Playing Time For Youngsters More Limited Than Ever?

Image from Daily Mail

“There are two ways to strengthen the squad – the first is to analyse where we have not done so well and where we can improve together, and the other way is to bring in players from outside. We are still open to strengthening our team with players coming from outside.” Arsene Wenger answered the press during Arsenal’s tour of China. Admitting it may take more purchasing power to improve his squad, he is also very aware that his academy boasts some of the finest young footballers in the country. With pressures at an all-time high, are youngsters going to find first-team football harder to come by than ever before?

It’s a tricky dilemma for any manager at a club with huge demands. Finding the right balance between youth and experience is never easy. What is comes down to in the end is – are the youngsters good enough? Over this summer there’s been a lot of transfer movement of youngsters from big clubs, and for the first time in a while, clubs’ fans are really starting to notice. With promising youngsters such as Chris Willock, Dominic Solanke, Kelechi Iheanacho and potentially even Sheyi Ojo on the move, you have to wonder why these talents couldn’t break into the first team.

One manager who has always preached the importance of promoting young talent is the ever-present Arsene Wenger. Arsene has fielded numerous youngsters during his time at Arsenal, some who have gone on to become Premier League regulars; Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to name a few. However it’s become apparent that even Wenger’s use of youngsters is beginning to diminish as pressure to deliver success reaches boiling point in North London. The only club truly trusting the kids is Tottenham Hotspur.

Wenger has given debuts to Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi, and Jeff Reine-Adelaide in recent seasons, though his squad is a far more experienced one then ever before. In 2010, Wenger’s side boasted the likes of; Jack Wilshere, Fabregas, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Keiran Gibbs. Whilst some of them are still at the club, the following generation of youngsters haven’t had the same impact.

The real question is, have Arsenal’s youngsters been good enough? Last season saw the sale of Serge Gnabry to Werder Bremen, who has since moved on to German giants Bayern Munich. Not good enough for Arsenal was he? The club are in danger of making the same mistakes with Wojciech Szczesny joining Juventus, Jack Wilshere being told he’s available to move, and Calum Chambers also looking for a new club for a deal worth around £20m. These youngsters have real potential, and it’s becoming a worrying sight for the clubs’ fans.

If Arsene Wenger is struggling to play youngsters, what does that say about the attitude of Premier League clubs towards achieving success? Perhaps that they’re more ruthless than ever before. Chelsea themselves have a very strict policy on youngsters – be good enough, or you’re out. Youngsters like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Nathan Chalobah risk wasting their careers at a club that will never truly trust them, with a few of the mentioned already jumping ship and trying their luck elsewhere. These youngsters have won many youth trophies with their club, so surely their talent can’t be questioned?

The money in the Premier League is undoubtedly playing a part in the diminishing use of young players. Clubs like Crystal Palace, West Ham, and Stoke City have the money and pulling power to sign more experienced players now they can afford them, as opposed to taking youngsters on loan from bigger clubs. Everton showed faith in young players like Ross Barkey, John Stones, and those from other clubs like Romelu Lukaku to get to where they are today. Many young players are now moving abroad to seek regular football – and ultimately being forgotten about. Barcelona, who handpick their talents from La Masia, are also less-reliant on youth than ever before, with signings such as Andre Gomes for €35m brought in to fill gaps left by academy and club legends like Xavi. That same summer (2016) saw the arrivals of Paco Alcacer, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, and Denis Suarez in what was their second highest spending spree behind the summer of 2014 and the arrival of Luis Suarez for €81.72m (stats from transfermrkt).

As a neutral, I worry about the amount of young players leaving big clubs this summer. Solanke has found a new home in Liverpool, and Rob Holding, Tom Davies and Marcus Rashford continue to prove that if you’re good enough, the chances will come. Even Mourinho, often criticised for his lack of use of youth, awarded one of the highest amount of minutes to young players last season.

Tottenham Hotspur are the side carrying the torch for youngsters, and showing the Premier League what young players can bring. 2nd place in the league and an FA Cup semi final is an impressive showing for such a raw squad built on a core of young stars such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, and the new generation in Harry Winks, Joshua Onomah and Nicolas N’Koudou ready to follow.

A club who gave the 4th highest number of minutes to youngsters were Everton and Ronald Koeman. The same club who have spent more than any other in the transfer window so far on reinforcements; bringing in Michael Keane, Wayne Rooney, Jordan Pickford and Davy Klaassen. There is a balance between youth and experience in their spending however, though it does set back the faith put in the Everton academy that seemed so strong over the course of the season. If the spending continues, youngsters may begin to question their worth.

After a successful summer for England in youth tournaments (celebrating U20s and U19s cup winners), there is surely more evidence than ever now that these young English stars can step up and play a role in their respective first teams. Wenger has used Ainsley Maitland-Niles in preseason, but it remains to be seen whether the youngster has a long term future at the club. With so many of these kids on the move, you can’t help but worry that these clubs are less and less prepared to wait for young players to show their worth, and that buying a proven 21 year old for £40m is the easiest way to appease the fans and the board.

After a season that saw many youngsters break through and gain valuable first-team experience, I fear we may start to see a U-turn and a neglect towards youngsters, more than every before. Jose Mourinho has played young players like Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw over the season, but the signing of Lindelof and Lukaku (a player who he didn’t trust as a youngster at Chelsea) suggest that there are simply better alternatives out there that can give guaranteed success (not that Lukaku and Rashford couldn’t play together). Chuba Akpom was for so long considered one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects though was never truly given a chance at the club. I mean, any youngster would look better playing with Ozil and Sanchez around him than being sent out on loan, am I right? Yet the chances never came and the £52m acquisition of Lacazette became necessary.

I hope Everton, Man Utd, Tottenham and Arsenal continue to show faith in young players. Klopp himself has played a few youngsters over the season, though many of them were very young and very raw. Arsenal risk losing some real talents because of a fear of failure, while Tottenham may risk missing out on silverware if they place trust in the inexperience of young players for too long. It’s a real dilemma, and how manager’s approach it between now and the end of the season is going to be very interesting to watch. Who’d be a manager, ey?

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