Getting the balance right between youth and age

Here’s an exercise that I bet you don’t do: go to, click on one of the “lesser” leagues like Liga NOS, then click on player stats, then click on the detailed tab, then change the “shots” category from per game to total, then sort the shots data by total. Then I scan the results for players 21 years old and younger.

Why? I’m fascinated with young players who get lots of shots. Basically, if you see a guy under 21 who is getting 50+ shots a season, there’s a good chance this kid has talent. I consider it even better if the bulk of his shots are in the penalty area and/or in the 6 yard box.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all pretending that I’m a scout or that this is some kind of meaningful insight into football players. This is basic stuff: getting shots is difficult, if a young player is getting shots he must be doing something right, if he’s getting shots in the 18 yard box, he must be doing something really right. It’s also possible his team just really sucks but even if the team sucks, a young guy who is able to get shots on a sucky team is still probably pretty good.

I also look at their shot-footedness, key-passiness, and their dribbling stats. If I see a player with a large section of his shots with both feet, then I know he’s two-footed. Key passes show me how active he is in buildup and dribbling stats are the one I use to decide if a player is going to be an “ooohhhh” player, one of those guys that everyone thinks is better than he actually is.

But every time I do this, I “find” some “hidden” gem. Again, I’m not egotistical enough to think that these are undiscovered players by any stretch. I’m sure that every club in world football is scouting these players and running advanced stats on them. But for a layman like myself, it’s a fun diversion from my country’s developing Trumpwelian hellscape.

Doing this I “discovered” players like Anthony Martial, Gabriel Jesus, Gabigol, and Ousmane Dembele. Of course, I’m discovering them right at their peak value but still, it’s fun to be able to sort of predict when I think a player is about to make a big jump in value and or get bought up by a Premier League club.

For example, in Liga NOS, I guarantee that guy Andre Silva will get snapped up by some club soon. I watched his videos. He’s not really that impressive. But it’s hard to turn down the prospect of a 21 year old with 15 goals in 27 appearances in the league and Champions League.

The other guy I highlighted on that list, Jota, I would bet would be a high value player but then I noticed: he’s actually already on loan from Atletico Madrid.

Over in the Eredivisie, I got all excited by this young Turk named Enes Ünal. 19 years old and already among the most prolific shooters in the Dutch league. But I noticed he’s actually a Man City player on loan. Still there are others in that division: Gaston Pereiro (insanely left footed), Kasper Dolberg, and Queensy Menig (on loan from Ajax).

In the English league Championship there is a 19 year old named Tammy Abraham who plays for Bristol City. He already has 61 shots in the 18 yard box and an incredible 12 in the six yard box. Which explains why he has 15 goals this season. 8 of them in the 6 yard box. Oh, he’s on loan from Chelsea.

One thing you may have noticed is that there are a lot of players on loan from big clubs. Yep. That’s because the big clubs, I suspect, are capitalizing on the player value bubble and are spending money on players and player development.

Chelsea haven’t built a single brick of a new stadium but what they have done is invested heavily in young players. Chelsea currently have 36 players on loan. Man City have 28 players on loan, though a large number of them are failed former stars. Arsenal have 13.

Another team which seems to be doing well in the youth department is Borussia Dortmund. Signing Ousmane Dembele was a real coup. Currently playing in the wide role, Dembele is a silky dribbler and I suspect he will be moved central to replace Aubameyang in the next 2 years or so. Dortmund also signed Christian Pulisic an exciting young prospect and recently beat Real Madrid to the signature of a kid that the Spanish press (I read the Spanish papers) are ga ga over named Isak. This 17 year old Swede is already being hailed as the next Ibrahimovic. They also signed Emre Mor from under the noses of Man City and Man U and are going after Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem. They didn’t land Zelalem this month but the Guardian is reporting that they will be back after him in the summer.

Dortmund are able to sign all these young players because they are able to play them. The expectation at Arsenal among fans is for Arsenal to be title challengers and to buy complete players. I think the expectations at Borussia Dortmund are different, the supporters are happy with young, attractive football, and building for the future. Moreover, the Premier League is significantly more dangerous for young players than the Bundesliga. There is a real risk of burnout and injury in the Premier League.

But with Arsenal I wonder if it isn’t time to think of a new approach. As we get close to the end of the careers for Alexis and Özil it might be time to go back to 2007 and try another youth project with some young players augmented by older, cooler heads. With the money Wenger has at his disposal we could finally get a guy like Fabregas and surround him with the talent that would compete for the League title.

Or do you think Arsenal have enough youth already with Iwobi, Ox, Wilshere, Welbz, Holding, Bellerin, and the Jeff?



  1. I think it’s unrealistic to expect the club to embark on another “project youth” especially when it isn’t deemed necessary by the media and the fans. It is Arsene Wenger’s aura that has largely protected the club from splashing unnecessary money due to pressure from fans and media. Of course, the support from the board si equally important. But i expect, when Wenger goes, and a new manager comes in, there is going to be a HELL lot of pressure on him. He isn’t going to get any time to build any kind of youth project. Even if the fans are willing to have patience with the manager, they are going to want signings, if the trophies aren’t coming. And with such a tough competition already for the top four places, never mind the title, a competetion which is only going to get more tough, as Klopp, Pochettino, Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte get more time with their squads (never mind the suprise competetitor such as Leicester, West ham or Suthampton); the practical reality is more and more becoming that only the truly exceptional once-in-a-generation talents like Fabregas will be able to make it in a top team. One may point to the case of Iwobi and Bellerin, but you only have to see how remarkably consistent they have been over the time they have been afforded. How many young players can do that?

