Per Mertesacker may not have been in Norway on Thursday night, but Arsenal’s academy manager will certainly have been watching the 3-0 Europa League win against Molde with a smile on his face.
Much of the work that had gone into producing those players was done before Mertesacker took charge of the academy in 2018, but the former Arsenal captain is now the man ensuring that the impressive Hale End supply line continues to churn.
“I want to challenge them so that they are ready to take on new ideas when it comes to their body and soul,” Mertesacker declaredwhen he was appointed two years ago.
“I want to convince them they have to do something to get to the top of the world and I want to be an example for them.
“For me, there wasn’t really a way up but somehow I made it there anyway because I did everything I possibly could to give me the best chances to succeed. Talent is what you make of your situation.”
Arsenal have a long and proud tradition of developing their own and manager Mikel Arteta is currently reaping the benefits of the hard work that has been put in during the past 10 years to grow theacademy.
The club may have spent more than £130 million ($175m) on Nicolas Pepe, Gabriel and Thomas Partey in the past two years, but Arteta’s squad is currently being underpinned by talent nurtured at Hale End.
Four of the starting XI against Molde on Thursday night were academy graduates, with Eddie Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Nelson and Willock all lining up together – while Smith Rowe and Balogun were introduced in the second half and Miguel Azeez and Ben Cottrell were unused substitutes.
“The young, top talent we produce at the academy is with the final aim of putting them with the first team and making it a regular thing,” said Arteta.
“When I signed with the club it was one of the things that excited me more because I love to work with them and it is part of our DNA, part of our history.
“So when we have them, let’s keep them if we think they are players that can take us to the next level.”
Prior to Mertesacker’s appointment, Arsenal had pushed through a £50 million ($62m) development project aimed at improving facilities at the academy’s main Hale End base, as well as at London Colney.
It was a project led by former chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who is now at AC Milan, and it’s an investment that is proving to bea bargain.
Gazidis believed a strong academy would be key to Arsenal’s long-term chances of competing with clubs boasting much larger financial resources in the transfer market.
Instead of having to constantly sign multi-million pound players, they could develop their own at a fraction of the cost. That decision would savemillions in the transfer market and potentially generate large amounts with future sales – such as the deal that saw Alex Iwobi move to Everton for £35m ($46.5m) last year.
“Our youth development is going to be the foundation of this football club going forward,” Gazidis said in 2014. “We’re investing millions of pounds into leadership at that level, new coaching and facilities.
“Hale End is getting totally transformed and we’re investing many million pounds into developing London Colney. We need to make sure that we’re absolutely ahead of the curve in all of those areas.
“We have to find our own path and our path is going to be built around how well we can develop our young players and bring them through to our first team.”
Arguably the biggest success story to progress through from Hale End following the large scale investment in recent years is Bukayo Saka.
The winger made his senior debut just two years ago today butis already an established part of the first team and has four England caps to his name.
Since the start of last season he has scored four goals and contributed 14 assists; no Arsenal player has set up more.
The 19-year-old sat out the win at Molde on Thursday due to injury but is expected to return to the starting XI on Sunday when Arsenal host Wolves in the Premier League.
Saka is now the poster boy for the Arsenal academy, the perfect example of what young players can go on to achieve with the Gunners. The pathway has been shown to be there.
The likes of Saka, Nelson, Nketiah and Maitland-Niles have all progressed and the next crop is already waiting in the wings. There is real excitement about Azeez, who is expected to make his senior debut before the Europa League group stages come to an end, Balogun and Tyreece John-Jules.
Midfielder Charlie Patino, who has just signed his first professional contract having turned 17, is talked about in similar fashion to Jack Wilshere when he was turning heads on his way to the first team just over a decade ago.
The link between the academy and the senior set-up has grown stronger since Arteta arrived, with the Spaniard very close to Mertesacker following their days as team-mates under Arsene Wenger.
“Our working relationship is great and our personal relationship is great, so I can see a fantastic future for us,” said Mertesacker.
“I think we’re in a fantastic position. We don’t take anything for granted, now is the time to really push on and make sure we come back to where we belong, and that’s theChampions League, having world-class players in the building, and having world-class young players.
“We want to build on our DNA that was developed over centuries, so we cannot forget the history and the greatness of the club. We are inheriting that and we are sons of so many greats that have led this club to greatness, so it’s a big responsibility, not only for myself but for Mikel and all the great leadership we have.”
Mertesacker, along with technical director Edu have pushed through large amounts of change in the past two years to try and ensure the production line at Hale End continues to develop top-class talent.
A whole new recruitment team has been installed, led by head of talent ID Lee Herron – who replaced former head of youth scouting Steve Morrow.
Herron, the former academy manager at Reading, was tasked with leading the new talent ID department and building a new team to replace Morrow and other senior figures that had been moved on, such as Kevin Beadell, Dan Rice, David Lee, Jay Leffe and Joe Sutton.
That rebuild was completed earlier in the year, with Steve Brown joining from MK Dons to be lead talent ID co-ordinator and Ayo Durojaiye (Under-9s-U11s), Phil Antwi (U12s-U14s) and Conan Watson (U15s-U16s) making up the new recruitment team.
The summer transfer window saw several additions, with Arsenal bringing in talent from home and abroad to bolster the U23s and U18s. The players now within those age groups can see there is an opportunity to progress towards the first team.
Saka, Nketiah, Willock, Nelson and Maitland-Niles are laying the path for others to follow and in Arteta they have a manager who has shown he is more than willing to put his trust in youth.
Balogun took a big step forward on his journey on Thursday night and the likes of Azeez, Cottrell, John-Jules and Patino are already waiting to follow.
Source : goal.com