Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Arsenal are the youngest team in the Premier League.
Yeah, me too.
But at this early stage in Arsenal’s project, to boast that fact while also having a team that sits atop the table and has won 9 of their first 10 matches, it’s a big deal. It’s something to be very proud of as fans and a club. And when Arsenal embarked upon this plan by buying only players under the age of 24, they were criticized as a team that was putting their eggs in a risky basket and had no intention of competing for anything in the next three or four years while these players aged.
One person even told me this plan was conceited of Arsenal who must think too highly of themselves if they believe talents like Saka and Smith Rowe would wait around for Arsenal to compete.
Well, the project is going great, they were — and some continue to be — very wrong, and this Arsenal team is built on a foundation that could see them competing at this level and higher for the next decade. But to see that decade come to fruition, and give themselves a real opportunity to push beyond the decade mark and continue their window of success, Arsenal will have to strike a tricky balance.
Yesterday, news broke of Albert Sambi Lokonga’s anger and frustration with Belgium manager Roberto Martinez. In an interview, he states:
“I called him [Martinez] the day after the international match in March. I was really pissed off. I thought for a moment that I didn’t even want to play for the national team anymore. I was disgusted.”
“Martinez said he preferred players who are playing regularly at their club. He was also not completely satisfied with my training. I don’t think he can portray me as a bad boy who doesn’t work hard. It would be too easy to put up such a picture of me. He can’t use something like that to justify why I don’t get to play.”
And while Sambi said his frustrations are not with Mikel or Arsenal, he did say, “at the end of last season, I almost snapped.”
“I called my agent to ask him if staying at Arsenal was a good idea. He comforted me in my choice, even though I know I need to start more often to develop.”
Quick thoughts on Sambi individually:
- This interview and the language used by him feels a little rash and petulant. “Disgusting”, “snapped”, I understand his frustration, but I can’t help but feel this is an interview he is unlikely to do when he ages into his career. It all comes off as more childish than he probably thought it would.
- It’s good to hear that most his frustration lies outside of London Colney and at the feet of Roberto Martinez
- When you move from a team as the start prospect and join a team of stars and other young star prospects, it can be an adjustment.
I can remember Kieran Tierney commenting on his first practices with Arsenal and being amazed by how technically gifted and skilled the likes of even Gabriel Martinelli, who was only 18 at the time — although very gifted I am sure.
Tierney’s response was the internal conversation that he himself had to raise his game and work to be worth of playing in this side, Lokonga should look to do the same, but the frustration is understandable. Every player wants to play and every young star is going to be very aware of fulfilling their potential, which leaves Arsenal with a challenge and a responsibility.
Arsenal and their club leadership’s first responsibility is to the club, always. The best choices are the ones that put the club in a better position to succeed, of course. But as they look to push this project forward, while setting themselves up for extended success, they will need to look after young stars and continue to build, or rebuild, their reputation as a club where youth stars and prospects can come, grow, and succeed.
There is little doubt that in my mind that this is a tough balance to strike in these early stages. Arsenal already have the youngest squad in the league, and trying to fit even more inexperienced or younger youth can be a daunting prospect. In the case of Lonkonga, he finds himself competing against two players — Xhaka and Partey — that are not only two of Arsenal’s best staples, they are two of Arsenal’s few veterans and experienced players. That’s not the easiest job to win for Lokonga whose play has divided opinions and left fans debating whether he is a better fit for Xhaka or Partey’s role.
Players like Saka, Martinelli, Ødegaard, Saliba and even White, Gabriel Magalhães, and Ramsdale will stand as early signs of what youth at Arsenal can become. Just as Smith Rowe, Saka, Charlie Patino, and Ethan Nwaneri will mean to the youth academy.
It’s about continuing to build upon that foundation to entice the next wave of stars to come. It seems to me that when clubs’ projects come to a close, they often come to a close because they don’t have the next wave of youth to carry them forward and they are stuck with aging veterans that often carry a large wage bill. The whole thing becomes unsustainable and the results aren’t there to make it worth it.
Clubs that extend their projects the longest are the ones that seem to maintain and grow a stable of youth prospects all fighting for their place and backing themselves to be the next breakout star.
The more Arsenal grow, the more this current crop of young stars age, the more Arsenal will want to capture their primes and turn it into accolades and major silverware. It also stands to raise the challenge of getting youth involved in more matches and feel like Arsenal are the club for them to grow into their prime.
Lokonga is unlikely to be the last young player that comes to Arsenal and questions whether it’s the place for them, and in many of these situations there may be little Arsenal can do about it. Their first job is to turn this project into silverware and look out for the club, as I mentioned earlier, but its and important balance for a club that is unlikely to ever be able to rejuvenate their project through financial means alone. Investing in youth is going to be key to keeping their window of success open.