‘The Kids Are Alright’ - Arsenal’s focus on youth provides Gunners with foundation for success
By Sam Houston
In August of 1995, following a Manchester United loss on the opening day of the season, Alan Hansen uttered the now-infamous words “you can’t win anything with kids” referring to a particularly youthful United side; Manchester United then won everything… with those kids. In the 26 years that have passed since that comment, numerous sides have since set out to prove to Hansen that age or experience doesn’t necessarily translate to goals and points; the latest club to clearly focus themselves on the scouting, acquisition and development of Premier League-ready youngsters is Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Both the playing time that’s been allocated to young players and the youth-focused transfer strategy of the club have made it blatantly obvious that manager Arteta and technical director Edu believe the focus for the Gunners should be on those of the next generation, with potential favoured over reputation.
The performances of Emile Smith-Rowe, 21, over the last 12 months have transformed him from bit-part squad player, relegated to Carabao Cup appearances and 10-minute league cameos, to the beating heart of this Arsenal team, a player who is consistently winning games single-handedly and a now a fully-fledged senior England international. Bukayo Saka may have had a season that has, so far, not lived up to the lofty expectations that was set for him following his standout 2020/2021 season, but a masterclass against North London rivals Spurs and a deadlock-breaking finish against Newcastle have gone far to prove that the 20-year-old is far more than any penalty miss or bad run of form would indicate.
Both Saka and the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ may attract headlines and national team call ups, but throughout the Gunners team there is reminders of the focus on youth that Arteta has instilled into the Arsenal set-up; Ainsley Maitland-Niles, 24, has worked himself back into consideration after a tough six months with relegated West Brom, with the Arsenal Academy graduate picking up the man of the match award for his performance in the midfield against Watford; elsewhere Gabriel Martinelli, 20, Kieran Tierney, 24, and Gabriel Magalhães, 23, amongst others, have paired excellently with the now-infrequent ‘older heads’ and the youth-dominated new signings.
Arsenal’s Hale End academy has produced three previously named England internationals, along with other top-flight regulars such as Joe Willock, Alex Iwobi, Serge Gnabry and Donyell Malen, all in recent years; however, despite this success, it is unreasonable to ask any academy in the world to produce a full Premier League-quality side at the same time. It is in the transfer market that Arsenal have truly established themselves as a team that is simultaneously designed to grow and develop high-potential players for the future whilst also being at a level that can compete with the top teams immediately. The signings Arsenal have made over the last transfer window have greatly improved the team today, with five of the six playing in 10 Premier League games so far this season, whilst also looking to the future, as none of the six is older than 24.
Some of Arsenal’s transfer dealings this summer, arguably the majority, faced major scrutiny from supporters and pundits especially concerning their price tag; those same concerns have not continued as the season has progressed, as standout performers such as Aaron Ramsdale, 23, and Takehiro Tomiyasu, also 23, have more than justified their transfer fees. Whilst £159 million may have appeared a lofty sum for Tomiyasu, Ramsdale, Tavares (21), Ødegaard (22), Lokonga (22) and White (24) only a few months ago, it may quickly seem to be a bargain.
Arsenal may not win a title this season (however you can never count Arsenal out of a cup), any success they have will be down to those ‘kids’, not in spite of them. Arsenal fielded a side against Newcastle that featured nine starters that were 24 or under, with Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the only ‘veterans’; for context, the side that Alan Hansen said those famous words about started five players of 24-years-old or under in that game. Only time may tell the fates of the young individuals that fill the Gunners’ squad, but it is their presence and their quantity within that squad that displays that Arsenal are going in the right direction when it comes to the culture around the club.