As you may, or may not, know, Arsenal have a new Academy Manager, Andries Jonker. Jonker was charged with the unenviable task of replacing Liam Brady, a club legend both as a player and as Head of Arsenal's Youth Development for nearly 18 years. (Somewhat off topic: If you have not yet read this interview with Liam Brady, stop and do so now before proceeding further. It's an essential look at that role's responsibilities in the modern game, particularly at Arsenal.)
Jonker was officially appointed on January 20, 2014, but up until now, we had not really heard from him. That all changed yesterday as he sat down with Arsenal dot com for his first official interview since being named the shepherd of Arsenal's youth flock. In this relatively short interview, he gives us a glimpse of what to expect from the Academy over the coming years.
He's got pedigree! Also has the desire to compete at the top levels of world football.
When you have been working at top clubs in Europe, and I was lucky with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, then you also notice the difference with a level that is lower. You know the ambition in a top club, you know the atmosphere in a top club is all about winning and if it is a club I like with history, exposure then you can feel quite comfortable. I have found out about myself. At those clubs I have found myself very comfortable. Of course I was proud to be asked by Arsenal to be manager of the academy, and if you have that row of clubs - Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Arsenal - then you get the feeling I have to do this.
As a Dutchman who had his hand in the development of young Dutch talent for many years, he strongly believes in bringing players up through the youth academy into the first team.
...[Bringing young players through early] that is what is at Barcelona and what Louis [Van Gaal] brought to Bayern Munich. That is typical to Ajax and Dutch football, and I felt very comfortable with that. I knew it and when I spoke in the beginning with Ivan Gazidis and he explained to me the philosophy of the club, and later Arsène Wenger, I felt very at home with it. It was nothing strange to me - it felt like it was the way it has to be.
He has seemingly kept much of the academy backroom staff intact from the Brady era, but has also added two of his countrymen, Jan van Loon and Frans de Kat, as coaches for the U16s and U18s, respectively. The fact that this apparently was done at the club's behest indicates a desire to re-energize what has been a stagnant youth system over the past few years at Arsenal with some foreign ideas.
One of the pieces of advice I got from people at Arsenal was to bring in a Dutchman because then there is always a certain influence of myself on the facility...With the English guys I asked Liam [Brady], ‘What is your advice?’ and he said, ‘They are good - keep them.’ They are all there and I am trying to let them work together with the Dutch guys and so far the start was fine.
He wants to emphasize a particular style of play up until the age of 15 or 16, which is in line with the school of thought espoused by many that there can be minimal growth in technique after the age of 16. He emphasizes that after that, the teams may take more of an elastic approach, as they should focus on winning at that point. It interesting that he has yet to speak to Arsene about the tactical approach of the youth team considering the consensus seems to have been that Arsene has had his fingerprint on all aspects of the club. Perhaps this is a sign that he's beginning to delegate more responsibilities.
I think we should do that until a certain age, 15 or 16 years old, because there is a certain way of playing that we think is the best way to teach players how to play football. From that age on, they should learn how to win games. That is also where you can give coaches freedom, depending on their player group, of what way to play.
The other way is to make sure you have the players available in every age group who can play in the system we want to play with the first team. That is what I have to find out from Arsène - how much value he gives to us all playing in the same way. So far he doesn’t say a thing about it and I am just watching what sort of choices people make.
He wants us to be patient, which is very fair.
I give you an example, Liam Brady. [He was] 18 years at Arsenal and he had the patience to stay in the job and Arsenal also had the patience to leave him in his job. For sure there have been years when no players were presented to the first team, and years when it has been successful. That is the thing with youth, you have to be patient.
The manager, the staff and in fact the players have to wait for a chance and you need to have confidence in the choice the manager makes, because the manager of the first team has to make sure the team wins. If he thinks the chance is bigger without the youth players, he shouldn’t bring them [in] but if he thinks the chance is bigger with the youth team players, then please [take them]. I think having an academy demands patience from everyone involved and conviction about the quality of the work you deliver.
It's no secret, although the club may want it to be, that our Hale End operation hasn't exactly been churning out top prospects in recent years. Wilshere and Gibbs (who joined our setup at 14 after his old club and academy, Wimbledon, ceased to exist) are the only Hale End graduates who have broken through into regular first team action in quite a while. While we have a good reputation of blooding young prospects, most of those have come through the youth ranks at different clubs, foreign or domestic, with minimal development required before jumping into the first team. Only time will tell if Jonker can reverse that trend.