Can English Players Hope To Succeed At Arsenal?

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This time, COS reader and Gooner Jason ponders the question that the rest of the Premiership seem too happy to answer for them.

‘He’ll never sign for Arsenal, he’s English. Don’t you know Wenger hates English players?” This is the response a friend of mine gave me when we discussed Arsenal being linked to Wigan’s Leighton Baines. It’s also been a favourite comeback of Tottenham fans when they finish talking about winning things 40 years ago.

Although the first Wenger team was built of an English back five (David Seamen, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn), these players were inherited from a previous Arsenal manager, George Graham. Even so, they have surmised that Wenger’s stringent diet routine and methodical training schedule increased their careers by at least another five or so years. The sight of Ray Parlour marauding up and down the right flank was a common one at the start of the new millennium and, of course, which Arsenal fan can forget Ian Wright latching on to through balls to round the keeper and score.

However, in recent times Wenger’s transfer policy has been to sign mainly foreign players. Why, you ask? Wenger has always been priced out of the market for the top class England players. Wayne Rooney, a player who Wenger admired went for a reported £30m, whereas Wenger found the world class Van Persie for around £2.75m pounds, less than a tenth of Rooney’s cost!

Other examples would include £30m pounds for Rio Ferdinand compared to £150,000 for Kolo Toure, or even £1m for the prodigious Cesc Fabregas, while Michael Carrick went for £18.6m. Nevertheless, many critics of Wenger’s transfer policy say he could sign other less priced English players, such as Joey Barton, or Steve Sidwell, or even David Nugent. What they fail to realise is that Wenger has had his hands burned thrice by English players and thus is wary of taking the risk again.

Jermaine Pennant, a promising winger and thought of by many of being capable of replacing Ljungberg on the right wing, was constantly drinking after games, arriving late for training and getting into the Press for bad behaviour. Francis Jeffers, the supposed next English Michael Owen, tempted Wenger to part with £10.5m for him, but he developed into a flop of the highest order and was quickly jettisoned at a huge loss. Lastly, all Arsenal fans can remember being knifed in the back by club idol, and possible future captain, Ashley Cole. The England left-back met London rivals Chelsea’s manager and their director of football in a hotel just a week before a big game and then wrote a book critisising all at the club – manager, players, and fans included.

This is not to say that a stint on the books of Arsenal is bad for English players. There are many examples of English players leaving Arsenal to go on and shine at other clubs. Steve Sidwell, who flourished at Reading, being one of the most exciting players in a team that took the Premiership by storm, has now gone to FA Cup winners Chelsea. David Bentley, a promising talent that could play either on the flank or as a secondary striker (in the Dennis Bergkamp role) sadly could not wait for his chance as he had the then great Pires and Ljungberg ahead of him on the flanks as well as Bergkamp himself in his role up front.

He has since moved on to Blackburn, where he has impressed greatly and was recently linked with Premiership Champions Manchester United for a reported £6m move. Pennant is at UEFA Champions League finalists Liverpool, driving forwards and pinging in crosses from his favoured position on the wing. Even a mere season at Arsenal will help no end as Harper and Stack at Reading, Jerome Thomas at Charlton, Fabrice Muamba at Birmingham as well as many others scattered across the lower leagues of England will tell you.

Wenger does not ignore English players, he merely looks at what is best for the club and if he can purchase a foreign player, at a fraction of the cost of an English player with similar talents, then he clearly is doing what is best for the club and its supporters. Even so, there are still English players blossoming at Arsenal. Theo Walcott, one of the upcoming stars of the next generation, was wanted by Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, among others, but he chose to come to Arsenal as he saw young players have a good chance to succeed with the Gunners.

His skill and pace enticed Wenger to fork out £5m rising to a possible £12 million depending on appearances and trophies won, making the then 16-year-old Walcott the most expensive player of his age in the history of British football. Along with Justin Hoyte, an England Under-21 regular, Walcott makes up the second half of just two English players in the Arsenal squad.

Do not be fooled by the scarcity of English players however. Arsenal still have a great interest in developing English youngsters. The problem with buying English players is that very few of them have the technical skill required to perform on the big stage in Arsenal’s passing game. Only the likes of Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole possess this in the current England set-up, and since both of those players play for direct rivals they are off limits for the near future. Wenger is a smart man and quickly found a way around this problem. By developing youngsters in Arsenal’s very own youth teams, the ability to adapt to Arsenal’s continental style of football is instilled in these players from a young age.

These players, although not ready to make an impact now, will form an English spine for Arsenal in a few years. The likes of Henri Lansbury, a swift attacking midfielder will provide competition for places when he is ready. Along with Marc Randall, another central midfielder, Matthew Connoly, a central defender and current captain of the Arsenal reserves and Jay Simpson, a striker that scored the first ever hat-trick at the Emirates Stadium, these players will undoubtedly push for Arsenal places in the coming years. Even if they do not make it playing for Wenger’s Arsenal, they will find other clubs gladly willing to take them on their books due to their thorough Arsenal education.

I write this to inform and educate those who do not know of the miracle we are currently witnessing at Arsenal. Too often Arsenal fans are taunted by those supporting rival clubs about the lack of English talent at Ashburton Grove. Now those remarks can be buried in the scrapheap as they deserve. Although not possessing many English players in the current first team, it is undoubted that the future is not just red and white for Arsenal, but red and white for England as well.