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Beyond promoting Freddie Ljungberg, Arsenal have to play their academy prospects

Having Freddie Ljungberg in the dugout will only do so much. The will to play Arsenal’s prospects has to come from Unai Emery.

Arsenal v West Ham United - Premier League 2 Photo by James Chance/Getty Images

The promotion of Freddie Ljungberg—an effective job swap with Steve Bould—proved quite a splash in Arsenal news. Absence of any credible rumours, be it of departures or arrivals, before this weekend’s Ornstein release, the appointment of Ljungberg to Arsenal’s first team coaching staff signaled that Arsenal intend to use their academy prospects. There are, of course, other reasons why Ljungberg may have been promoted. It is possible that Arsenal’s hierarchy see him as a future head coach. Perhaps they felt Ljungberg could be the link between Unai Emery and his old teammate, Edu, Arsenal’s next technical director.

Perhaps Edu wanted Ljungberg on the coaching staff—someone he could know and trust, with the rest of Arsenal’s staff having been brought in by a triumvirate that has seen two members, Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat, leave. There are numerous reasons why Ljungberg has been promoted, but Arsenal’s official stance is to improve continuity between the academy and the first team, ensuring a smooth transition for academy graduates and protecting Arsenal’s values (read: kids are cheaper than signing players and we want to save money).

This is a good thing. Arsenal’s academy has produced a number of talents over the last few years, many of whom have ended up elsewhere in search of first team football. Indeed, it is how Serge Gnabry ended up at Werder Bremen and then Bayern Munich, a regrettable loss. Appointing Ljungberg provides Unai Emery with a member of staff who he can talk to in games and discuss what strengths an academy graduate has, and whether said player can be trusted.

But beyond that, there has to be the desire from Unai Emery to play academy graduates. This could be complicated. Emery has one year left on his contract, with an option for a third, and if he believes that results alone will dictate his future, then he is unlikely to call upon younger players. Thus, it has to be an organizational directive; otherwise, Arsenal cannot guarantee that young players will play.

While Emery deserves credit for giving ample game time to Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Matteo Guendouzi, other young players were not as lucky. Despite Danny Welbeck missing the final 7 months of the season, Eddie Nketiah played sixty-three minutes in the Premier League, and one hundred and eighty in the Europa League; more than the season before, but the season before Arsenal had Theo Walcott, Alexis Sánchez and Olivier Giroud during the first half of the season, in addition to Alexandre Lacazette, Welbeck and then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Joe Willock played fewer Premier League and Europa League minutes, despite being the one to replace Mesut Özil in the Europa League final.

With participation in the League Cup and the Europa League, which has a laughably easy group stage, Arsenal have ample opportunity to test young players in real, competitive matches, against professional opposition. It is the one benefit of having the Europa League; while teams in the Champions League have tough weekday matches, Arsenal can give the first team extra recovery time. Yet this is something that in his first season, Unai Emery failed to take advantage of, in both the League Cup and the Europa League.

In the League Cup, at home to Brentford, Emery started Nacho Monreal—who would succumb to a hamstring injury soon after—and brought on Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette. In the next round, at home League One Blackpool and in between an away game at Crystal Palace and a home game against Liverpool, Emery started Shkodran Mustafi, Aaron Ramsey, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and brought on Alex Iwobi, Lucas Torreira and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. In the Europa League, with qualification assured, Rob Holding played an hour at Vorskla; Holding would suffer a season-ending ACL injury a week later. Earlier in the campaign, away at Qarabag in Baku, Sokratis and Nacho Monreal started, and Torreira, Lacazette and Mesut Özil all came on.

These are all opportunities that could’ve gone to Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Zach Medley, Jordi Osei-Tutu, or other youth players. Putting Freddie Ljungberg in the dugout can only do so much; at a certain point, Emery has to recognize that he can utilize his young players. Without game time, they will not develop, to either become options for Arsenal, or sellable assets. Arsenal’s Europa League participation, then, gives Emery a chance to recoup future money by using young players; thus far, much like his first season in the Europa League, he has failed to take advantage of the opportunity.