Best Venus Fly Trap in the Premier League

Just to set the scene…So I had this debate with @shewore a couple of days ago. It was quite polite. Well, he was, anyway. I got grumpy a couple of times (most unlike me I’m sure you’ll agree.)

Anyway, I got grumpy, I guess, because it seemed to be one more area of Arsenal where apparently we are to believe we’re incompetent. Yes, development. We’re not good at it.

@shewore slammed our “youth setup.” It is, apparently, bad. I was a bit flabbergasted.

And for the youth above the Academy level, we are still not to take any pride according to many because we just buy talent from smaller clubs etc. And @shewore wanted to spend zero time lauding the club for development of any young players. Well, that’s not fair on him. When pushed, he went out of his way to compliment the club for developing Adams and Rocastle who came through our system. So, that there turned some of my preconceptions right on their heads, I can tell you.

I mention @shewore ie Gav to give you a frame of reference for this conversation and because he’s a big boy who, if he feels misrepresented, has the ability to reply via his well followed twitter, his Podcast and his blogsite.

And to be fair, Gav has always been polite in his dealings with me. Politer than me, in fact.

Now this all left me a bit disillusioned. We are shit at the Academy, shit with our Youth level, just generally shit at development. And that’s what we’re supposed to be good at!! Fuck me, this is a shit club. Who to blame, eh? I blame that fucker Kroenke, myself.

Anyway, during our loooonnnnggg debate, Gav (@shewore) linked me to an article on his blogsite on why our Academy was so shit and this article then linked to another article on there that also talked about how shit our Academy was and blamed Liam Brady and said the FA practically excommunicated us from Academy-ing.

It was all very depressing stuff. You should look it up in his website section: “Other stuff the club is shit at” which is right next to a section entitled “Stuff the club is shit at.”

Thoughts On Arsenal and Youth Development


And so…to Arsenal and Youth Development. First let me confess, I know fuck all about it, possibly less than you. But I have never let that hold me back in my blogging career before.

The fact that the FA may or may not have liked how Arsenal ran their Academy in the past is neither here nor there. In fact, if they like our Academy we must be doing it wrong. Remember, the FA don’t measure if it works. They measure if you are doing it the way they think you should be doing it. Just imagine if they followed Wenger around to score him on coaching our First team? They’d probably score him as a D minus. In fact, check later in this blog for Bergkamp’s comments on English coaching and the low regard in which he holds it. After all, no one knows more about youth development than the English FA, right? Or in the Tennis world, the LTA. At the end of the day, the only thing we need from the FA is their coaching money for ticking all their boxes. Pay up and piss off, Mr. FA.

We, Arsenal, care about producing talent…The Arsenal Way. To me, development at the club is a continuum. Academy to youth to young Pros to Senior Pros, all playing to a consistent philosophy.

It would be great if 25 players in our squad came from the Academy, I guess. But, we do live in England. There aren’t even 25 decent players to fill a World Cup squad from the whole country, ffs.

Now, I love the Jack Wilshere story. It is heartwarming…how Arsene found him as a babe floating down the Thames in a wicker basket which stuck in the reeds, suckled him on his own teat until he was 12. How Arsene coaxed him to walk out of his wheel chair, aged 8, telling him he could do it, “You can walk,” with his little legs in iron braces, wobbling, eyes filled with terror and wonderment, before falling forward and collapsing (Or was that the film version of Heidi?)

But while I love the Jack Wilshere story, I also love the Szczesny story where somewhere in one of his interviews there is a bit that reads very much like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, crying out in the mud and rain, “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” or the Gnabry story, or the Zelalem story. They are all great stories and they can’t all float down the river Thames, wrapped in swaddling, now, can they?

Now you will also be told by many that Kieran Gibbs doesn’t count as an Academy success because he was 6 months old when we found him, and was already being bottle-fed, so…not a true Academy product. (PS: Gareth Bale was in the Southampton Academy for only 1 year, and in fact their satellite academy in Bath, not even the mothership.)

And Ashley Cole doesn’t count because he’s a c***, which I have to admit is a very sound argument.

Liam Brady

There have been precious few Academy products that have gone on to star for Arsenal in recent times. But to be fair, there is nothing harder than developing 8 to 15 year olds into top class footballers. I can’t think of anything more difficult given the British youth culture. And we all know why. But if you’re not sure, here is Liam Brady talking about the challenge. The short version…most British kids nowadays have their head stuck in their Xbox or up their hiphop arses.

And to add to that, here is a piece on the world’s greatest player, Gareth Bale, regarding his Academy career:

“There were doubts over Gareth among the coaches at Southampton,” Elias explained. “At under-15 and under-15 level he never got a look-in with the Wales Schools side, but like a lot of players at that age he had growth spurts which affected his co-ordination. We were undecided about giving him a scholarship so I went to the game at Norwich with the sole intention of making a decision 

The short version of that piece? There is nothing harder than running an Academy full of kids. It’s a roll of the dice. But whatever they have, they came with it.

Personally, I am confident that the Arsenal Academy is run professionally and to the highest standards. I’m sure we have the pointiest, orangiest cones in England for them to run around, and our coaches have all the badges you can sew on a sleeve. That’s important but it is not the most important part of a great academy.

