For seven full seasons Steve Bould presided over Arsenal’s U18s, helping to nurture the likes of Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Wojciech Szczesny, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, winning two Academy League titles and an FA Youth Cup in the process, which included a “double” success in 2008/09.
This season, however, consistency of any sort has been very difficult to find for Arsenal’s youngsters as they have had to endure three managerial changes, suffered several heavy defeats and, tellingly, not produced the level of performances expected by the club in recent weeks.
It all reached a nadir of sorts in the League fixture at home to Aston Villa last weekend. Having gone out of the Youth Cup in disappointing fashion just days earlier, confidence levels were low and Carl Laraman’s side suffered a 6-1 defeat to Villa, having been five goals down with much of the first-half left to play. It is perhaps fair to say that results are not all that important below first-team level, with the premier aim being to develop promising individuals, but what was more worrying against Villa was the apparent lack of determination and effort demonstrated by some players. It is true that they were without the likes of Serge Gnabry, Chuba Akpom and Hector Bellerin, who were part of the U21 side that lost 4-2 to Tottenham, but far more was expected of those who were called upon and there will be an opportunity to make amends when Norwich City visit London Colney tomorrow afternoon.
It was also revealed yesterday that midfielder Conor Henderson is set to depart the club when his contract expires at the end of the season. Henderson, who possesses outstanding passing ability, has only made one senior competitive appearance for Arsenal, largely owing to a succession of injuries which have severely hampered his chances of making the grade at Emirates Stadium. A loan spell at Coventry City earlier this season did not yield much success, and the likelihood is that the 21 year old will find himself playing in either the Championship or League One next season.
Perhaps the two issues discussed above indicate that it is an appropriate time to lower expectations a little with regards to Arsenal’s youngsters. Around the time of the stadium move, there was much excitement that large swathes of the players being developed could develop into shining lights at Arsenal’s new ground, but it has not quite transpired that way. In Szczesny, Gibbs and Wilshere, the club have brought through three members of the current first-choice starting line-up, but no players have been promoted to the squad (other than Kyle Bartley for a very brief period) since Coquelin in 2011, indicating that subsequent age-groups have not developed as much as had been anticipated.
Having watched the likes of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Henri Lansbury dominate Reserve and youth football only to end up in the Championship, the point was exemplified that only a very select few, if any at all, will make the cut from each age group and even then, once a player is in the senior squad, there is no guarantee that they will carve out a long-term career at the club, as Johan Djourou and Nicklas Bendtner, two further Academy graduates, have discovered.
With some players, such as Gnabry and Akpom, it is impossible to escape the feeling that they are held in high regard by the club’s coaching staff and that further first-team opportunities will beckon in the future. It’s natural to get excited about a home-grown youngster coming through the ranks, but the evidence of the past few years indicates that, even if quality is displayed below first-team level, it is not necessarily the case that further success will follow.