Humility, discipline and respect. These three key values behind Arsenal’s academy as former Gunners defender Per Mertesacker looks to help build a new era at the Emirates Stadium.
They’re also three words used a few times during my chat with Ken Gillard, who has coached both the Under-18s and Under-23s in his five years at Arsenal, and who was kind enough to speak exclusively to CaughtOffside about the way the club continue to work on producing the next Bukayo Saka or Emile Smith Rowe.
While Arsenal haven’t always got it right in the transfer market in recent years, they’re certainly doing something right at academy level since Mertesacker took over after his retirement from playing, with Gillard speaking highly of the German’s ethos.
The success of the system has seen Saka and Smith Rowe have particularly prominent roles in the first-team in recent times, but talents like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a squad player, or Reiss Nelson, out on loan to Feyenoord, or even Joe Willock, who left for a permanent move to Newcastle in the summer after impressing on loan, shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Arsenal were well known for trusting and developing young players during the Arsene Wenger years, but Gillard makes it clear that Mertesacker has been key in ushering in what seems to be a new era for the club’s youngsters.
“Per has his own vision, his own philosophy of what he’s trying to implement,” Gillard says. “Every player matters. Not everyone will go on to be Bukayo Saka, not every player will become Emile Smith Rowe, but our jobs as staff is to support these them, to make them better players and also better people.
“We want them to be lifelong learners – if they have careers at Arsenal, that’s brilliant, but if not they can go on and have successful careers somewhere else.”
This, Gillard says, goes beyond football as well – something close to his heart due to his own experiences: “Some players can retire early due to injury – it happened to me at a young age – and you need to have an education behind you, so you have something to fall back on,” he says.
“We’ve got players doing degrees at the moment alongside playing football full time. It’s testament to the club, and to the parents as well, to making sure the kids have a Plan B. Sometimes the Plan A might not really be football, but to play semi-professionally whilst having a career as a banker in the city, or as a doctor, and it’s our job to help them. Every individual is different, so it’s our job to put them on the right pathway and ensure they’re in a good place when they leave Arsenal. Per was key to this. He came in and it’s one of the big pillars Per has at the club – a lifelong learner, and every player matters.”
For Arsenal fans, of course, the priority will be producing more talented footballers to represent the first-team, and Gillard is confident that this philosophy will soon yield more Sakas and Smith Rowes. “It takes time for it to come through, but hopefully the players coming through now will benefit from this system, becoming better people and better human beings, because by doing that we believe they’ll become better footballers as well,” he says.
Saka the Hale End hero
“Bukayo was always a prospect that was identified very early at Hale End, even prior to me coming to the club,” Gillard says of Saka, who for the time being is the ultimate poster boy for what the academy is trying to achieve. “He was always a very effective team player, always influencing games, scoring goals, creating goals, playing different positions. Even at a young age he could play left-back, left wing, right wing, or as a number ten.
“The big things that Bukayo had, whatever position he was in, was that he played with a smile on his face. He loved playing football.”
Gillard has fond memories of working with Saka, now a full England international, and emphasises how much he was bedded in slowly into his Under-16s side, “just like the manager did when he came up to the first-team to start with”, he says, though his impact was such that it became harder and harder not to make use of his talent.
“We didn’t push him too much at first,” Gillard says. “We sort of dipped him in and out of the team. I remember in particular we played Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final – he started on the bench. When he came on he scored the equaliser and then set up the winner for Tyreece John-Jules as well.”
Saka may only be 20 years of age, but he’s already doing his bit to help others follow him from the academy to the senior side. This doesn’t come as a surprise to Gillard, who noticed early on that he possessed the right mentality, as well as natural ability.
“He was an exceptional learner – always inquisitive, asking ‘why am I doing this? Why am I doing that? How can I do this better?'” Gillard says. “He took everything on board and I can’t really remember a day he missed a training session.
“It fills everyone with the club with pride because he’s been such a success story. It’s our job to push these players to the next level, and he’s a full international player now, which is brilliant to see. He really keeps his feet on the ground too, keeps communicating with the younger boys coming through, takes an interest in them … and they look up to him because he’s been there and he’s an inspiration to the next generation coming through at Hale End.”
Gillard has already mentioned Saka’s versatility, but what position does he see him playing long-term? “He’s extremely flexible, but we always felt if he was in a more defensive role he was playing with the handbrake on slightly. I think when he’s in those forward positions, scoring goals and creating goals, that’s where I probably see him playing long-term, like he is at the moment, whether that’s off the right-hand side or even a central position.”
Gillard also speaks in glowing terms about Smith Rowe, whose rise to where he is now proved a bit more of a challenge than it did for Saka.
