The idea of rostering young players that “have great potential” has turned into a cruel joke for Arsenal fans. The recent departures of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and now Robin van Persie exemplify Arsenal’s major retention problem. Arsenal’s system of relying on youth has been a failure, and Arsenal’s board of directors is quickly learning that fans don’t care if you develop young talent if the club ultimately can’t retain these players.
Arsenal has turned into a feeder program for the bigger clubs who simply buy off the best players as soon as they reach their prime. Emirates Stadium is turning into the world’s best youth academy—just not for Arsenal.
But Arsenal continues to publicize their youth. Official videos on their website proudly trumpet the fact that “Arsenal boasts the Premier League’s youngest roster!” Is this really something to be proud of?
Arsene Wenger continually praises Arsenal’s youth-based system, and it has become part of his legacy: transforming young players into superstars. And although Wenger has a keen eye for discerning future soccer talent, the truth is that Arsenal’s very best years have been when they’ve started their oldest players.
During the 97/98 championship season, Arsenal’s defense was anchored by veterans Nigel Winterburn (age: 34), Lee Dixon (33), Tony Adams (31) and Emmanuel Petit (27). And although Vieira (21) and Anelka (18) were stunningly young to be featured for such a large club, they were coupled alongside Dennis Bergkamp (28) and Ian Wright (34).
The 01/02 Championship season featured the magnificent Thierry Henry, and although he may have seemed like a youngster at the time, he was 24, one year older than Theo Walcott’s is now. The only regular Arsenal starter younger than the age of 24 was defender Ashley Cole (21).
During Arsenal’s famous Invincible season (03/04), most of the team was considered veteran by today’s standards, and the youngest regular starter on the team was once again, Ashley Cole (23).
Despite the fact that Arsenal’s greatest achievements have come when they’ve rostered predominately veteran players, Wenger has warmly accepted the youth stereotype that has been attached to him, and he continues to promote a youth-based system. It may ultimately lead to his downfall.
The recent transfer signings of Olivier Girous (25), Santi Cazorla (27) and Lukas Podolski (27) may be a sign that Wenger’s policies are changing. But these recent “big signings” (by Arsenal standards) may not be enough to stabilize a team that has suffered one the decade’s worst meltdowns.