Andries Jonker, the former head of Arsenal’s Academy, says football’s most promising young talent should avoid English football if they want to deliver on their potential.
Recruited as Liam Brady’s replacement in 2014, the Dutchman spent three years working for Arsene Wenger before taking up the head coach position at Bundesliga side Wolfsburg.
During his time at Hale End and London Colney, Jonker oversaw a revamp of the club’s facilities and regularly encouraged youngsters to gain experience outside of England.
The likes of Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem, Chuba Akpom and Kelechi Nwakali all undertook loan spells in the Low Countries thanks to his contact book. Kaylen Hinds later followed Jonker to Germany in a £2 million move and Chris Willock leapt at a chance to join Benfica.
While the continental adventures of the aforementioned rarely garnered headlines, their willingness to stray from the Premier League bosom was the start of a trend that has led to Reiss Nelson and Jadon Sancho making waves in Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund colours.
Jonker, frustrated with the way things turned out at Arsenal, maintains it’s a route to the top that more players should explore.
Citing the example of Donyell Malen, who left Arsenal 18 months ago and is now a regular for PSV Eindhoven, Jonker told the Mirror: “When I was at Arsenal, manager Arsene Wenger sometimes called up a few youth players for a couple of games in the League Cup.
“But when Arsenal had a league game a couple of days later, those boys were never in the squad. And in the next 50 games, Wenger would not pick them, either.
“So I have serious doubts if young talent are making the right step if they go to England at this moment. I would advise them not to go, but to play 100 games in first-team football on the continent first.
“Take Donyell Malen. At Arsenal, he was a big talent. But he left the club just in time. He realised he was going to end up in what I call no-man’s land.
“Young players in England, who have huge talent, will only go and play in an under-18 team. And, when they are improving, they then only go the under-23 team.
“So Jadon Sancho went from Man City to Borussia Dortmund – and he is a sensation there. Reiss Nelson, of Arsenal, is choosing the same route. He is getting plenty of chances and minutes at Hoffenheim.”
Jonker does raise a valid point. Mind you, it’s not a new one and the problem does not exist solely at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger, despite his reputation for giving youth a chance, admitted several times in his final couple of seasons that English football has a problem processing the huge pool of talent at its disposal. The issue was also addressed in Michael Calvin’s documentary, ‘No Hunger in Paradise’.
Money is at the heart of the problem. There’s too much of it in youth football these days and inevitably the biggest clubs in England use their wealth to lure the ‘best’ talents from around the globe. Then they do it on a rolling basis and end up hoarding them. When you can only pick 17 players for a first team squad each Saturday, that’s going to cause problems.
In an interview with Spox.com last September, Per Mertesacker, now running our academy, noted that the money on offer to these kids can be life-changing for parents and agents. However, he also pointed out it comes at a price; huge pressure on young minds.
“I want to build relationships to the players, their parents and the coaches and to instil a sense of realism,” said Per. “I am curious if I will achieve this.”
It’s possible that Per may look at things the same way as Andries. On occasion, doing right by a player could mean getting it wrong from an Arsenal perspective. And vice versa. He really does have his work cut out.