Dennis Bergkamp

But perhaps there is some secret sauce we are missing out on, some radical development technique to develop the uber-footballer. Who better to ask than the best footballer who ever played in the Premier League or for the club of Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp:

From Amy Lawrence’s interview for Dennis’ new book –

Dennis believes… young players are “over-coached” nowadays, he becomes animated about getting the right balance between teaching young players, and allowing them freedom to express themselves.

“In a way you create your own career, you create your own development, and that helps you later on. Whereas now there are a lot of coaches, everyone has got their badge, they all think they are Mourinho or Wenger, even with the 12- to 13-year-olds.”

The kids… don’t have to think for themselves any more. It is all done for them. It’s a problem because they don’t think for themselves. If they get a new situation, they look to someone as if to say, ‘What do I have to do now?’ I believe that is over-coaching. It’s too much. Let them have their freedom. You have to create the environment where they can be unique and not a clone.”

Bergkamp is not a fan of the way youth football in England is results-orientated: “There are times not to coach,” he says. “You have to be balanced to know that. Sometimes it is better to let them make a mistake. Sometimes they learn more from that than being told what to do.”

Hmmm. But, Dennis, weren’t you “Academied” into being Dennis Bergkamp?

Mesut Ozil

Ok. Let’s try Mesut Ozil, perhaps? He’s German. They know how to “Academy” over there.

Ozil and the unknown

“It is just three streets from his childhood home that one first encounters the ‘cage’ where Özil, energized by watching the abilities of his elder brother Mutlu, mastered his adhesive ball control. Encircled by a 10-foot fence and partly hidden by the encroaching trees, it looks an inauspicious breeding ground for a talent so rare. But on this patch of concrete, “either in sun or snow” according to Mutlu, he would devote every spare hour to nursing his life’s ambition.”

Hmmm, you mean he learned to play football like that – by knocking the ball around, playing in the street with his mates, or in “The Cage?”

Or Liam Brady himself, arguably one of the 2 or 3 most skillful players to every pull on the cannoned shirt:

“But there is also football intelligence, which is an indefinable thing. It’s difficult to teach things that are instinctive, like knowing where he should be or who he should pass to. The other thing – which is very much the deciding factor – is personality and desire: we definitely can’t teach that.”

I don’t know about you but I am getting the distinct impression that there is a very significant limit on what can be achieved in an academy.

Yet whether it produces 2 more players over the next 10 years or 20 more players, it forms a vital part of the development continuum at Arsenal, and the culture and even “myth” of our club. It’s part of the club’s dna. In the end, “Culture is King.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the best myths are true. Like at Arsenal.

Let me summarize my opinion: young, top class players are basically born. They develop their skills mostly by playing, for hours and hours and hours, like we all did. The rest is just polishing, tweaking, encouraging, grooming, prodding…Arsenalizing.

Here is Messi playing football, aged 10 ish, back in Argentina. It’s ALL there already:

Find talent. Then surround them with other talent so they can learn from each other, compete, measure and motivate themselves. Let the cream rise to the top. Skim off that cream.

And let them feel part of a continuum that includes everyone from Ozil to Wilshere to Gnabry so they can be awestruck and inspired at the same time while they learn the Arsenal Way – by Osmosis as much as by training techniques.

Here is what Deyan Iliev, our 17 year old Macedonin Goalkeeper, has to say in his recent interview:

Deyan Iliev admits he fell into a shocked silence at what he saw before him. The vast open spaces, the hi-tech facilities and the pitches… oh, the pitches!

“I thought the pitches were made out of Astroturf at first because the quality was so good,” he says with a wide smile. “Then I trained with the first team on my second day! On my second day! I couldn’t believe it was happening so soon.

After training Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Bacary Sagna asked me to stay in goal because they wanted to practice free kicks. I was looking at them but I couldn’t believe that this was real…
Also, Arsène Wenger was stood behind the goal when this was happening so I was really happy and thought to myself, ‘I’m a different person now’. It was a massive confidence boost.”

That’s the magic of The Arsenal Academy. That’s why they come here.

If I were an 8 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or rather his dad, where would I want my son to be trained and developed? You know, I might just pick Southampton – because of the reputation (entirely deserved, by all accounts!). They are a talent magnet at that age-level right now.

The Myth of Agassi

Did you ever read Andre Agassi’s biography -this phenomenal athlete created by the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy down in Florida – or at least that’s the story the world was always fed. Well apparently that’s not quite how it went down. In reality, Agassi wanted nothing to do with their coaching and Bollettieri let Agassi do whatever the hell Andre wanted, as long as Bollettieri could brag about the phenom it had produced. Agassi then went on to win everything in the world of tennis, and the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy Myth was born. And then the talent flocked to join his Academy. A self-fulfilling Myth.

Agassi The Player was really “formed” by his father. As was Ox I would guess. As was Thierry Henry. And by the streets, or the hours and hours of play and practice on them. Or by all the different teams and coaches and mini-academies they passed through along the way. But they all had the talent and the drive. That’s what Brady talked about as missing in so many kids.

