The Ajax team of the 70’s, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev of the early 80’s, Sacchi’s Milan of the late 80’s, Di Stefano’s Madrid, Cryuff’s Barca Dream Team, Manchester United of the late 00’s…
What do all these teams have in common?
They are all great teams that had sustained periods of success both domestically and in Europe. The fans of the respective clubs have fond memories of those teams and every team that was built right after will get uncanny comparisons to the aforementioned teams. We can attest to this as Arsenal fans. The closest we had to a great team but was dismantled too early to dominate and be regarded in the highest echelons of football was the invincibles.
The invincibles give me chills just thinking about them giving you a sense of nostalgia each time you watch you tube clips of them. We absolutely adored them; I mean who wouldn’t? They wowed us with skill week in week out. We would go to places like Stamford Bridge, San Siro, Anfield…and completely batter the opposition. Henry would get standing ovations at Anfield you’d be forgiven to think he was one of their own.
Fast forward the years to now and in comparison to that team our current team looks like a pale imitation. Supporters will often be heard saying ‘We want replacements for Vieira/Campbell/Henry…’ but no matter who the boss brings they can’t seem to measure up. Wenger/board has seemingly decided to not take the ‘spend, spend’ route but have decided to build a team from scratch.
Team building is a complicated process. It takes years to develop one that can provide a steady stream of players capable of handling the first team pressure. If you ask various supporters if ‘project youth’ has/hasn’t worked you’ll get two main camps at loggerheads with each other. I won’t get into this now but first I want to compare our youth system with Barcelona’s.
You must have already heard about Barca’s academy known as La Masia. They take players there at very young ages to train them focussing mainly on the technical aspect of the game. Like us they prioritise the technical aspect over the physical aspect with possession drills on 5 a side pitches a very common aspect.
Once you graduate there they take a player to their Barca B team which is plies its trade in the lower divisions of the Spanish league. This is the equivalent to our reserves but with a big difference. Unlike our players they face stiffer competition in the lower leagues which isn’t so apparent in the reserves matches. Most teams here loan out their most promising young players therefore depriving the reserves of some real competition.
Barca as a result can have the same players play in the same team since they were kids to the first team; case in point Cesc, Messi and Pique played through all levels together and were referred to as the class of 87. In England that is not the case since a club has to loan out its most promising players in the lower divisions to test them in a real competition. This is a major handicap in team building through this method in comparison to the Spaniards. We also face lots of difficulty in attaining players.
In England a youth player can only be recruited if he lives in a radius within a driving distance of one and a half hours. Considering how many clubs we have in London it makes it very difficult to acquire youth players. Barcelona on the other hand has only got Espanyol to compete with in a territory that resembles a country.
At Barca B they have a common roadmap for all promising youth players consisting of 3 phases: Phase 1, the player is placed in reserve; Phase 2, reserve-maturation; and Phase 3, being a key player for Barca B. All these phases are allocated 6-9 months each. At the end of each process evaluation is carried out. Graduates of this program get promoted to the first team. We on the other hand don’t have the luxury of having a team in the lower leagues to perform that evaluation in a competitive environment.
To compensate for this Wenger takes a massive risk whereby he promotes players to the first team at a very young age. With this move we expose our players to the spotlight too early. We then proceed to make millionaires out of youngsters. A young player has to have very strong mental attributes to be able to cope with this as our sports psychologist, Jacques Crevoisier, told the Daily Mail in an interview a while ago.
For every Cesc and Jack we have hundreds of Bentleys and Hoytes as a result. Bentley had talent but the spotlight made him think he is already a star. We pamper our youngsters too much making them believe they are established players. We have already seen this in our team this season.
We have recruited Jon Toral Harper from Barca who we are allegedly going to pay him 25-35 times what he got at Barca. He has also received guarantees that he will be in the first team by 2012-2013 season.
A Barca youth player on the other hand will have to bide his time before he gets a first team promotion. Personally I feel this is where we fail. Relying on youngsters who already think they are kings of the world has been our downfall. We choose to force youngsters through in order to vindicate the system.
Barca simply go out and buy established players if they feel their own aren’t ready or not good enough. The standards are so high and a player will have to work very hard to make the cut. Some gain promotion at 18 others at 23 but they never rush their players. I personally feel this is where we need to rectify the system.
Arsene has done a marvellous job with us so far as I have outlined how difficult it is to follow this route especially in England with so many challenges. I maintain we are close to having a great team but he needs to supplement the ones we have with buying players in positions the academy is ill-equipped to provide. The xavis/iniestas/messis were allowed to grow and develop in the backdrop of the likes of Ronaldinho/Deco/Guardiola and as a result they gained experience slowly under no pressure but are now fully developed challenging for honours.
This is the final step to what Wenger has been building towards. Let’s hope he is brave enough to take it this summer to ensure we have another team that will wow us through an entire season from now on.
Written by K-TR7