“Emile had been at the long club for a very long time, coming through the Hale End around the same time as Bukayo. But they’re very different personalities,” he says. “He’s someone again who you could see from a very young age that he was a talent. The way he moved and glided with the ball, his intelligence in possession, you could tell he had the ability and he’s gone on to fulfil that.
“His journey hasn’t been as smooth as Bukayo’s, it hasn’t come quite as easily for him. He had a loan spell in Germany that had ups and downs, he’s had some injuries to overcome as well, but he’s found a way to get through it. The values the academy ask for – humility, discipline and respect, he has those in abundance, as has Bukayo. He’s very humble. He’s a talented boy but he works very hard and comes in every day with a smile on his face. I think that’s why the supporters love the homegrown players, because they see how much they love the club, and how much they enjoy playing for Arsenal. His dad does a lot of community work as well, so it shows what a good upbringing he’s had, which helps him keep his feet firmly on the ground.”
How Arsenal are providing different pathways to success
“Every player is different,” Gillard tells me – something that sounds obvious, but how does a footballing academy deal with players who progress at a different pace?
“Bukayo and Emile, for instance, have had very different pathways,” he continues. “It’s our job as staff to build relationships with these players. It’s our job to gain their trust and from their families as well. It’s like sending your children off to school for the first time, or university. It’s our job to build those relationships to make them sure that we’re doing what’s right for them. Some players might not be as physically robust as others, so even if they’re technically or tactically very good, we need to put more work in there. So we’ll have specific programs for that specific player, and it might take them a bit longer to develop. We’ve got plenty of local players, but some coming in from abroad as well, so they’re away from home and it’s totally different. So again we need to understand them and help them and their families settle.”
Gillard again emphasises Mertesacker’s role, explaining how the former defender links the youth teams to the senior side. The first-team will have their meetings in the morning, with Mertesacker ready to take the call and recommend players from the Under-23s or Under-18s who can take part in training with Mikel Arteta’s squad, whether it’s to fill in for injured players, or if Arteta has someone in particular he wants to have a look at.
“We would then inform the player, they’d go and train with the first-team and we would get feedback afterwards – yes they did well, or it looked a bit much for them,” Gillard explains. If a player ends up training with the first-team squad more regularly, they’ll change schedules. “Emile, Bukayo, Eddie, Flo (Folarin Balogun), they’ve transitioned to reporting to the first-team schedule,” Gillard says. “We might still see them if they’re not getting many minutes and the manager wants them playing for the Under-23s, which Flo has done this season. But obviously Bukayo and Emile are very busy with the senior side!”
Players to watch
Who could be the next homegrown stars to make it at Arsenal? Gillard clearly has high hopes for a lot of the players coming through, but two names seemed to stand out for him.
“Danny Ballard, touch wood, he’s progressed fantastically well,” Gillard says. “His journey and his success is all down to him.
“He’s had setbacks along the way but he’s so robust, whether that’s injuries or almost being released. He was at Blackpool last season and he had a great experience in getting promoted. They wanted him back but there were a lot of Championship clubs interested in him, so he’s gone to Millwall and he’s played almost every minute for them.
“Then along comes the international break and he’s playing for the senior Northern Ireland national team as well. The resilience he’s shown goes back to those values – humility, discipline and respect – he has those in abundance.”
The next name is another who is fast becoming more familiar with Arsenal fans after a recent viral clip of a superb solo goal for the club’s Under-23s against Manchester United: “Charlie Patino. A left-footed midfield player,” Gillard says. “He was originally at Luton Town, which was also my old club. I know a lot of the staff there and they’re always very inquisitive about how Charlie’s doing.
“Since I’ve been here, he came up from the Under-16s and played the entire season for the Under-18s, he’s very rarely been in the Under-16s. As a group of staff we then promoted him to the Under-23s, where unfortunately he picked up an injury, which put him back a bit. But he worked extremely hard over the summer to get himself back fit, and now he’s performing well and regularly, getting back to where he was.
“The time away from the pitch is interesting … as I mentioned earlier every player’s journey is different, but for him that time away from the pitch has probably helped him develop on the physical side of his game. He’s been working in the gym, getting stronger. And he’s a real student of the game, he loves watching football. He’s a real good learner and hopefully he’ll keep progressing well. He’s certainly a prospect, he’s trained with the first-team and done very well.”
As well as coaching Arsenal’s next generation of talents, Gillard has also spent time keeping in touch with the academy players who go out on loan. This is a new responsibility he’s taken on after being given the green light to do so by Mertesacker. “My role has changed this season,” he explains. “I’ve coached these players for the last four or five players. I spoke to Per about helping take them to the next stage of their careers, whether that’s a loan to a foreign club or another Premier League club.
