Arsene Wenger made his name by developing unknown talent into superstars. In recent seasons, he has hardly tried to sign young players or use them in meaningful matches. As the club’s key players age, it becomes more and more apparent that Wenger does not have replacements ready.
Arsene Wenger always had a penchant for developing young players into world-beating superstars during his time at Arsenal. The Frenchman bought Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, and Kolo Toure and brought Ashley Cole up from the youth academy to help form Arsenal’s Invincibles, the team that went unbeaten to win the Premier Leauge in 2003/04. When they joined, Henry was 22-years-old, Vieira was 20, Ljungberg was 21, and Toure was 21. The legendary manager played a huge role in the development of each of those players, but in recent years, he has done little to further build his reputation of being one of the best at helping players fulfill their potential.
Many years have passed since Arsene Wenger went out and signed a young player and developed him with success. The last time Wenger signed a young player for the first-team was in 2013, when Yaya Sanogo arrived on a free transfer. That addition to the squad reaped absolutely no success, as Sanogo’s best performance came in the 2014 Emirates Cup. Sanogo made 11 competitive appearances before he left the club for Toulouse in 2017.
The club’s biggest signings were all over the age of 25 when Wenger signed them. Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and now-departed Alexis Sanchez were all necessary signings, but now there are too many important players in the Arsenal team either on or close to the wrong side of 30. Ozil and Mkhitaryan are 29, Aubameyang is 28, Laurent Koscielny is 32, and Nacho Monreal is 31. Of those five players, only Aubameyang has a definitive long-term replacement in the form of Eddie Nketiah.
The additions of Sven Mislintat, Raul Sanllehi, and Huss Fahmy give Wenger less responsibility for transfers and scouting, so the club will pivot towards signing younger, lesser-known players rather than well-established veterans. With more minds working on transfers for the club, Wenger can turn his focus away from the backroom and towards the pitch. The 68-year-old does not have the same energy as he did when he joined the club 20 years ago, and with the football world moving much faster now than it did in 1998, help for Wenger was long overdue.
At the moment, Arsenal have a nice collection of talent in their youth academy: Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, and Joe Willock highlight the group provisioned to help take Arsenal back to its glory days. Arsene Wenger refuses to give any of them consistent game time, which makes sense because each of them is just 18-years-old. Wenger and his backroom staff need to find a few players between 18 and 23-years-old who can step into the first XI and stay there for the next decade, leading the club to glory in the process.
Arsenal’s Age Issues
Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi are the two youngest members of the first-team that get meaningful playing time. Bellerin made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2014 and thoroughly impressed in the absence of Mathieu Debuchy. He won the starting right-back slot and has not looked back until now. The Spaniard’s averaged WhoScored rating in the league this season sits at 6.76, only the 13th-best in the Arsenal squad. Additionally, the full-back makes merely 0.2 crosses per game. The 22-year-old’s development stalled greatly this year, begging fans to ask if Wenger has lost his ability to advance the talents of his players.
Iwobi has not been much of a credit to Wenger’s supposed aptitude for getting homegrown talent to flourish with the first team. The 21-year-old Nigerian international has shown plenty of flashes of brilliance since he broke through from the youth ranks in 2015. The winger’s main issue is that he lacks an end product and is far too inconsistent. The 21-year-old’s does well when creating space between himself and a defender, but he shows how one-dimensional he is when he tries to play a pass or take a shot after he separates from a defender.
Arsenal’s average age of 26.9 years sits 14th-highest in the Premier League, but the team has no exciting young talent to fill the seats each week and make fans eager to see what the future has in store. Reiss Nelson is the closest thing the Gunners have to that player, but in Arsene Wenger’s eyes, he’s not quite ready to make the jump to regular first-team football.
After the English center back joined the club in 2016, Wenger chided that he was “sorry Rob Holding did not cost £55m” when fans begged the ex-Nagoya Grampus manager to get active in the transfer market. His philosophy of developing players rather than spending huge money worked for a while early in his Arsenal career, but now, the club’s leader has to do both.
There are plenty of great young players out there, but the north London club will have to pay big money to get them and spend a lot of time to help fulfill their potential. The club certainly has the funds to acquire big names, but time will reveal whether or not Wenger can still work his magic and build players into stars.