How Arsenal can be less reliant on youth

Written by Eli Haidari

January 19, 2021

The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe in Arsenal’s starting XI over the last few weeks, the ever improving Bukayo Saka and the welcome return of Gabriel Martinelli have bought a desperately needed spark to our attack which has otherwise been alarmingly blunt this season. 

In defence, Gabriel Magalhães and Kieran Tierney have been the stand out performers with consistent, disciplined and vocal displays, with Bernd Leno posing as a vital figure between the sticks, who has saved us on multiple occasions this season and indeed in last year’s campaign. 

With an average age of 21.3 between the six players who are all currently in the starting XI, you would expect a group of players surrounding them who boast that extra bit of quality and experience due to those added years playing at the top of their game in Europe’s most competitive leagues. Notably this level of experience and quality faded towards the end of Arsène Wenger’s tenure but predominantly, he was able to establish a combination of youth and experience throughout the first team squad. 

Upon Cesc Fàbregas’s arrival from Barcelona as a 16 year-old, he was immediately surrounded by title winning quality in the likes of Patrick Viera, Robert Pires, Ray Parlour, Sol Campbell, Gilberto Silva, you get the idea…As he established himself amongst the team, eventually leading to him becoming club captain, he became a key figure for the likes of Jack Wilshire and Aron Ramsey  who they were able to learn from in training and indeed on match day.

The same can be said for Robin Van Persie, who had a certain Thierry Henry to look up to and learn from before the Frenchman headed off to Spain. The Dutchman was then able to provide his experience, and lead by example with his clinical finishing and killer instinct as captain. Our Spanish magician Santi Cazorla brought life to an Arsenal side which was depleted following Fabregas’s departure. His experience playing at the top end of La Liga was vital in the influence he was able to implement and the same could certainly be said for Mesut Ozil after his glamorous move from Real Madrid. Players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were able to flourish, adjusting their games and adapting their style of play. It’s no wonder Klopp was willing to shell out £40 million for the Englishman’s services. 

Fast forward to last Thursday, and our flat display against a resolute Palace side underlined the lack of quality surrounding our youthful players. As brilliant as Saka and Smith Rowe have been in recent weeks, they were stifled out of the game by a stubborn display from the south London side, with the two Hale End graduates limited to brief glimpses of their quality. 

It goes without saying that the pair were quick to shrug off the frustration of Thursday night with influential performances against Newcastle. The two combined brilliantly for Arsenal’s second of the night with a trademark bursting run from Smith Rowe, finished off with an accomplished finish from our number seven, Bukayo Saka. It only reaffirms the fact they are first on Mikel Arteta’s team sheet.    

Nevertheless, games like the ones against Crystal Palace require a moment of magic, whether it’s a killer pass, a clinical finish, a towering header- a moment you can often rely on from a senior figure within the side. Last season, it’s fair to say that Aubameyang provided that throughout the campaign, however, things aren’t quite the same this time round. Last night’s performance would have done the world of good to our main man’s confidence and after a frustrating start to the game, he bagged himself an accomplished brace reminiscent of his brilliant self-last season. Regardless of his temporary dip in form, we should not have been solely relying on Aubameyang’s individual brilliance to bring a silver lining to last season through our FA Cup triumph. This responsibility is something that should be shared throughout the squad, however, with our number 14 still returning to his best, the youth within the team has taken up the responsibility.

In as little as 411 minutes of Premier League football, Emile Smith Rowe has registered three assists and is the clubs highest assist provider in all competitions so far this season with five. He has also registered goals in the FA Cup and the Europa League. His three premier league assists are one higher than the total Ozil managed in 18 appearances last season. Saka has four goals and three assists in all competitions making him second in the assist chart and second overall in goal contributions. The two youngsters stats are superior to Willian’s, Ceballos’s and just short of Pepe’s who were all bought in to elevate the team back into a Champions League side. It is fair to say Willian’s recruitment has so far proved disappointing, with Saka currently preferred on the right win. The Brazilian was once more left on the bench for Palace and Newcastle’s visits to the Emirates. 

There is no question that Ceballos’s work rate is second to none with the Spaniard accumulating the highest number of tackles and interceptions within the squad in the Premier League so far this season. Nevertheless, upon arriving from Real Madrid there were high hopes that Dani would be able to add both  flair and a creative spark to the midfield. Although we are often showed glimpses of this, I think it is fair to say that they have not been as frequent as we would have hoped, and a lack of quality in the final third has resulted in him failing to accumulate as high a goal contribution rate as we would have hoped. 

The final verdict on Pepe remains unclear. Naturally, it was expected that there would need to be a transition period adapting to the Premier League from Ligue 1. However, as we approach the halfway mark of the £70 million man’s second season in England, the pressure is growing. We have seen moments of magic, silky movement and the odd, delightful assist, but we are in urgent need of consistency from our most expensive player. 

Currently, it is our youth leading the way. It is no coincidence that Martinelli was thrust back into the starting XI at the first opportunity. Within two weeks of making his return from a long-term knee injury with his substitute appearance against Everton in the final ten minutes, he went on to start the following three league games before injuring himself in the warm up prior to our FA Cup third round victory against Newcastle. Thankfully, the injury to his ankle was not as severe as initially feared, but it underlined the importance to ease our Brazilian magician back to full fitness before we can be relying on him so frequently. 

Saka, bar Leno, has played the most minutes across all competitions so far this season. There is always the fear of our number seven facing a spell on the side-lines, a thought most fans would not want to contemplate. Unfortunately, he has become such a vital player that we have simply not been able to rest him as much as we would have liked. The experience surrounding him and the likes of Smith Rowe and Martinelli have proven to be below par. The same can be said in defence for Tierney and Gabriel, at the ages of 19 and 23 respectively,  they have immediately been expected to lead the line. The Scotsman’s absence against Palace was telling, with Maitland Niles coming in as a makeshift left back unable to replicate the bursting runs and deadly crosses we have become accustomed to from the former Celtic man. He provided a welcome return against Newcastle with a typically reassured performance. 

Of course, it is unlikely that we are immediately going to be able to lure a world class centre-back or midfielder to the Emirates, but a statement of intent needs to be made. Someone who possesses that flair, leadership and ability to turn out consistent performances week in and week out. Sabitzer and Aouar in midfield for me, most certainly reflect these traits. Both individuals frequently captain their sides and have put in a series of eye catching performances in the Champions League. Sabitzer was the key man, influencing the midfield as Leipzig sent Manchester United crashing out of Europe’s top flight competition in the group stages this year. Aoura’s performance in last year’s semi-final resulted in high praise from Kevin De Bruyne who held him responsible for their elimination from the competition.  

Arsenal fans are right to feel optimistic about the promising, youthful players who have emerged through the ranks as well as the ones who have been effectively recruited. However, they need both protection and to be surrounded with quality and individuals who are able to lead the team. Our next six games present a stern test with us facing Southampton, Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds and Manchester City. The protection of our youthful players during this period is vital, as the level of intensity and physical demands of the higher calibre teams will be telling. Our recruitment of experienced players in recent years has proved largely ineffective. To nurture our rising stars, and aid their development, Edu and Arteta are faced with a crucial transfer window. 

Photo: ArsenalTVHD



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