The late 2010s and early 2020s have been a very different landscape at Arsenal to that of the preceding decades.
Arsène Wenger had presided over an imperious reign of twenty two years. The Invincibles season, three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and a Champions League final. The continuity and stability provided by his continued success allowed the club to grow and expand as one of Europe’s giants.
Key to Wenger’s philosophy was youth development. Imparting a common vision, from first team through to the youth ranks, was integral to the Frenchman’s holistic football view. Such vision has created and bred an astonishing roll call of talent, some that have become icons for the club, and other that have made names for themselves elsewhere.
The 2015-2018 crop of youth players especially caught the eye. Collectively they represented the bright future of the club, and individually are revered across Europe.
First Time Finish spoke to Neil Banfield, who worked in the Arsenal academy as well as Wenger’s first team coach for twenty one years, about this special collection of players, and of those that came before them.
Wenger’s Arsenal vision
‘I went into Arsenal with Steve Rowley, and Liam Brady offered me the coach role to come in as a coach. Liam progressed to Head of Youth. Then we changed the name of the reserves to be part of the ‘Elite Group’, which I was made head of.’
‘From then (2012) Arsène offered me the role of first team coach.’ recalls Neil.
His rise through the club was emblematic of a structure built by Wenger to carry through his own vision of the club. Wenger’s turnover of club staff was very limited during his tenure, trusting and relying on chosen individuals to best impart his club-wide work. Neil was firmly a part of this.
The modern game is a merciless, cut throat game. Title winning managers are never more than a bad run of results from the axe, their reputation consequentially stained. Implementing a culture change is rarely possible therefore. Bringing players of a certain style in can help to shift the face of the club and its results, but laying the groundwork for a new structure altogether is a task too lengthy for most to stay for, even if they should hope to.
Such was Wenger’s influence at Arsenal, rightfully earned through his teams’ brilliance, that he was able to affect the club’s skeleton. The player culture, fitness, diet, training, and the academy, were all his concern.
Asked whether the academy philosophy changed during his twenty one years, Neil says: ‘If anything it got stronger. A large part of this was Arsène, and David Dein [vice Chairman from 1983 to 2007] played a major part and both were at the forefront of it. Ensuring that the academy remained a huge part of the club.’
‘Arsène felt you have to develop your own young players to a certain level. There were times where he could have signed someone [for the first team]. But his vision was “if we are just going to sign someone, then what is the point of putting so much effort into the academy?”‘
A changing landscape
The first eight years of Wenger at Arsenal saw dramatic change. Arsenal finished tenth, fourth, twelfth and fifth in the four seasons before his arrival. In the next nine years, Arsenal would only once finish outside the top two. The calibre of player had changed, mixing technical brilliance with professional behaviours and work ethic. Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira; all symbols of this new breed.
The length of Wenger’s rule meant that new challengers would emerge. Chelsea and Manchester City would receive enormous backing to break the Arsenal-Manchester United duopoly. In the 2010s, local rivals Tottenham too would strengthen and challenge for titles. This competition extended beyond the pitch however, with each club competing to grow and attract the finest youth talents.
‘The move to the Emirates Stadium from Highbury affected the club’s financial situation. It was imperative that we tried to keep generating young players. At this time you had Manchester United, Chelsea came along as well as Manchester City. There was a real competition, and looking back it did get difficult. Chelsea were attracting a lot of good young players, Man City too.’ says Neil.
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The emergence of new powers tested the youth policies of the older guard. Manchester United and Arsenal, both under long serving statesman-like figures, retained their approaches. That Wenger and Alex Ferguson had become so influential to their respective clubs, over such a period, gave them a level of power within to carry out their youth visions.
‘Going in as a new manager, it is difficult as your reason for going in is to get success. That longevity, and having the whole club accept your vision, gives you time to develop the whole club.’
The new competition upset the apple cart. After 2004/05, Arsenal would finish second only once more (in 2015/16) before Wenger’s departure in 2018. United would win a further five titles after that 04/05 season. Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 would also mark the start of a downturn for the club, with four managers failing to win the league in that time. In the same period (since 04/05), Chelsea would win five titles, and City four. There were new players at the table.
Finding the next crop
Neil worked with an extraordinary calibre of academy player at Arsenal. In our phone call, names such as Fabregas, “Jack” [Wilshere], Hector Bellerin are mentioned.
An array of varying skillsets, again mixing unique individual spark with a view of the collective, and what it means to play for Arsenal.