  2. It all depends on what you want to achieve. For Borussia, it’s probably sustainability since they know that winning the League again and against Bayern is probably an impossible mission.
    So, they cultivate young players, sell them for a large profit and also maybe get to play some cool football.
    Mind you, having those players as an important core of their first team squad is probably one of the reasons why they are 12 points behind the League leaders Bayern.
    So, for Arsenal to embark on something like that could mean increasing the probability of dropping out of the top four. This Chelsea team has practically not a single youth player in their starting eleven. All of them are seasoned experienced professionals. And those will win the League.
    Same last year. Leicester was built on the experience of the older heads in the team.
    Man City as well. United’s winning team also.

    So, I believe that, and especially in the PL, if you want to win the trophy, you can’t mess too much with integrating youth because sooner or later their inexperience will cost you games, and in a League where every single point could mean a difference between 3rd, 4th or 5th place, I don’t see why someone would risk that.

    Of course, we have Iwobi and Bellerin and they are both enormous talents, but who is to say we wouldn’t have been higher up the table if we had someone like Mahrez for example starting ahead of Iwobi?

    1. All well and true, but Dortmund still manage to be one of the best teams in the world, consistently going far in the Champions League. They’re no Southampton with a conveyor belt of talent; they are justifiably one of the best teams in the world. The problem is that in Germany you can be truly excellent and still not be close to Bayern – consistent CL qualification and progression deep in the tournament. In England you can at that level or just shy of it and finish 6th, and bomb out of the CL early because of fixture congestion and fatigue.

  3. Hmmm haven’t seen a lot of the Jeff, and he seems a very special prospect, so how we would find room to add more youth and actually get them playing? I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that the bulk of arsenals trusted youth are physically strong English players.

  4. I would like to see us give more opportunities to some of our younger players like Zelalem, Nelson and Mavididi. Willock is also a big talent. We do have the young talent, it is just that even when we do send them on loan, we never send them to the right teams. Some of our loans are horrible.

  5. A big difference between Arsenal and Man City/Chelsea is where the players are on loan (in addition to the number of loaned players). Arsenal seems to mostly loan to English League 1 (third division), Scottish Premiership/Championship (Premiership is ranked 23rd in UEFA’s first division European league rankings, below the likes of Israel, Cyprus, and Belarus), and Dutch Eerste Divisie (second division). Basically Arsenal loans player to the English third division and its equivalents or lower. There are few exceptions, but most of those are for slightly more senior players that have questionable futures at Arsenal (regardless of how well they do on the loan).

    Man City and Chelsea seem to send a lot of players to either the English Championship (a good second division) or the Dutch Eredivisie (ranked 9th by UEFA). Their players on loan are playing against significantly better competition (and anecdotally it seems like they have fewer cases like Gnabry/Crowley where the loaned player never features).

    Here is a quick breakdown of where Arsenal’s current loaned players are:
    Top country, first division: 4
    Top country, second division/middle country, first division: 3
    Top country, third or lower division/middle country, second division/low country: 5

    As a comparison, here is Chelsea:
    Top country, first division: 8
    Top country, second division/middle country, first division: 16
    Top country, third or lower division/middle country, second division/low country: 12

    Bottom line, it looks Arsenal is not collecting as much young talent and/or not doing as good a job developing it (or Arsenal much prefers to keep promising players in house whereas Chelsea/City like to loan them, which might also be consistent with the data).

  6. I get the feeling that Wenger has stopped looking for grade-A youth talent, and this might be a sign that he thinks he won’t be around to develop them, and doesn’t want to leave the next guy stuck with player investments that they may not have chosen for themselves. When the next guy comes in we might see a different strategy.

  7. In terms of age, the mix is fine. The real problem is the quality of some players. Stewart Robson thinks Wenger has a squad good enough to win the league while Paul Mariner thinks it’s not good enough. I would agree with Mariner. Take any Arsenal central midfielder, Coquelin, Elneny, Ramsey, Xhaka and even Cazorla, and they are simply not as good as those of the winning Arsenal teams (Vieira, Petit, Gilberto). Same thing with the centerforward position. Giroud does a good job, Sanchez is a world-class player, but none of them is a complete centerforward like Thierry Henry, who had pace, technique and physicality. If you take into account the greater competition in the league nowadays compared to 20 years ago, the comparison hurts even more.

    1. Cazorla is absolutely better than Petit and Gilberto, and in the same league as Vieira (though a completely different player than all 3, of course).