“Matthew Smith, for instance, has gone on loan to Doncaster and I watch his games regularly, give him tips, give him feedback. I met his parents at the last game when I was up there and it was interesting to get their perspective as well. The next stage would be going in and watching him train, speaking with the coaching staff at the loan club and watching them develop. It’s so satisfying after working with them since they were kids, and now watching them as grown men playing in first-teams, affecting games. It’s specifically academy loans I’m involved with, not the first-team loans, so that’s Danny Ballard, Tyreece John-Jules, Nico Muller. It’s a very fulfilling role.”
A possible down-side of the job is when players that Gillard and the other coaches have invested so much time in end up leaving, but he insists he doesn’t see it that way.
Many Arsenal fans will have been slightly surprised to see Joe Willock leaving after such a promising loan at Newcastle, but Gillard says everyone at the academy is happy for him after the progress he’s made.
“Joe’s been a bit of a slow burner,” Gillard says. “Lots of ability, lots of talent … the chances he had with Arsenal he did well. And his journey on loan – straight into the first-team at Newcastle, playing regularly in the Premier League, and he ended up scoring in seven games on the spin.
“He’s shown he’s extremely talented. The club, Newcastle and Joe agreed it would then be made permanent. We’re always sorry to see homegrown players leave, but again very excited and very proud for them to see them going on to a Premier League club.
“Everyone at the academy was very happy for him when he scored those seven goals, and now we’ll see where he ends up – as long as he keeps showing the same dedication he’ll achieve great things.
“We’re all very proud of the players who come through, but even the ones that don’t, we’re keen for them to get a professional contract somewhere else, even if it’s not us. We’ve got a good record with that – every player that’s left us over the last three years has got a contract either at a Premier League club or a Championship club and it’s something we’re very proud of.”
Thoughts on Crystal Palace
Before joining Arsenal, Gillard worked with a number of the different youth teams at Crystal Palace, who Mikel Arteta’s side take on in the Premier League this evening.
As with Arsenal, Gillard is full of praise for the way Palace’s academy is run, with the Eagles producing some fine talents in recent times, most notably Wilfried Zaha and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the latter of whom, of course, is now at Manchester United.
Gillard credits the “brilliant staff” at Selhurst Park that have helped produce some gifted footballers, as well as getting him on the path to working with young players at Arsenal.
After getting his insights on helping Saka and Smith Rowe get to where they are today, it’s interesting to hear Gillard discuss Wan-Bissaka’s development as well, as he was a player he worked very closely with throughout his rise through the different age groups at Palace.
“I worked with Aaron right the way my time there,” he says. “He’s an interesting character, a good player. He started out playing in the forward positions up until he was about 18. He was mostly a left winger or right winger, and then he was converted back to a right-back when he started playing at Under-23 level.”
Although Gillard describes the Man Utd defender as “a very talented player, extremely athletic”, he adds: “We had some difficult conversations at times.
“At times I don’t think he respected what a good player he could be, and wasn’t extremely focused. We had conversations on schooling, which he didn’t take too seriously at the time.
“But he’s a great kid, with a lovely family as well, his Dad was very proud of him when he broke into the Palace first-team and got his move to Manchester United as well. He worked extremely hard to get there.”
It might surprise some United fans to hear Wan-Bissaka used to be more of an attacking player, given that the main criticism aimed at the 23-year-old has been that he’s better defensively than he is going forward – something that might have been more acceptable in previous eras, but less so now when the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold are setting the standard and attacking full-backs are becoming increasingly important for the top teams.
Can Wan-Bissaka adapt his game to become more of an all-rounder? “Yeah definitely,” Gillard says. “He’s still only 23. He’s still got time to achieve that. I’m sure he’s working on it every day, and there are brilliant coaches there at Man United who can help him with that.
“He’s definitely got the potential, otherwise he wouldn’t be playing regularly at such a big club in those kinds of competitions, the Premier League, the Champions League. It’s been great to see him progress.”
And finally, it’s impossible not to ask Gillard about Wilfried Zaha, who is now surely Palace’s danger man against Arsenal this evening.
With a hint of regret in his voice, Gillard says he never worked with him directly.
“I never worked with Wilf directly. He was a young player in the first-team when I arrived, and then went on to Manchester United not long after that,” he says. “But I’ve heard a lot of good things about him from the coaches there, and he’s obviously gone on to achieve fantastic things, so long may that continue…except on Monday when they play us!”