Arsenal currently have a group of seriously promising academy graduates in the first team squad. All five of Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe have represented England at youth level and look to have big futures ahead of them. The quintet bring back memories of the ‘British Core’ of Arsène Wenger’s 2012 Arsenal side. How do the current crop compare to their predecessors?
In the Winter of 2012, amid unrest on and off the pitch leading to calls of ‘Wenger Out’ from Arsenal supporters, five contract extensions were announced by our North London club. Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all signed long-term deals. This group of young, promising home grown talent were branded as Arsenal’s ‘British Core’. This collection of players made up of four Englishmen and one Welshmen was supposed to be the future of Arsenal Football Club.
For any Premier League side, it’s important to have some local talent in your squad. This is due to the ‘home grown’ player rule. This piece of legislation declares that at least eight players in a Premier League squad of 25 must be home grown.
‘Home grown’ players are individuals that have been on the books of a club affiliated with the Football Association for at least three years before they turn 21. Straightforwardly, a player either has to have joined an English side at a young age or they need to have come through an English club’s academy.
Right now, Arsenal have 11 players qualified as ‘home grown.’ So, at the moment, this clause isn’t really an area for concern for Mikel Arteta and Edu when they consider transfer targets. This number will inevitably rise too as the likes of Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba will be recognised as ‘home grown’ by the time they reach 21 years of age if they stay with us until then.
There’s an argument to suggest Arsenal’s five most exciting home grown prospects are the five who made their mark on the first team within the last year or so: Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe. The fivesome are reminiscent of Arsenal’s 2012 ‘British Core’.
Nonetheless, the current five will hope they have a better collective future ahead of them than the 2012 crop. Not one of those players who signed contract extensions with the club in 2012 are with us anymore. Additionally, all of them have suffered with desperately disappointing injury troubles at various points in their careers. Some more than others.
Still, there is one key difference between the new ‘British core’ and the old. Out of the December 2012 contract extension group, just two of those players came through the Arsenal academy. Every single member of the new home grown quintet signed their first professional footballing contract with Arsenal and grew up loving the club they play for. Incredibly exciting.
Importantly, too, they have all grown up playing football together. You get the impression that our academy graduates could link up on the pitch with their eyes shut. While the 2012 group were certainly all promising talents, they didn’t have the experiences at Arsenal’s Hale End academy which tied them together. In contrast, it’s more than likely the group of academy graduates currently in the Arsenal first team will be friends for life.
Unlike their predecessors, each member of our new ‘British Core’ all have similarly high ceilings concerning their potential as footballers. In the previous group, Wilshere and Ramsey were clearly the standout picks. Yes, Saka has obviously had the biggest impact out of the five, but it’s widely believed at Arsenal that all those prospects have big futures in North London.
For an exemplification of their qualities, let me take you back to Arsenal’s opening goal in our 2-1 FA Cup win away at Bournemouth. From a deep position, Nicolas Pépé knocked the ball on to Willock after some neat footwork from the Ivorian. Upon receiving the ball, Willock swiveled away superbly to lose his man, carrying the ball from the halfway line to the edge of the box and then rolling the ball into Martinelli’s feet. The Brazillian was under reduced pressure due to a run from Eddie Nketiah which moved defenders away from Martinelli. Then, he played Saka in behind, whose marauding run from left-back didn’t go unnoticed. Saka then expertly powered the ball into the top corner to give Arsenal the lead. A sign of things to come. Young Saka, for example, came in third in the official Player of the Season vote by supporters.
Of course, it’s unlikely each prospect I mentioned in this piece will turn out to be superstars. The respective career paths of the 2012 ‘British Core’ evidence the fact that the progression of a professional footballer is far from a smooth ride. Nonetheless, we still have a right to be excited. The current first team squad is a bit of a mess but I can say with confidence that the future of our squad is in safe hands. Under Arteta’s guidance, who knows how far our new ‘British Core’ can go…