We’ve waited so long, waited so long
Imagine being an 18 year old Arsenal academy player, born after the current manager took over the club, you grew up idolizing Thierry Henry as a 6 year old, you have been an Arsenal supporter all your life, you got an Arsenal academy berth after rivals Chelsea cut you, you scored 24 goals in 35 youth team appearances, which matched the 24 goals you had scored the season before, and the manager asks you to come on in the 85th minute of a League Cup tie, in which your team are down 1-0, and with your very first touch you score the equalizer. That might just be the stuff that dreams are made of.
It was a dreadful game from an Arsenal perspective and one that needed an injection of youthful vigor. In the late stages of the match, Arsenal supporters were near silent – a hush had fallen over the crowd as it resigned itself to a 1-0 loss to Norwich.
At one point Arsenal were lucky that makeshift center back Mo Elneny wasn’t sent off for a last man challenge, though on the balance it looked like a yellow card was the right call since Rob Holding was nearby. Arsenal also escaped a stonewall penalty when Matt Debuchy hauled down Husband in the box. Both refereeing errors prompted the Norwich manager to fume “I wondered why he could have all these decisions in favour of Arsenal. I am pretty sure the referee and linesman want to give their best and we have to accept these mistakes. To be honest it’s really annoying.”
Arsenal were barely hanging on against the swift counter attacking of Norwich. Time and again the Canaries were getting in behind Arsenal’s high back line, causing chaos and getting off good shots. Their game plan of pressing and harassing the Gunners was working, Wilshere and Giroud – who had just claimed the Puskas award for his scorpion kick goal the night before – couldn’t seem to conjure up the same magic that had saved the day against Red Star Belgrade just a week ago. And Theo Walcott, who has been with the club for ten years, couldn’t finish or find a final ball that would help his team to the win.
In that moment of silence, Arsene Wenger sent on Edward Nketiah. And with his very first touch he scored. Nketiah ran over to the corner flag, brushing his teammates off him so they couldn’t cover him up, and announced himself to the Arsenal faithful.
His goal took Arsenal into extra time and seemed to electrify the Arsenal attack. He scored a header to put Arsenal ahead, and it was one of those rare headers where a small guy just seems to want it more than the defenders. He seemed to hang in the air, almost seemed to stretch himself out, make himself taller, but however he managed to defy physics, he scored. The crowd started chanting “Eddie, Eddie”.
Wenger was full of praise, especially for the second goal: “I like especially the header he scored. He is not tall. He has a determined attitude. When the team needs you and you can deliver, that is a quality that you don’t know until you put the player on.”
Wenger seems to have found, or perhaps more accurately re-found, a love for the academy players. It was once a given that Arsenal had two teams: one for the League Cup and one for the rest of the matches but this season, Wenger is mixing things up more often.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been such a strong player for Arsenal that he has been used in all three competitions this season. His performances prompted Wenger to issue a warning “He can also play central midfield, but I must say that he’s close now to being a regular in the first team as well. I would be on my toes if I was a regular player in the Arsenal first team. His preferred position is central midfield and that’s where I believe he will end up.”
Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are two players who have also managed to get on the team sheets pretty regularly this season and now Wenger has seen what young Nketiah can do, I have to wonder if he will be knocking on some doors looking to get in a starting lineup.
An injection of youth is exactly what Arsenal need this season. There is a dark cloud hanging over the club, what with Ozil, Wilshere, and Alexis all at the end of their contracts and rumors that Ozil has already said goodbye to his teammates, bragging that he’s off in January. The senior players are fantastic and when they are on form they can turn in performances like the 5-2 win over Everton. But Wenger may want to consider re-launching the youth project that he famously installed 10 years ago.
There are a lot of good reasons to move away from buying and playing established players: fans give young players more leeway to make mistakes, seeing young players score or make a great tackle feels more thrilling and gives the fans in the stadium more to cheer for, especially if they are academy products or players born in and around London. And we don’t even have to mention the financial impact: young players are no longer bargains in world football. It’s smarter to develop an MBappe rather than buy one.
We don’t know if Wenger is planning another youth revolution at Arsenal but I do know that the one from 2007-2012 was full of fun football to watch and made for an exciting team to follow. And while that team fell short of winning trophies and broke a lot of hearts when it disbanded, this team full of expensive stars has also fallen short and is disbanding in an equally heartbreaking fashion. Given that, I’d rather Arsenal go with youth.
Wenger’s last word:
“I am impressed by that to think he was not even conceived when I was already here,” said Wenger. “Life gives a chance to young people. Hopefully he will make a long career at Arsenal football club.”