Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Arsenal putting emphasis on youth for Unai Emery’s second season
Arsenal are yet to make any senior signings this summer but their young players have impressed during pre-season
Last Updated: 18/07/19 4:03pm
Arsenal’s transfer inactivity has caused frustration among supporters, but their future will be shaped by youth as well as signings...
It has been a fraught summer for Arsenal. Their dismal finish to last season underlined the need for an overhaul, but while their rivals strengthen, their own progress in the transfer market is hampered by a modest budget.
The only signing so far is a Brazilian teenager. Their captain has gone on strike. And as of this week, their fans are united in protest at the club's ownership. It would be an exaggeration to call it a crisis, but it is certainly not what anyone envisaged when head of football Raul Sanllehi said they had a "very good plan" in place for the summer back in May.
Two months later, though, and it does finally seem as though reinforcements are closer to arriving. Arsenal are set to beat Tottenham to the loan signing of Dani Ceballos, according to Sky Sports News, while they are also working on deals for the French defender William Saliba, Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney and Gremio forward Everton Soares.
The activity is long overdue, but over in the USA, on the pre-season tour that Laurent Koscielny chose to miss, it has also given their young players opportunities to impress. Early on Thursday morning, Arsenal followed up a 3-0 win over Colorado Rapids with a 2-1 International Champions Cup victory over European heavyweights Bayern Munich.
Both games featured eye-catching contributions from young players.
Against Colorado, Bukayo Saka and James Olayinka found the net, with new signing Gabriel Martinelli adding the third. Then, against Bayern, Eddie Nketiah hit the winner following smart work by Tyreece John-Jules. Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are among the other academy graduates to have impressed, while Arsenal still have Emile Smith Rowe to return from injury.
It is dangerous to read too much into pre-season games, of course, but Arsenal have an unusually gifted crop of young players on the cusp of the first team and they certainly seem to know it.
It is why Freddie Ljungberg, the coach of Arsenal's U23s last season, has been promoted to assistant first-team coach this summer. The Swede is charged with leading what the club describe as a "transition team" intended to create a smooth pathway from the academy to the senior side.
The early signs are encouraging. Ljungberg could be seen in the dugout against Colorado and Bayern, with Unai Emery citing his influence in the emergence of teenage midfielder Robbie Burton, who started in the first game and came off the bench during the second.
"We are working with Freddie," said Emery. "Above all, he is helping us with the young players because he knows better than us every young player. For example, I didn't know Robbie. Freddie said to me he's a good player with the capacity to play as a six or eight. Really, he helped us."
The emphasis on youth is born out of necessity as well as choice. Arsenal's failure to qualify for the Champions League has left them with a budget believed to be in the region of just £45m. It is less than Manchester United have spent on a right-back and already seems to have put paid to their hopes of signing Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace.
Instead of spending big, Arsenal are having to be creative. The Ceballos loan deal is a shrewd move given their financial limitations, and by agreeing to send William Saliba back to Saint-Etienne on a season-long loan, they are ensuring payments for that transfer can be made in instalments, thereby preserving the funds available for this summer.
Emery expects those funds to be invested - he said the club are targeting "very big, very expensive" deals in the build-up to the Bayern game - but crucially for Arsenal, he is also committed to promoting young players. Was the decision to throw on Willock in place of Mesut Ozil during the Europa League final a sign of what's to come?
It certainly seems that way.
In conversation with Sky Sports in March, Emery hinted that Aaron Ramsey's replacement could come from within. This summer, Willock has been given the No 28 shirt, with Nelson (24), Nketiah (30) and Smith Rowe (32) also receiving new numbers. All four are in the frame to feature in the new season and Arsenal's exploits in the USA suggest they may not be the only ones.
Arsenal's new emphasis on their academy will draw parallels with 'Project Youth', when Arsene Wenger was pictured standing over Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson as they signed new contracts in 2012. The group were intended to form a "British core". Seven years on, though, and Jenkinson is the only survivor.
The failure of that project shows that championing youth is not enough on its own. Young players need to be surrounded by experience. They need support on and off the pitch and they need the right coaching, too.
But at a difficult time for Arsenal, the emergence of a new generation of academy hopefuls does at least provide some cause for optimism. There is work to done in this transfer window and not much time left to do it. But a fraught summer could yet be remembered as a successful one.
If reading on skysports.com, comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click 'Report'.