Arrested Development: How has Arsenal's spending affected their British core?
On December 19, 2012, Arsenal made a quintuple contract announcement. Five young British players – Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere – had all signed to “long-term deals”. The slightly awkward accompanying press photo gave the pen-to-paper visual cliché a schoolboy complexion as a headmasterial Arsene Wenger appeared to not only witness the mass pretend contract signing, but invigilate it.
Wenger spoke of his plan to “build a team around a strong basis of young players, in order to get them to develop their talent at the club”. Two and a half years on, how has that panned out?
Ramsey sticks out like a sore thumb: the best player, the only guaranteed starter, and a former national captain. Nine goals in the first 11 games of 2013/14 marked the springboard moments when a youngster’s promising form became the track record of one of the Premier League’s best midfielders. High standards have been regularly met ever since.
But Ramsey’s development is unrepresentative of the contract quintet. He was Arsenal’s sixth most used player in 2014/15, according to WhoScored.com. Gibbs (11th), Oxlade-Chamberlain (16th), Wilshere (19th) and Jenkinson (equal last, I suppose) are all marginalised to different extents. Is this explainable with injury setbacks, pecking orders and loan deals or has something gone awry in their development?
What happened to the British players at Arsenal?
Jenkinson’s Arsenal days appear to be numbered with a second year loan at West Ham agreed, but if Hector Bellerin can depose Mathieu Debuchy, which seems likely, an exit for the now 30-year-old Frenchman would create a route back. Jenkinson is, however, unlikely to become an Arsenal regular in the current situation – surely grounds for failing the “develop their talent at the club” test.
Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere are evidently capable, occasionally excellent, but unable to establish themselves due to regular, almost inevitable injuries and inconsistent form. At 21, Oxlade-Chamberlain has time on his side, but Wilshere will reach his 24th birthday having made more than 25 league appearances just once. Gibbs, 26 in September, made eight fewer starts (18) than Nacho Monreal last year.
Mesut Ozil’s arrival signalled either the end of Wengerball or the next phase: prudent development finally enhanced with pricey pre-made superstars. Since July 2013, Arsenal have spent £148.2m on nine players. Wenger’s new-found appetite for expensively guaranteed returns may be a reaction to title rivals’ financial indulgence, it could hint at the possible imminence of his exit, or may simply represent the logical progression of Arsenal’s successful post-Highbury economics.
But one thing seems clear: patience isn’t what it used to be. World-class players can now be imported at will, even from Chelsea. This raises the ladder for the fringe members of the squad, for every player in that famous photograph bar Ramsey.
The developmental benefits of Arsenal’s back-to-back FA Cups in this period cannot be underestimated – winning trophies is literally the best habit to form in football. But the problem for the photograph’s English contingent, and Arsenal’s English players in general (eight of a 32-man squad), is that arguably none are first-choice players.
Constantly-on-the-verge-of-breaking-through Theo Walcott may beg to differ, but 23 league games per year on average at the Emirates, and just 27 in the last two injury-devastated campaigns hint at precisely the problems outlined for the others.
Many have time on their side but the likes of Ashley Cole and Cesc Fabregas had become reliable, vital parts of the team by this stage of their Arsenal careers. So far for Wenger’s home-grown youth batch, it’s only Ramsey who can say the same.
Written by Chris Smith