‘We always had a vision of the type of player we wanted to grow. A vision driven by the manager to play the way he wanted Arsenal to play. We then developed our young players to match the way Arsenal played, and it was never one type of player. They all had specific qualities and abilities to raise them above the level. The only hard and fast rule was to have a quality that rose them above the level of the pack.”
This is unsurprising to hear. Throughout the highs and lows of Wenger’s years at Arsenal, the playing style was constant. Intricacy in the final third, enabled by strength and mobility in midfield and at full back. Sprinkled with individual genius.
As with any academy, some will make their marks at the club, and others will do so in other leagues. In any given game there are only eleven position to fill, so an academy of five age ranges will naturally only accommodate so many. This is not something for a club, nor its fans, to be disheartened by.
‘Our first aim was “can they play for Arsenal’s first team?”. The second aim was then “can we give these players a career in football?”. I think that’s where the club did really well as it was so tough for them given the likes of Vieira, Emmanuel Petit were ahead of them.’
Changing of the Arsenal guard
Wenger’s academy philosophy never deviated from total faith and support. His teams were evidence of this, and the successes of academy graduates within these teams.
Cesc Fabregas’ breakthrough in 2003, Jack Wilshere’s in 2008, Hector Bellerin’s in 2013.
‘These players come along, and you are looking for them, but not everyone will be like Jack and Cesc. Its about appreciating all different kinds of players and qualities. Jack and Cesc had that quality in central midfield. Hector Bellerin had that quality in an unfashionable position. Emi Martinez too, Fabrice Muamba, Steve Sidwell. All very different qualities that you have to appreciate and develop.’
The profile of these players shows the template of Arsenal’s academy vision. Mixing homegrown, English talents that come through the Hale End Academy, with those scouted and recruited from overseas.
‘This is no accident’ says Neil. ‘We wanted to produce a base of top, homegrown players added to by European talent.’
‘The last academy team I was involved with included Jordi Osei-Tutu, Krystian Bielik, Marc Bola, Joe and Chris Willock, Josh Dasilva, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka. Each one has developed and are now playing at a good, senior level.’
Wenger’s vision had played out. If this fantastic team realised their Arsenal dreams, as Saka, Nketiah, Smith Rowe and Nelson especially have, there is another collective that saw their success beyond North London.
The 2015-2018 group
The development of a player, and their rise to prominence, begs the question of where they have come from. For some, it is a more obvious route from academy to first team. For others, the chance to play took them away from their academy in search of new opportunities. This is pertinent of the European recruited crop of 2015-18 academy players at Hale End.
Serge Gnabry joined Arsenal in 2011 at sixteen, leaving in 2016 for Bayern Munich (via loan spells at West Brom and Hoffenheim). Donyell Malen, Ismaël Bennacer, and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde moved to Arsenal in 2015, aged sixteen and seventeen. Malen and Bennacer would leave two seasons later, for PSV Eindhoven and Empoli respectively. Reine-Adélaïde would leave in 2018 for Angers. Four burning prospects all leaving within the course of two seasons.
‘Young players are keen to play, and sometimes it is difficult. These players have to make decisions and you can’t stand in their way. Ismaël [Bennacer] really enjoyed his time with us, but had a lot of players in front of him. You want your career to progress through playing, and in front of these players was a big ask.’
‘There will be a player somewhere now saying “I’m stuck behind Serge Gnabry”. Its not whether they are good enough, or were good enough to play for Arsenal. Reine-Adélaïde was another, came in from France, and just look at the players that were at the club ahead of him.’
Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil were the players referred to by Neil. Regardless of talent, no seventeen year old talent is displacing such ability and experience.
‘You can’t assume that they were the same players then that they are now. They are older and more developed now, so it can’t be assumed that playing them in the first team would have developed them.’
Looking back at released personnel, supposedly ‘let go’ by clubs, is a stick used to hit with. Arsenal’s hunt for an elite defensive midfielder in recent years has had many asking why Bennacer was allowed to depart from under its nose.
‘Ismaël at the time was smaller than he is now, very aggressive, but might not have been prepared for playing bigger players. He has gone to Italy, developed physically, and could easily come back and play for Arsenal now.’
‘We all knew Malen was good, and Gnabry and Bennacer were good. At the time there were just circumstances that meant they did not have a career in the first team.’
