Monday, 23 April 2018

Why Arsene Wenger's successor must reap the rewards of Arsenal's academy

One of the few moments of revelation in a press conference where he kept his cards firmly by his chest came when Ivan Gazidisrevealed the criteria for Arsene Wenger’s successor.

Whoever should take on the mantle ofArsenal manager must continue with “the football values Arsene has instilled in the club”; that is playing football of the “exciting, progressive” variety.

But after pointing out the great importance of finding a manager who can represent the club in the same way Wenger did, the criterion Gazidis seemed to be at greatest pains to note was a commitment to developing youngsters.

The chief executive said: “Our academy teams are doing extremely well and under the radar we have got a lot of players coming through into our first team, not just ones that you already know about but the next generation as well.”

His timing was auspicious. Mere hours later an Under-23s side led by Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah were claiming what might well be the club’s only piece of silverware this season, the Premier League 2 crown.

Arsenal young guns - Arsene Wenger's bright prospects

1/10 Reiss Nelson The jewel in the crown, and perhaps the most exciting prospect to emerge from Hale End since Jack Wilshere. Having spent much of last season eviscerating his contemporaries in Premier League 2, his promotion to the first team - where he is viewed as the likely successor to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - has been inevitable for some time. Naturally an attacking winger, Wenger’s pet project may well be converting Nelson into a buccaneering right wing-back, having played him in that position both in pre-season games as well as Europa League and EFL Cup ties.

2/10 Eddie Nketiah A goal machine at youth level, Nketiah faces as tough a challenge as any youngster in finding any significant opportunities in Wenger’s overloaded frontline. But with 27 goals in 39 youth games, he is making a convincing case. Once of Chelsea, Nketiah is now an increasingly familiar name on the Arsenal bench and has caught Wenger’s eye. The coach said of Nketiah: "I like the quality of Eddie’s movement, the quality of the areas he gets into, his strength, his determination to finish things off and his work rate as well.

3/10 Joe Willock The last of the Willock clan left at Arsenal, with Matty having joined Manchester United in 2012 and the highly-rated Chris having been nabbed by Benfica on a free transfer this summer. A rangy midfielder capable of pushing play forward from deep midfield, his growing prominence was reflected in Wenger’s decision to name Willock, and not Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, alongside Aaron Ramsey in the Emirates Cup.

4/10 Josh DaSilva Another from a family of bright youngsters - brother Jay is on Chelsea’s books - Josh made his Arsenal debut in the EFL Cup third-round win over Doncaster. After some initial struggles against the League One opponents, DaSilva settled in alongside Per Mertesacker. Those difficulties may partly be down to the fact DaSilva is more naturally a deep midfielder, but his versatility will doubtless be popular with Wenger, who has taken a shine to Ainsley Maitland-Niles for similar reasons.

5/10 Vlad Dragomir Arsenal had to beat the likes of Inter Milan and Monaco to secure the signature of the Romanian Under-16 captain in a £100,000 move from Timisoara in the summer of 2015, Since then the 18-year-old has advanced to his nation’s U21 side. Dragomir has compared himself to Toni Kroos and certainly is blessed with exceptional vision. However the youngster is a more natural fit behind a central striker… maybe he should be looking to replace Mesut Ozil instead?

6/10 Charlie Gilmour Part of the Arsenal setup since the age of six, Scottish youth international Gilmour is another natural central midfielder who is inspired by one of the greats in his position. "I use both feet and am developing my skills with Santi [Cazorla] as a model," he said. "Santi has such quick feet and can go in any direction - that’s why opponents don’t know what he’s going to do. "Santi has so much footballing talent but he also has the talent to use it. He gives everything for every minute of every game. That’s why I admire him so much."

7/10 Matt Macey Macey first appeared in Arsenal squads as early as November 2014 and has spent time on loan at Accrington Stanley, Bristol Rovers and Luton Town, for whom he made 11 appearances. The 6ft 7in keeper is established as Arsenal’s third-choice goalkeeper with Emiliano Martinez out on loan, though he is unlikely to be given many opportunities unless Petr Cech and David Ospina are injured.

8/10 Xavier Amaechi Amaechi signed his first professional contract at the soonest possible moment, his 17th birthday, proof of the regard in which he is held at Hale End. The winger is blessed with explosive pace to rival the likes of Hector Bellerin and has shown he is no slouch in front of goal, scoring a stunning strike in a win against Tottenham U18s in November 2017.

9/10 Tyreece John-Jules John-Jules played a starring role in Arsenal's run to the 2018 FA Youth Cup Final, scoring in the semi-finals, quarters and round of 16. The youngster grew up idolising Thierry Henry and briefly worked alongside his hero in the Arsenal youth setup, seemingly learning how to finish instinctively from the master.

10/10 Emile Smith-Rowe Part of the England Under-17 side that won the World Cup in India Smith-Rowe has established himself as another star in the making since his move infield to play in the centre of the Arsenal youth sides. His magnificent ball control was on display in an FA Youth Cup semi-final win over Blackpool, when he beat six defenders on a run from his own half only to be denied a brilliant goal when he was fouled for a penalty he subsequently scored.

