48 players have represented the Arsenal first-team having graduated from the club’s Academy system since its inception in 1998, and that figure could well pass half a century when Shrewsbury Town visit North London in the Carling Cup later this month, but, upon closer analysis, the number of those products who have gone on to carve out a long-term career at the club is comparatively small.
To date, only four players, Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Nicklas Bendtner and Johan Djourou, have gone on to make in excess of 100 appearances for the club having come through the Academy, whilst the latter pair join Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs as the only current members of the first-team squad to have progressed through the system.
Of course, it is never going to be the case that a large proportion of youngsters will make the grade at the club, with new signings, injuries, and in some cases a lack of ability or determination proving stumbling blocks. On some occasions, however, players who seemed destined for a prolonged stint in the first-team end up faring considerably worse on the big stage than had been anticipated.
Take the infamous scholarship intake of 2007, for example. This group, containing the likes of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Henri Lansbury, Sanchez Watt, Craig Eastmond, Gilles Sunu and Kyle Bartley was expected to prosper, with the majority having progressed all the way through the club’s Hale End system learning the intricate details of eachothers’ games. They succeeded in winning the FA Youth Cup in 2009, but, two years on, the group as a whole has not made as big a dent in the first-team as perhaps had been expected.
Emmanuel-Thomas was sold to Ipswich this summer following just a handful of first-team outings, whilst Gilles Sunu is now a Lorient player on a permanent basis after struggling to command first-team opportunities during his four year stay at the club. Eastmond is currently recovering from injury, but when he returns he will find himself having been overtaken by the younger Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, and Watt is likely to join Lansbury out on loan shortly with first-team opportunities, even in the Carling Cup, appearing out of reach at present. Bartley has perhaps made the most progress out of this group, and will spend the season with Rangers, but even his chances of succeeding at the club in the long term are not beyond doubt.
This is not to suggest that the Arsenal Academy system is a failure, far from it. If you were to pick up a newspaper on a Sunday morning then you would doubtless find reports of matches in the top two divisions of English football containing the names of several former Gunners. The likes of Cole, Sebastian Larsson, Fabrice Muamba, Matthew Connolly and Armand Traore are all currently plying their trade in the Premier League, with plenty of others operating in the divisions immediately below.
It is highly unrealistic to expect many of the impressive current batch of youngsters to still be at the club in five years time, let alone commanding a regular place in the side. Arsenal is a club where young players are likely to receive more opportunities, particularly in the Carling Cup, than they may do elsewhere, and the excitement generated when an internally-produced youngster pulls on the red and white in a competitive fixture for the first time should be allowed to diffuse.
It is worth remembering, however, that in the long run only a select few will succeed in ‘making it’ at Arsenal.