Arsenal haven’t got a lot right in recent years, but the one big positive for the Gunners right now is their academy.
19-year-old Bukayo Saka was probably their best player last season, and made a name for himself with some fine performances for England at Euro 2020 this summer, even if the competition ended on such a low note as he saw his penalty saved in the shoot-out defeat against Italy.
Still, there can surely be no debate about how much Saka has contributed to Arsenal, with the home-grown attacker contributing far more to the team in recent times than the hideously overpriced Nicolas Pepe.
The better Saka gets, the harder it is to understand why on earth Arsenal bothered with the signing of Willian last summer. The former Chelsea man arrived on a free but has still somehow managed to look a waste of money, scoring just one goal last season and now turning up for pre-season looking overweight and like a man who can no longer be bothered.
The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe has also been hugely important for the Gunners, with the young playmaker instantly looking like an upgrade on Mesut Ozil when he broke into Mikel Arteta’s first-team midway through last season, and once again highlighting some strange decision-making in the Arsenal recruitment department as they brought in the underwhelming Martin Odegaard on loan from Real Madrid for the second half of the campaign.
“I have been extremely impressed with Emile Smith Rowe and the ease in which he’s made the step up into the first team,” Arsenal legend Michael Thomas recently told CaughtOffside.
“I’ve seen a lot of him at the academy and he has undeniably great talent. For me his vision, choice of pass along with his work rate are all exceptional.”
There are now doubts about Joe Willock’s future at the Emirates Stadium as well, with the 21-year-old barely featuring for the club before leaving on loan to Newcastle last term and emerging as one of the most in-form players in the country with a stunning scoring run of seven consecutive games.
Thomas is also a big fan of Willock, and recently told CaughtOffside it could be a huge mistake to let him go.
“There is no way a player like Willock should be allowed to leave,” Thomas said. “He is Arsenal through and through and has proved what he can add – something that Arsenal were missing greatly last season – goals from midfield. If he is allowed to leave then it will be a big mistake.”
It seems pretty clear that many of Arsenal’s best finds are coming from their academy right now, while they continue to make a string of errors in the transfer market.
Unfortunately, Arteta doesn’t seem to be learning this lesson, with transfer rumours continuing to link AFC with a big summer of spending, while their home-grown players continue to look far from a first-team breakthrough, even if Smith Rowe and Saka will likely remain key players in the senior squad.
Given how good these two have been, as well as Willock’s form on loan, it is puzzling that we’re not seeing more opportunities for the likes of Folarin Balogun, or even William Saliba, who is not from the academy but still an elite young talent who is once again going out on loan.
Chelsea have just won the Champions League in large part due to the success of academy stars like Mason Mount and Reece James, while Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour look like other exciting prospects coming through. At Manchester United, there has also been much money wasted on big-name flops while Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay have been some of their best performers of recent years.
Arsenal are clearly under pressure to recruit the talent to get them back to competing for trophies again, but at the moment it looks like that talent is going unnoticed right under their noses.