Though the Holloway Road probably won’t need to enter parade mode to celebrate this particular title, it is an impressive achievement which Gazidis probably aided in flying “under the radar” by beginning his press conference just two hours before Steve Gatting’s side took to the field in the London Stadium.

First-half goals from Nelson and Nketiah set Arsenal on course for a 3-1 win, the latter adding a goal in the second half before Domingos Quina netted a consolation for West Ham. It was a victory they dedicated to Arsenal’s outgoing manager.

Premier League managers pay tribute to Wenger

Romanian midfielder Vlad Dragomir said: “We had to make sure we won the game and won the league because everyone has been working very hard this season and we really deserve this.

“The manager [Wenger] has helped me a lot. Whenever he’s talking about football, I like to follow him and just get his ideas because he’s a legend and I respect him a lot. He’s done a lot for this club and for me as well.”

The Premier League 2 may not be the sort of competitive environment that Spanish and Portuguese youngsters benefit from in countries where top clubs B teams face grizzled senior professionals in the lower leagues, but winning it is clearly a mark of quality for a youth setup.

Last season Everton claimed the crown before a clutch of their youngsters went on to play a decisive role in England winning the Under-20 World Cup. The Manchester United side that won it the year before included a certain Marcus Rashford.

Arsenal’s title triumph is all the more impressive given that when the Red Devils were lifting that crown, the Gunners were in the process of earning promotion into the top flight of the Premier League 2 via the play-offs after several seasons in which the stellar production line from Hale End to Wenger’s squad had, Alex Iwobi aside, stalled.

Now the future looks bright indeed. Nelson, Nketiah, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are regulars around the first team squad, and sooner rather than later all four will have put pen to paper on long-term contracts.

The only thing that might stop them from making a major impact on the first team is the cavalcade of youngsters coming up behind them. Kwame Ampadu’s U18s reached the FA Youth Cup Final for the first time in nine years on Monday and have a host of bright prospects in their ranks, most notably Xavier Amaechi, Emile Smith-Rowe and Tyreece John-Jules.

In Pictures | Arsenal Under-18s vs Blackpool | 16/04/2018

1/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal breaks past Finlay Sinclair-Smith of Blackpool during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

2/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Emile Smith Rowe scores Arsenal's 4th goal from the penalty spot during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

3/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: James Olayinka of Arsenal takes on Rowan Roache of Blackpool during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

4/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun celebrates scoring Arsenal's 1st goal during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

5/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun scores Arsenal's 1st goal during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

6/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun celebrates scoring Arsenal's 1st goal during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

7/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Robbie Burton scores the 3rd Arsenal goal from outside the penalty area during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

8/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun celebrates scoring Arsenal's 1st goal during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

9/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun celebrates scoring Arsenal's 1st goal during the match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

10/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Captain Danny Bullard of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his sides second goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

11/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Robbie Burton of Arsenal celebrates with Danny Bullard of Arsenal after he scores his sides third goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

12/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Flo Balogun celebrates scoring the 1st Arsenal goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

13/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Robbie Burton of Arsenal celebrates with Danny Bullard of Arsenal after he scores his sides third goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

14/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Emile Smith Rowe shoots past Blackpool goalkeeper Craig Thordason from the penalty spot to score the 4th Arsenal goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

15/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal celebrates after he scores his sides fourth goal from the penalty spot during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

16/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Danny Ballard heads past Blackpool keeper Craig Thordason to score the 2nd Arsenal goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

17/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Emile Smith Rowe shoots past Blackpool goalkeeper Craig Thordason from the penalty spot to score the 4th Arsenal goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg match between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

18/18 LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Xavier Amaechi of Arsenal and Jack Newton of Blackpool in action during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg between Arsenal and Blackpool at Emirates Stadium on April 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

The challenge for Gazidis is finding a manager that can tap into the rich vein of youngsters bubbling up at Arsenal while pushing the first team to compete for the Premier League title.

A commitment to youth may serve to enhance the candidacy of Leonardo Jardim - who it is understood would be keen to discuss the vacancy should Arsenal approach him - whose Monaco side has been the envy of Europe in recent years for blooding the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva and winning the Ligue 1 title in 2017.

Similarly Patrick Vieira at New York City FC and Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers have proven to be willing to invest their energies in prospects for the future.

Possible New Arsenal Manager Candidates - In pictures

1/13 Patrick Vieira

2/13 Carlo Ancelotti

3/13 Thomas Tuchel

13/13 Leonardo Jardim

5/13 Brendan Rodgers

6/13 Mikel Arteta

7/13 Joachim Loew

8/13 Thierry Henry

9/13 Lucien Favre

10/13 Diego Simeone

11/13 Rafael Benitez

12/13 Sean Dyche

4/13 Massimiliano Allegri

Whether they have the gravitas of a Carlo Ancelotti is up for debate and after 22 years in which no-one at Arsenal has had to appoint a manager, it would be quite understandable if those charged with finding Wenger’s replacement opt for a successor who has already navigated the fraught waters around Europe’s elite.

So while it may not be the decisive factor in finding Wenger’s successor, Gazidis is right to expect any c

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