With another mediocre campaign in the rearview mirror, Arsenal are staring into the abyss of the summer transfer window with more questions than there are answers. In desperate need of a roster shakeup, the Gunners have already been linked to countless players with varying levels of veracity since the final whistle sounded. But after Unai Emery’s first season, the road to a rebuild is littered with potholes.
The first, and most widely covered, roadblock is funding. The current money-mad hellscape of European soccer has seen Arsenal and the rest of the league boat raced by the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, whose wanton spending has helped create a market where the £50 million in summer transfer funds Arsenal reportedly have available falls well short of the mark if they want to purchase an elite player.
And unless billionaire owner Stan Kroenke has a Grinch-like moment where he increases the transfer budget by three times its original size overnight, Arsenal will have to do some creative financial prestidigitation to improve its squad. Several players are already off the books after Arsenal announced their release this week, and several more will surely be sold in order to free up roster space and money, but the uncertainty of “who” and “for how much” means that Arsenal are still going to have to go bargain hunting to fill in vital vacancies for the time being.
There is, however, an obvious and very feasible solution to the issue, albeit one that all but guarantees that Arsenal will endure more growing pains next season than they have in quite some time. That solution? The youth.
For all of Arsenal’s well-documented shortcomings in the Premier League, they have been incredibly successful in the U23 and U18 leagues. Arsenal’s U23 squad, coached up until recently by one Mr. Freddie Ljungberg, finished second in the English Premier League 2, while the U18 squad were champions of the U18 Premier League. Hell, coupled with the women’s team’s FA Super League title, Arsenal’s first team was their most underperforming outfit this season.
The notion that youth could or should be a focal point for Arsenal would seem antithetical to the goals of a club as prestigious as the Gunners have historically been. But without the funds to compete with the rest of the big clubs and facing an identity crisis, Arsenal’s goals are shifting, and could very well look to their youth ranks to help rebuild and retool their first team in a rare era of transition.
If there’s one thing that international soccer has show recently, it’s that there is success to be found with a young rotation. Ajax’s success in the Eredivisie and the Champions League this past season was one of the most refreshing storylines in a sport dominated by big money clubs and big money superstars. Playing the sort of free-flowing, entertaining soccer that brings to mind visions of Arsene Wenger’s most entertaining sides, Ajax took the soccer world by storm in the Champions League, only to have Tottenham ruin all the fun for everyone.
Players like Mathias De Ligt (19) and Frenkie de Jong (21) have gone from promising young prospects to the stars of tomorrow over the course of one season. Looking at Ajax’s roster, you would be hard pressed to find a player over the age of 27, as they fielded all of four players 28 and older. No matter if Ajax decides to cash in on their success and up-and-coming players of retain as many as possible to continue their trajectory, their model has been an unquestionable success.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s underachieving roster has been top heavy with aging talent with low resale value for several years, a testament to the club’s awful business acumen. In total, the Gunners’ first team rotation featured 11 players over the age of 28 last season, with the majority of their oldest players in the defense, far and away Arsenal’s most beleaguered position group. 28 is far from old, but it’s usually the time that players sign their last large contracts, thereby signaling that their best days are numbered.
Despite the age disparity, there were plenty of young players who were integral to Arsenal’s campaign. Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin (both 23) were mainstays in the defense until injuries prematurely ended their seasons, opening the door for Ainsley Maitland-Niles (21) to contribute heavily. The revelatory Lucas Torreira (23) terrorized opponents to great effect in the middle of the pitch. Academy product Alex Iwobi (23) came into his own as a promising outside attacker. Even Matteo Guendouzi (20) showed glimpses of a bright future.
The recent coaching shakeup that saw Freddie Ljungberg switch roles with Steve Bould is a far more evident indicator to many that Arsenal are preparing to integrate more youth. Freddie’s success with the U23 squad has shown that he is more than just a pretty face, but an adept developer of talent as well. His familiarity with the U23 squad is a clear advantage if Arsenal want to make the most of their academy products.
The good news for a rebuild is that Arsenal have an abundance of young, talented players. While we saw a considerable amount of Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles over the season with the first team, players like Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah saw brief and promising cameos with the first team while being dominant members of the U23 squad. Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe plied their trades in Germany on loan, and both look poised to feature for Arsenal’s first team. Even the Gunners’ first acquisition of the window, 17 year old Brazilian attacker Gabriel Martinelli, hints that Arsenal are looking to supplement their roster with youth and potential at a cheaper price than proven commodities at eye-watering wages.
Arsenal’s future is murky, perhaps murkier than it has been in quite some time. If even a quarter of the current rumors making their rounds are remotely close to true, it will prove to be a busy summer for the Gunners. Players will come and go, but after counting on and being let down by an aging roster for too long, there is no better time to let the kids play.