Gnabry’s rise to becoming one of Europe’s best wingers is a classic example of fan misconception about why players have been allowed to leave. So much so that Tony Pulis has even felt jibes for not playing Gnabry in his loan spell at West Brom.
‘Again, we knew what a fantastic prospect Serge was. Everyone asks why he didn’t play at West Brom, but in that scenario he just might not have done what Pulis needed him to do. That just happens sometimes, doesn’t mean we didn’t know what a good player he could be!’
Donyell Malen too. The twenty two year old’s scoring rate at PSV is frightening, making him a likely candidate to lead the line for the Netherlands at Euro 2020.
‘Again you could see what a prospect the boy was. Seeing them now at twenty two, they are different animals to seeing them at eighteen. It is not as simple as “they should have played in the first team at Arsenal.” ‘
Homegrown vs European
This path is in no way the preserve of the European academy recruit. Steve Sidwell and Luke Ayling are examples given by Neil of home grown players that have had success away from the club.
‘Sidwell was eighteen and sat behind Vieira, Petit and Ray Parlour. Sometimes players just aren’t going to get in to the first team. Luke Ayling is another, went on loan to Yeovil Town, has had a fantastic career and is now a Premier League player. You get so much pleasure that you had a part to play in that, and it is great to see.’
Josh Dasilva too. More recent than the likes of Sidwell and Ayling, Dasilva is among the Championship’s best midfielders having left Arsenal for Brentford in 2018.
‘Josh came in at first as a centre forward, and we tried him at left back, centre half too. We could all see there was talent, but maybe something missing. He developed physically and we put him in central midfield, and he found his home. He trained with the first team and was playing for the under 23s at eighteen. Like many though he outgrew the ’23s, and needed another test. Now he might get to play in the Premier League with Brentford.’
Again, the stacking of Premier League squads in key areas proved a difficulty for even the best youth to displace. Not only are the likes of Dasilva and Reine-Adélaïde competing against Europe’s Cazorla, Ramsey and co. They are also fighting against each other as academy graduates to be the one to take that slot. This is multi-faceted battle, not merely a case of the cream rising.
The unseen factors
Speaking to Neil about his twenty years working at Arsenal, it is apparent just how important the unseen factors are in player development. How satisfied a player is to sit and wait for their chance. Whether they are competing for a position that is already heavily catered for. For international recruits, their comfortability away from home is another.
‘It is a totally different culture for them to adapt to and it takes time. Even with Thierry [Henry] when he came in from France it took time to settle. They are leaving their families, they might be on their own, you have to be so aware of what they are going through. As a club we tried to make it as comfortable for them as possible. If you are not right mentally off the pitch, you can’t be yourself on the pitch. Any issues, or comforts like having their family, we would try to help with that.’
Again this is seldom discussed. So quick are fans to label a player a ‘flop’, or that a club should have kept hold of a player. It is easy to forget the personal battle of leaving home so early, and having to perform immediately.
‘Playing in this country is a different game to the continent. Even the senior players can play against a lower league team and face as tough a competition as the top leagues. The intensity of the game is different, and ultimately that is the game that the British lads are brought up on.’
‘It is basically sink or swim. A gradual process of giving them games, and they either grasp it or they don’t. That is the intensity of the English game.’
Trusting the Arsenal process
Neil left Arsenal in 2018 after two decades. He had been part of a backroom team of coaches that allowed Wenger to impart his vision and brand from top to bottom. Now assistant manager at Queens Park Rangers, such experience and unrivalled expertise will prove invaluable to the club.
The question of whether crops of academy players should have stayed at the club, or been used by the club more readily, is too simplistic. Factors affecting both the club and the individual are too numerous for it to be a case of ‘missed opportunities’.
The likes of Saka, Smith Rowe and Nketiah might be getting their breakthroughs now, under different management. Their development is not an overnight success of cherry picking talent, with the club nurturing them from tender ages to make that step should it be presented.
Without Arsenal, Malen may never have learned that predatory awareness. Dasilva may never have been used as a central midfielder. And Bennacer might not have undergone the physical development to make him a leading defensive midfielder.
‘Watching them get better, we were always excited at the prospect of a group of players coming through together. It was a clear sign to us that we were on the right track. One of the pillars of a successful club is having a group of players come through together, and this was something we always aimed to do.’
That Arsenal, with Wenger at its helm, was able to cultivate such a group, deserves nothing but credit. Their successes may have occurred far from North London, but that their collective talent was developed under one management system, is a remarkable feat.
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