It’s evident to Arsenal fans that bringing in aging players discarded by other clubs is not the formula to building a winning team. Since joining Arsenal, Willian has looked a shell of the player that he once was at Chelsea. Meanwhile, David Luiz may be a positive force in the locker room, but his play is erratic and error prone.
Both Willian and Luiz were missing from Arsenal’s holiday fixtures due to sickness. While no one wishes ill on either of these players, it was evident that the Gunner’s played their best football of the season during this period.
In their absence Arteta handed starts to youngsters Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli. The chance to see three of the club’s most exciting young players thrown into the mix had fans excited.
Arsenal's starting line-up today (average age 25 years, 42 days) is the club's youngest to have won a PL game since Sept 2012 (24 years, 266 days in 6-1 win Southampton) pic.twitter.com/JkHulRo2rN— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) December 26, 2020
Coincidence or not, the Gunners have won three straight games, scored eight goals, kept two clean sheets and played some energetic and attractive football.
While Arteta has received praise for turning to the youngsters, it’s important to remember the role former Academy manager and Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg had in their development.
Ljungberg was named assistant first-team coach under former manager Unai Emery in June 2019. In one of their first meetings Ljungberg recommended promoting Saka to the first team. Emery trusted the Swede, and Saka came off the bench in November 2018 in the Europa League to make his debut against Vorskla Poltava.
Since Arteta replaced Emery at the end of 2019, Saka has played in almost every game and has become a regular first-team player. He’s the club’s best assist provider and came in third in the 2020 Arsenal Player of the Season award.
Saka recognizes the part that Ljungberg played in his development.
You did so much for me and for our club ! Forever grateful ❤️ Legend https://t.co/YONNr0WbWv— Bukayo Saka (@BukayoSaka87) August 22, 2020
Emile Smith Rowe is another player that benefited from the Swede’s coaching. Ljungberg gave Smith Rowe his Arsenal first-team competitive debut on September 20, 2018 as a sub against Vorskla Poltava in the Europa League. He started the following Europa League match against Qarabağ and scored in a 3–0 victory. His first goal at the Emirates came in a 2–1 victory over Blackpool in the EFL Cup in October 2018.
Smith Rowe then had loan spells with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga and Hull in the Championship.
Now that Smith Rowe has been given his opportunity with Arsenal’s first team, he has seized it. Against Chelsea, he set up Saka for Arsenal’s third goal. He then recorded his second assist in three games at West Brom. The midfielder started the move and then provided the final pass for a simple Saka tap-in
Smith Rowe even received praise from Mesutz Ozil watching from home.
Ljungberg’s impact wasn’t limited to academy graduates. He was the one to hand Martinelli his Premier League debut in a 1–0 win against Newcastle United in August, 2019.
Martinelli was given his first start in September 2019 in Arsenal’s 5–0 victory over Championship side Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup. The Brazilian rewarded Ljungberg’s decision by scoring a brace.
Martinelli repeated this feat with another brace, plus an assist, in the Gunner’s 4–0 home win over Standard Liege in the Europa League in October 2019. Later that month, Martinelli scored another two in a 5–5 League Cup draw with Liverpool. He thus became the first player to score four times in his first four starts since Ian Wright.
In January 2020, Martinelli scored what would be voted Arsenal’s Goal of the Season in a 2–2 away draw at Chelsea. With Arsenal down to ten men, the Brazilian ran the length of the pitch and slotted home. The goal made Martinelli the first teenager to reach double figures in a single season for Arsenal since Nicolas Anelka.
Martinelli missed the rest of the 2020 season after undergoing knee surgery and just returned from the injury last month.
Other first team players that Ljungberg has worked with at the Academy level include Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock. Ljungberg may have moved on to pursue his own coaching opportunities but his work with the youngsters is currently having a major impact now.