For much of his first two years at the helm of Arsenal, Mikel Arteta has talked about the need to strike a balance between the senior professionals and the young stars of his squad. Partly why he signed Willian from Chelsea, who arrived with the “experience” Arteta wanted, and part why he handed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a new contract last year.
In recent weeks, however, Arteta seems to have decided that the time has come to just let the youngsters do it themselves. Especially in attack, where the youthful energy of Bukayo Saka (20), Gabriel Martinelli (20), Emile Smith Rowe (21) and Martin Odegaard (23) was decisive for the excellent performances of the team.
In the absence of exile Aubameyang, this quartet brought a new sense of adventure to Arsenal’s advanced game. Alexandre Lacazette, 30, helped them on their way but it is the four young people who cause the most problems for opposing teams and do the most damage to opposing defenses.
It is a measure of the development of these youngsters that only one of Arsenal’s last 18 Premier League goals has been scored by a player over 23. Arsenal are the youngest team in the league (their average age is the youngest in the top flight since Aston Villa in 2012/13) and last weekend’s win over Leeds United marked the first time that three Different players aged 21 or under were scoring for the club in the Premier League.
The dominance of Arsenal’s young forwards is almost unprecedented, both in north London and across the league. So far this season, 67% of Arsenal’s goals have been scored by players aged 22 or under, the second highest percentage in Premier League history. Only the 1999/2000 Leeds United side, which included Michael Bridges and Harry Kewell, depended more on young players to find the net.
For Arteta, the priority now is to create the conditions in which these actors can continue to prosper. Both on the pitch, where the team needs structure and solidity, and outside. “We have a huge opportunity with the young talent that we have at the club,” he said this week, ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Norwich City on Boxing Day. “To me, how I train them is less important than the environment they grow up in.”
“They have the perfect place to grow up”
It is this desire to create the perfect “club culture” that explains why Arteta is so focused on the discipline of his players. The Spaniard’s treatment of Aubameyang, ostracized for repeated delays, shows that no player is exempt from the standards he has set for himself.
“They have the perfect place to grow up,” Arteta said of the young players. “They see the culture that has been established, they have people who are really willing to help them and a club that fully supports them.”
Arteta’s cause is helped by his own experiences as a young player. In his teens he was part of Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy, competing with some of the most talented players of his generation, and he knows well how important it is for this group to grow together and support each other. .
“When I lived at La Masia it was a room of eight,” said the Arsenal manager. âI had Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol [all of whom went on to win the World Cup with Spain]. They were all in my room. What I learned was that internally there was competition. In this competition, you understand that you have to take care of each other. It was a big lesson for me at that time.
For Saka and Smith Rowe, there is a bond created by their common journey through Arsenal academy. Martinelli and Odegaard didn’t go that route, instead being introduced to the club from the outside, but they are now firmly established as key members of the squad. Odegaard is a strong candidate to take the captaincy.
As players there is an exciting contrast of styles. Saka is a classic winger, dribbles to his full-back and creates chances. Martinelli stretches games running behind and is lethal in front of goal. Smith Rowe pushes the ball up and creates space for the others, while Odegaard is the playmaker who puts it all together. If three starts, as has been the case in the last few games, the fourth has a chance to make an impact on the bench.
There is, of course, no guarantee that these four forwards will lead Arsenal to success. But there is every reason to believe that they will improve together, and for Arteta and the fans, there will be nothing more exciting than watching them grow in the years to come.