Development is messy. Kids are uneven, mysterious, and a general pain in the arse.

What Would Cesc Do?

But what about if I were an 18 year old Ox… where would I want to be valued and developed? Or an 18 year old Ramsey. Or a 16 year old Theo. Or a 16 year old Szczesny. Or a 16 year old Gnabry. Or a 15 year old Gedion Zelalem. Or a 15 year old Danny Crowley? Or a 16 year old Cesc?

Cesc: “‘At 16 I was training with Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira.”

So, if I’m 16 and good enough, I want to go to the club that plays the most exciting football in the Premier League, year in, year out. I want to play alongside Theo, the Ox, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, so I can learn their secrets and so that some of their greatness can rub off on me.

If I’m good enough, I want to learn from the Jedi Masters themselves.

20-45% – Is that a little or a lot?

Only 20% of our current starting outfield came through our Academy  – Wilshere & Gibbs (and 20% of the future starting outfield of the England team.) Actually, 20% doesn’t sound that bad to me. But add Szcz, Ramsey, Theo as automatic starters and you’re at 45% of our starting XI depending on the day. Add Ox or Gnabry or…and in the future, Crowley and Zelalem and Bellerin and…

In fact, have an Art Deco at this chart which shows the Top Clubs in each league for playing homegrown players. Arsenal are tops, of course with an average of 3.9 players per match played being homegrown, think Szczesny + Gibbs + Jack + Aaron and sometimes Theo. Gnabry I don’t think counts yet:


Or this chart, which shows the British clubs who have produced the most homegrown talent to play in “Elite” football:


Note: Homegrown players are players such as Szczesny and of course Gibbs and Wilshere, and in the future, Gnabry. But not Carl Jenks. ie ANY nationality, developed by the same club for 3 full seasons between the ages of 15 and 21.

When I tried to suggest we deserved development credit for Szczesny, Ox, Theo, Gnabry, Gibbs, etc, etc, I was told that we bought them. To which my reply was “And?”

We bought Ramsey alright. But SAF wanted him at United to the point that his club trumpeted Ramsey’s arrival. Ooops.

Ox and Theo were much coveted by clubs all over. But, more importantly, they coveted us in return.

Every club was chasing Danny Crowley but he chose to follow Cesc and Wilshere. Danny now wakes up every morning and asks “What would Jack do next?” Somedays he can walk up to Jack and ask him what he’d do.

But if you think all we do is just poach talented players, then read what Cesc had to say::

“I was very young and I couldn’t see myself making a living being a footballer. Though I was aware that it was an opportunity to make the most of, because Wenger told me I was going to train with the first team every day and that I was going to play in the reserves.”

“After a while at Arsenal I became more optimistic [about making it], but when I was at Barça I definitely felt that it was going to be very difficult to be a professional footballer. And I could use stronger words than ‘difficult’.”

The short version: he believed he wasn’t going to make it at Barca. And even when he played for Arsenal initially, he wasn’t sure he would make the cut either. Hence, he credits Wenger and Arsenal for making him world class.

Here is a bit from a piece featuring Jack Singer (@AFCacademy) who writes about the Arsenal Academy:

On Danny Crowley who joined us from Aston Villa, aged 15: “I haven’t been this excited about a player within our youth system since the days of Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere.”

Jack Singer then goes on to wax lyrical about 4 of our Academy prospects: Crowley, Niles-Maitland, O’Connor and Moore.

And the club has just announced a new Academy head, Andries Jonker, who has also worked as Holland under-21 and under-15 coach, technical manager of the KNVB and assistant coach to Louis van Gaal at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, where he also had a spell as interim head coach.

So, if you’re worried about whether the club wants the best Academy in football, don’t be.

But, this youth development’s a doddle, right? Just think about that for a second and you know the answer: For every brilliant youth talent that makes the grade, there are 10, 30 or 100 who inexplicably didn’t.

Remember the Zaha saga? This development lark is easy, isn’t it? Just sign up a kid and he’ll definitely turn into a star. Not. Maybe Zaha will still make it. Maybe he won’t. To be fair, Zaha’s gotten further than 99% of the phenoms out there.

Or look at Ashley Young for a different career trajectory. And here is my real point. Whether it’s Jack aged 8, or Gibbs aged 13, or Gnabry aged 16, or Ox aged 18, or even Jenks aged 21 or Koscielny aged 24…they are all part of a development continuum at Arsenal. And we’re good at it. Very, very good at it.


And I don’t care if the reason we’re good at development is because we attract the best talent rather than because we have the pointiest cones (but we DO have the pointiest cones.) After all, that IS our job ie:

  1. To be a magnet for the best talent
  2. To develop that talent to its fullest potential
  3. To play the best football possible as a continuum across the club – a seamless philosophy

The reality, for good or bad, is that the most vital age-group to attract talent in is the 15-21 group. That’s where the REAL action is.

We are the Venus Fly Trap of the Premier League. Come taste our sweet-smelling sap.


Now, someone, please piss on my optimism. I know I’m not supposed to be feeling like this.

Jacks Kids
Hey Jack, are you thinking what I’m thinking?