There has been much speculation about Arsene Wenger’s future as Arsenal manager of late and when the Frenchman’s tenure comes to an end, whether this summer or at a later date, his tendency to give opportunities to young players will be looked back upon as one of the key elements of his time in charge.
Wenger has given debuts to a horde of players, some of whom made just a solitary appearance for the first-team, while others, such as Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Hector Bellerin, Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi and Kieran Gibbs became much more frequently involved.
All of Arsenal’s academy sides are schooled in playing Wenger’s preferred method of pass and move football, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why the majority of the best talents to emerge from the club’s Hale End system are attacking midfielders or wingers rather than centre-backs.
Although Wenger hasn’t relied on youth quite so heavily in recent seasons – certainly not as much as in the Carling Cup days of yore – he still seeks to involve youngsters in the first-team set-up when the opportunity arises; witness Iwobi’s breakthrough last season and the frequent participation of prospects in training sessions with the senior squad.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is now on the cusp of the firs-team and many youngsters decide to join Arsenal because of Wenger’s reputation for developing players.
It is worth remembering, however, that the strength of Arsenal’s youth system pre-dates Wenger, with some of the most decorated figures in the club’s history such as Pat Rice, David Rocastle and Tony Adams having worked their way through the ranks.
Arsenal’s youth system will continue after Wenger has left, too. There is much good work taking place at Hale End, while with regards to the youngsters already at London Colney, Reiss Nelson and Trae Coyle offer the most hope from the new generation.
Regardless of who succeeds Wenger, there should be an onus to give the very best of Arsenal’s youngsters a chance to make the grade.
At Manchester United, a club with fine traditions of promoting from within, Jose Mourinho, a manager previously renowned for being hugely reluctant to call upon youth, has given debuts to Axel Tuanzebe and Joel Pereira this season, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah has also been involved with the squad and Marcus Rashford remains an important player.
Arsenal must ensure that their youth academy values aren’t lost when Wenger departs, especially at a time when some technically gifted starlets are on the way up.