      1. Technically, Cazorla is better than Petit and Gilberto. But I’m talking here about the central midfielder position in front of the back four, not the No. 10 role. What is the main task of a central midfielder? From my viewpoint, it’s about bossing the midfield. Even with Cazorla, the Gunners have been completely outplayed or outmuscled by the big teams. The awful performances vs. PSG would have never happened with Petit, Vieira or Gilberto in midfield.

    2. i think you should rather compare them to the corresponding players of other teams. For central midfielders, for example, Our current top three are Coquelin, Cazorla, Xhaka. Chelsea have Matic, Kante, Fabregas; ManU have Fellaini, Pogba, Herrera; City have Toure, De Bruyne, Silva, Liverpool have Can, Coutinho, Henderson. Spurs have Dembele, Dier and others.
      So, i think our central midfielders are definitely better than all of them except perhaps City and Chelsea.

      1. There are plenty of names missing! For City, you can add Gundogan, Fernandinho and Fernando. For Liverpool, they also have Wijnaldum and Lallana. For Spurs, you can add Wanyama, Sissoko and Winks. And for United, Carrick is their key player.
        If you’re asking me, I’d prefer City and Chelsea central midfielders to those that we have at Arsenal. I also think United, Tottenham and Liverpool have a central midfield just as good as Arsenal’s. Mourinho has found the right balance with an inverted pyramid and Carrick in the holding midfielder role. And Spurs and Liverpool have the perfect type of players for their style of play (high press), very different from Arsenal’s brand of football.

  8. Apparently Dortmund is the place to go for any super talented teen. Its a smart move really. You will get games, cause the squad depth is thin, playing in a very good team under a good coach in a very friendly league, with no real pressure to actually win a trophy. And if you deliver on your potential every top club in the world will want you for your peak years. Arsenal can’t offer this anymore. We can’t even make it up with money because there are other clubs richer than us. So we are probably gonna miss on the next generation of top top class players like Dembele and Isak , who chose the Dortmund alternative, or Gabriel Jesus and Martial, who followed the money. It pains to admit it but probably going to Spurs is a more atractive proposition for a youngster watching how Ali and Kane are developing. I know someone can point at the breakthroughs of Bellerin and Iwobi but those look like happy accidents product of injury crisis rather than a meticulous planning.

    1. I have to take exception with the last statement. The rise of Bellerin happened in a season where people were screaming about having only one RB in Debuchy. It may have happened a bit quicker due to Debuchy’s injury, but integrating him was always the plan. In fact, I think we bought Debuchy instead of the Ivorian dude from PSG (I keep forgetting his name) because he offered a balance of experience and defensive nous to Bellerin’s youth and exuberance going forward.

      Iwobi just played his way into contention from the group where he was less fancied. By fans at least. Akpom was seen to be ahead of him.

      1. Yes, but Iwobi and Bellerin came up from the youth team. There wasn’t too much pressure and expectation on them, nor was the manager obliged to play them if they had suffered from bad from. Now consider a 19 year old youth who is too good to play for the youth team. Can we buy them and seriously offer them 30 starts a season? Isn’t it the same reason we had to loan out Chambers?

  9. I think it could definitely be worth a go concentrate less on established stars and more on the best young players around. We had a lot of success results and football wise under project youth and now as you say we’d be able to add a some genuine top class finished articles to the mix also.

  10. I’m incensed by some stupid comments from Arsene Wenger about Granit Xhaka. Way to publicly undermine your player. He’d never speak this way about Giroud, one of his blue-eyed boys. Here’s the ill-advised quotes from our manager, courtesy the Guardian.

    “I think he’s not naturally a great tackler,” said Wenger of a player Arsenal spent £25m to acquire from Borussia Mönchengladbach prior to the season. “In his decision making I think he is quite intelligent on the pitch. But it’s more the way he tackles that is not really convincing. He doesn’t master well the technique. I would encourage him not to tackle, to stay on his feet. Tackling is a technique that you learn at a young age. You can improve it but when you are face-to-face with somebody, it’s better you stay up.”

    Stupid. You coach your player’s fault privately. Why the f*** did you buy him, then?

    1. AW is very reluctant to do this normally.

      The face that he does that on Xhaka means that this way of management is the best one to have the desired effect on Xhaka.

      He is extremely lenient on Theo but even then he told him publicly that his defensive game is not good enough on the wing and Theo upped his game. So a little public admonishing now and then could be a good thing.

  11. What will HE do? When will HE leave? What will WE be as a club moving forward and what will be our acquisition strategy for players and we build and sustain the club without HIM? What system/philosophy? Will HIS shadow be long? Or will HE sadly be trumped by a new guy issuing executive orders and in an awkward attempt at trophies, trample HIS legacy?

    I had a terrible dream that HE just up and left after a disastrous season (this season as it happened in my dream) and left nothing and no one in place in terms of a succession plan or strategy.

    I think HIS time is long done but it scares me to be without that 20 year old blanket. Prickly in plenty of places, but so warm, so comforting and so familiar.

  12. I haven’t seen it but from descriptions, it sounds like John Moss strikes again with a phantom foul in the box that awards Hull a PK. Hence JM avoids being inflammatory during his post match interview.

    We better be on our toes against Southampton since they will be on a high after holding Pool scoreless over two legs in the EFL Cup.

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