In August 1995 Manchester United opened their league campaign with a 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa. The United team that afternoon had Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes in its starting eleven, and David Beckham came off the bench to score United’s solitary goal. After the match Alan Hansen said “you win nothing with kids” a quote that’s become infamous with the ex Liverpool legend, as United’s kids went on to win the title and dominate the league for years the next 7 years. As a rule many felt that Mr Hansen was correct, you generally don’t win anything with kids in a league as tough and demanding as the English Premiership. The wealth of talent in the Manchester United youth team of that generation was well known by those in Manchester but bringing them through together was seen as a mistake, one that could test the patients of Alex Ferguson’s supporters for it was must remembered that he decided he would be exposing these players to sustained first team football in one of the hardest leagues for one of the most demanding teams following the close season sales of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis. United of course went on to win the title that season and Scholes, the Neville’s, Butt and Beckham would all soon be England internationals and forever consine Mr Hansen’s words to infamy and ridicule. So Fergie’s Fledglings graduated with honors and special mention, what of Arsene Wengers young chargers? Will they fulfill their prodigious talent just as Fergie’s class had? Will they form the backbone of a successful team this decade as Fergie’s had in the mid Nineties culminating in the treble winning team of 1999?
While the United class was made up of primarily local boys, Beckham was from London but was always a United supporter and had been at United since he was 11, Arsenals young guns come from Brazil, France, Switzerland, Togo, Senegal and only Theo Walcott born in England. United’s kids were plucked from some of the top boys teams in Manchester, Arsenals have come from the best breeding grounds all over the globe. Rather than, as is being wrongfully suggested, this being Wengers lack of belief in English talent, it is just the changing scene in English football as teams look to best cope with the spiraling transfer fees and wages, and stricter local pouching laws. teams now cast their nets outside England with the hope of unearthing the next Ronaldinho or Drogba at a fraction of the price the finished article would have cost while perhaps more importantly bringing these youngsters up within the English culture and avoiding the settling in years that all foreign players need. Even Manchester United’s famed youth set up has included bringing in a young defender, Gerard Pique from Barcelona and Giuseppe Rossi from Parma, and more recently a pair of twin fullbacks from Brazil. Thus this is not a Wenger trend but rather a need to stay competitive that all the top teams feel. Will this cosmopolitan setup have an adverse affect on the team spirit within the Gunners team? Time will ultimately tell but while a make up of primarily local boys would have made adapting to the youth setup at United easier for Fergie’s Fledglings, as they would have known the area and perhaps more importantly they would have still been staying at home with their respected families for the most part. This may not be the case these days and with specific reference to Arsenal but this may not hinder their progress and adaptation as much as one would think. Firstly it could help to weed out the tough from the weak as a certain amount of mental strength is needed to be uprooted from all you hold familiar and placed in a vacuum of the new and unfamiliar. As far as team spirit is concerned although this is a very competitive setup that they are being put into, one that has very few places for the hordes of young kids involved, for those that do make it a bond will be formed that is, in this case, Arsenal through and through in much the same way as boys sent off to boarding school or the army bond. personally, being placed in a different culture and environment to what you are accustomed to, with others of different backgrounds, cultures, languages etc and having to be exposed to this and adapt to it can only benefit these kids as human beings. And that can never be a bad thing.
So team bounding and spirit shouldn’t be a problem for the Arsenal youngsters, neither should expectation. Unlike a Ryan Giggs or Francesco Totti who came into their respective teams amid great hype and expectation these kids, much like the United team of the mid Nineties, are being brought through together and not alone. This means the ups and downs will be shared and dealt with as a group rather then primarily on individual young shoulders. A young player has a lot to deal with in a pressure cooker of an industry that has more stories of what could have been then what was. Being able to get through this with others who can actually relate to it rather then just saying they can will benefit them both in the short and long terms.
Another important factor here is trust. Just as Sir Alex had decided his young players were ready for first team football, and showed trust in them, not just by picking them, but also in the sales of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis, three very important players in previous title winning United teams. Not only was Ferguson showing trust in his young players, but he had also removed their safety net by selling players, effectively telling the kids that they are it, there’s no one else to take their place if things go wrong, so go out there and show me you can do it. This very same trust has been shown by Wenger with his young guns. He has used the Carling Cup to blood them and has given them a guarantee that they will start every game in the cup. This trust was best epitomized when his young team got all the way to the final and instead of bringing back Henry, Lehman and other older first team players Wenger played the same group of youngsters who had got them to the final. This trust in their ability and readiness not only spills over to their confidence but also intensifies their belief in their manager and strengthens the relationship that they have with him. Just as Wenger has put his trust in youth, they to have put their trust in him. Contrast this with free spending Chelsea who feels the need to justify the ridiculous amounts of money they spent with immediate results instead of fostering a growing team. John Terry has come up through the Chelsea ranks, but no one else has. They have recognized the promise of youth and gone out and picked them from other teams. These young players such as Glen Johnson, Wayne Bridge and Shaun Wright Phillips have had their very promising careers stalled as they languish on the bench and in the reserves or sent out on loan as Chelsea show little trust in youth. Clearly from the examples of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, who have successfully brought young players from the youth team through to the first team such as Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, trust plays a significant role in nurturing and developing young talent. Losing the cup final to a Chelsea team they totally dominated may be a good thing in the long run. It will teach them about disappointment and the unfairness of life, it will test their hunger and drive, and ultimately bring them back stronger and more determined.
A great advantage of bringing through this class together is that their individual styles and shape will be crafted into the Arsenal style. They will be brought up together playing the wonderful, fluid, attacking football that has made Wengers Arsenal one of the best teams to watch. While at Chelsea its the result that counts, and Liverpool at times attempt to bore their opponents into submission, Wenger wants to make his team artists, ready to marry both attractive style and results into what he sees as winning the right way. For this reason Wenger does not look for the stereotypical English player, hard, tough and gutsy, but instead seeks out the flair and mobile players that will fit into his plans for Arsenal. In Fabregas he already has the general who will lead this team for many years and is well on the way to becoming the best central mid field player in the world. With Denilson he has Fabregas right hand man who will use his silky skills and flair to open up the tightest defense with precision passing and sublime flicks. In Armand Traore, Clichy, Djourou, Adebayor and Walcott, Arsenal are assembling a unit that will look to bring silverware to their new Emirates home with style and class and many neutrals will be hopping they do. Keeping these prize jewels together may be Wengers toughest task as the world becomes more exposed to their rich talents and others coming cavorting. Let’s hope they stay together so we can enjoy watching whether or not they can live up to their promise. One thing for sure their football will be a joy to watch.