the game. When it comes to Arsenal of course, every failure is amplified and every success muted as low as possible.
Arsene Wenger has made it a point to mould players into positions and teach them a vibrant array of skillsets so that they can play in various positions in the U-18s and the U-23s. You cannot say otherwise because it is very clear that there is a clean and open line of communication between the academy coaches and the backroom staff in the first team. How else would you explain the likes of Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi? How would you explain the Jeff and Maitland-Niles, who on his debut played as a RB and on Saturday as a CM against an established Premier League side no less. You can joke however much you want about them being Southampton’s B team and what not, but do take that argument with a bit of salt. The Southampton B team from 2011/12 for example is now running the likes of Liverpool who buy up these very players.
Coming back to the inventiveness of coaching in the game, Arsene Wenger revolutionised English football in a way that nobody else did. The media are loathe to admit he did it once and they are nowhere near admitting that he has been doing it on and off for quite a while now. The big youth project may have failed or been shelved depending on who you talk to, but the truth is that we just did not need to bet on youth after a certain point of time.
Now that we are stable and rising we are giving chance to youth just like the other top teams in the division used to do. Look over at United, they always seem to have a youth team player breaking in and even now in the age of Mourinho. That is how a tradition of youth is cultivated, not by 11 youth players on the pitch. It is cultivated steadily, like when Iwobi got his chance. The team was full of experience, there was no place to cut out other than the left wing and Iwobi was allowed the opportunity to do that. And he kept doing it so that other people did not get a chance. That is what a youth player needs from the manager and the team, a lifeline of support to fall back upon and not a truckload of expectations from the fans as well as the team because a young lad will not used to that sort of pressure. Play Iwobi in 2007/08 after our title challenge got derailed and I bet he sinks like a rock in a team that was shattered.Looking at the development of youngsters and reading interviews on Arsenal.com one really gets the sense that in some ways Andries Jonker has been reworking the academy set up to reflect the structure and playing style of the AFC first team. That is essential so that kids progressing through each and every age group at the club are used to the playing style of the team they are eventually looking to break into. With this familiarity, changing or upgrading age groups is easier for the kids and especially for those who have a greater sensitivity to the mental and tactical side of the game. This is obviously not a shot in the dark, it has come about from a concentrated and concerted effort on the part of the management to send a message through the ranks to bring up our lads in the Arsenal way, something which is now recognised the world over.
Where does that message come from, do you think? That message should come, and indeed must have come from Arsene Wenger. Remember this is the man who sold Nicolas Anelka for 23.5 million and used that money to buy Thierry Henry and build the club spanking new facilities. The first half of that money was obviously well spent as Henry went on to become a club legend.
We are now beginning to see reasons as to why the other half of that money was spent even better, because players like the Jeff, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Vlad Dragomir etc are being brought up in the Arsenal way of life and football in the academy now. Look at where they come from, Niles is Arsenal through and through having joined the academy at 6 years of age. The Jeff joined at 16 I believe from France. Vlad Dragomir joined around that age as well from Romania. Do you see any similarities cropping up between the legend of Guardiola and this set up here? No? Let me explain.
When Johan Cruyff re-joined Barcelona as manager in 1988 after a stellar playing career that included a stint at the club, he was about to transform the club. Approximately 20 years later Pep Guardiola replaced Frank Rijkard as manager and went on to build perhaps the greatest club side in football history. His side featured players from the academy and that meant players brought up the Barca way, and this is the single most meaningful reason as to why Lionel Messi is still at Barcelona. People would say it is because of the trophies but that is secondary, Messi has been raised in the house that Johan Cruyff built and he has a sense of belonging because of it. Because it represents an idea and not a nation or a state, because Messi as we all know is an Argentine and has nothing to do with Barcelona or the freedom movement over there.
Arsene started off our transformation in 1996 and ignited the murmurs into a full blown revolution in 1998. Perhaps he will go away in the summer or maybe not, perhaps he will stay on for a couple of more years. The only thing anybody can definitively say on the matter is that he will not be able to reap the fruits of the trees he himself has sown. He has always known this and he has come to accept that fact very clearly in recent times, stating publicly his intention to leave behind a platform of success for his successor in the hot seat at Arsenal. How apt then, that he should leave behind a youth academy pumping out its own and able to compete with the best. How poignant that as he winds up his time here there are people just about starting out because of him and his influence and belief.
This may well be his last year as manager, an idea that I am still getting used to, but his legacy will live on. Its people have been picked and moulded to perfection in the image of his ideas about beauty in sport and honesty in competition. His contributions to this club will echo through space and time when the Iwobi’s and the Jeff’s of the future make their debuts for the club after passing through London Colney. When they go on to break the records set by many of Wenger’s signings like Henry, people will say that they are leaving Wenger behind. No they are not. The infrastructure – monetary, physical and intellectual that he leaves behind will serve Arsenal well for the next couple of generations at the least.
And he isn’t going anywhere far either, as he says so happily when asked about plans after retirement.
“I will buy a season ticket and wear red and white on a Saturday and hope that Arsenal win!”
The Emirates Stadium is the house that Arsene Wenger built, and we would do well to remember that when he goes. One Arsene Wenger.