Arsenal fully committed themselves to “Project Youth Mach 2” when they spent a full Summer window bringing in young, hungry, prospective stars. Last season, they embedded themselves into the Arsenal team, and this year there are early signs of the puzzle coming together to form an enticing picture. That picture? A highly competitive side riding toward the top, on the wings of budding young talents.
The question on many people’s minds — how far can they go now? Additionally, are fans willing to continue to ride the ride if it’s not as high as they want this year?
When a team has a project like this — one in which the crux of the team is built upon the shoulders of players twenty-one to twenty-four years old — it becomes a more nuanced conversation than simply, “we are Arsenal, you paid this money for them, go win now”. Believing that their prices or value isn’t attached to their status as prospects, or at least not taking it firmly into account, is willfully obtuse. Which is why this Arsenal project is still dependent on the likes of Saka, Martinelli, Ødegaard, and even a few others, continuing to take their next developmental leaps toward stardom.
Bukayo Saka, 20, Gabriel Martinelli, 21, and Martin Ødegaard, 23, are all integral parts of Arteta’s attack and instrumental contributors to the success that this team will — or won’t — have. When I hear people ask, “can this Arsenal side be title contenders”, I’m immediately following it up by asking, “are Saka, Martinelli, and Ødegaard ready to lead a team to title contention”? Are they mature enough and experienced enough to have that burden foisted on their shoulders and carried with grace?
The answer to this, you cannot just approach it from a goals and assists standpoint, but must take into account the personality and person. It should be more appreciated what it takes for a star to carry their team to major honors.
To Arsenal’s credit, these three are not being asked to carry the load without support. Additions of Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko bring a huge amount of winning experience, and figures like Xhaka and Partey will regularly aid in the cause — not to mention some of the experience often outside the starting lineup.
However, to be “contenders” any year, significant leaps in production would be needed. It will be a shock to few people that all eyes are on Arsenal’s attack to supply the goods to the tune of 80-90 goals. It’s a big ask. 20-3o more goals “big” to be exact. Every year of the Premier League varies, and this season is currently off to a competitive start, but it’s fair to suggest a contender also tallies at least 85-95 points, a 16-25 point improvement over last year.
Now, there’s no guarantee that’s what it WILL take, but if you’re asking yourself if Arsenal are contenders, you should be asking, “can the team create that much across a full campaign”?
To do that, Arsenal will need to see those three young stars develop that killer instinct; that extra gear that not only sees them control and dominate games, but unlock and finish them. This weekend, is a prime example of the gap between controlling and killing.
All three of these players had extended stretches where they really imposed themselves. They were key figures in Arsenal’s dominance of the ball, both Saka and Martinelli looked active and dangerous with the ball at their feet, but as a unit the trio were unable to convert that activity into goals, or shots on target really. Snatching at chances, Ødegaard missing opportunities to shoot, even a slight lack of creativity or versatility in how Martinelli and Saka moved when the other had the ball — very few attempts to get across the face of defenders or change things up to cause chaos — and in the end the final ball and finishing touch couldn’t be found often enough.
It happens. One game does not define a season, nor the players. This is simply being used as an example of young players able to control a game, impose themselves, create, influence, but lacking that experienced instinct kill and finish. Other days, we have seen them dominate and ruin defenses like attackers in the midst of their primes. What it comes down to is consistency. Last year, the word consistency was used a lot in the context of Arsenal, as a team, playing at that consistently high level that nears their ceiling of potential that allowed them to win enough games.
This year, it already feels like they have taken huge step forward in achieving that level of consistency. To be able to walk into Old Trafford and control the match for 60-70 minutes, at the level they did, should leave fans feeling like the team can control the ball against most teams in the league — all but two maybe. That alone will win them a large chunk of games this year. Now, it’s about finding the consistency in end product and developing that real gritty killer form that pushes them into that top, top tier they want to be amongst. That ability that Henry talked about The Invincibles having, to look at your opponent and say, “you’re not getting the better of me today” and deny it.
It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of players that young. Who are the players in the world that currently can lead their team to major honors? If Saka, Martinelli, and Ødegaard fit into that category, or are even close, it’s good company to keep. The thing is, it doesn’t feel like this aspect of the project will change before it’s climax. It will likely always be dependent on Saka and Martinelli hitting the next level, or the club pivoting if they cannot. Some have questioned whether Ødegaard can be replaced, well, they all can be. But it feels far more likely that we don’t see any of them replaced until we have a firm answer about their ability to grow and lead Arsenal to the promised land.
It’s well and truly their team. It feels likely to remain their team. Making that next leap to the next levels of production and consistency, while shouldering the responsibility stands as the next hurdle for these starlets to climb. The work is being shared, the demands will always be dispersed, but title contention still feels dependent on these rising stars being the differentiators.
So ask yourself, how high are those three ready to take Arsenal?