The Price of Success | The Perilous Youth Pathway At Arsenal

English giants Arsenal are beholden to the fate that the footballing gods above see fit to bestow upon them in the final week of the 2023-24 Premier League season as the Gunners seek to end their two-decade league trophy drought. 


Sitting just one point behind juggernaut Manchester City but boasting a greater goal difference, Mikel Arteta’s young side have pushed a treble-winning side to the wire while proving that the long-term project under the former Arsenal midfielder is alive and well in North London after finishing second in 2022-23.


But despite the capital club still within touching distance of its first league title since the Invincible side of 2003/04, some sections of the fanbase as well as English media continue to run the rule over what is transpiring at the Emirates.



Questions were levied after Arsenal were sent packing in the quarterfinals of the Champions League thanks to old rival Harry Kane and German behemoth Bayern Munich, which compounded concerns of many around the club in certain frustrating performances that saw dropped points against the likes of Aston Villa and Fulham on the domestic front. However, perhaps one of the long-standing grievances which supporters continue to contend with comes by way of how the club are handling it’s youth development at Hale End.


The London club have not been short of talent in the youth ranks since Arteta took charge in the final month of 2019, with Charlie Patino, Omari Hutchinson, Folarin Balogun, Rueull Walters, Amario Cozier-Duberry, Miguel Azeez, Tyreece John-Jules, Jordi Osei-Tutu, and Brooke Norton-Cuffy all featuring prominently. Regardless of their level of prominence at U19 and U21 level, none of the aforementioned have received a real chance in the first-team. 


Much maligned by many, Patino appears to be destined for a summer exist. Hutchinson left for Chelsea before heading for Ipswich on loan and playing a key role in their promotion, Balogun now resides in Monaco, Azeez is at Spanish semi-professional side CD Atlético Baleares, and Osei-Tutu plies his trade at VfL Bochum. John-Jules has been perpetually loaned out and also looks to have no future at the Emirates.


As for Walters, Cozier-Duberry, and Norton-Cuffy, the jury is still out regarding whether or not they will follow in the footsteps of club star boy Bukayo Saka and fellow academy graduates Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, and Reiss Nelson to certain extents.


Omari Hutchinson: Kieran McKenna’s Cobham Star


While many a supporter continues to raise their voices up in concern when it comes to the reality that graduating from youth level and getting a chance at Arsenal has not come easy under the Basque tactian, no one should be surprised given the road Arteta was meant to travel during his own career on the pitch.


After spending six years with local amature side Antiguoko Kirol Elkartea, the 15-year-old San Sebastián-native found himself at La Masia and rubbing elbows with the likes of Pepe Reina, Victor Valdez, and Andres Iniesta. Two years later, Arteta graduated to Barça B before a loan spell at Paris Saint Germain in 2001 resulted in a move to Glasgow Rangers the following season.


Deemed not good enough for the Spanish giants, Arteta’s eventual fourteen-year career at senior level saw him not only feature Rangers, but Real Sociedad, Everton, and of course Arsenal, before his pathway led him to Pep Guardiola’s school of management at City and ultimately progressing into one of the brightest young managers anywhere in Europe.


It was that harsh lesson at Barça that now has taken hold at Arsenal under Arteta, club technical director Edu Gaspar, and head of academy Per Mertesacker. As clubs progress into perennial title contenders that are hell-bent on achieving honors on all fronts, the standards go through their own metamorphosis as well. 



This should not be seen as some sort of alien concept to Arsenal fans, however, as legendary club boss Arsène Wenger once famously held a hard-nosed position surrounding young players and how they can often fail to meet the margins when bigger aspirations are on the line.


“You pay for the education of young players with points. If I play a 20-year-old center-back, I know he will cost most points during the season and I have to stand up to that. A less talented 28-year-old would cost me less points. However by 23, 24, you have a player.”


Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that not only has Arsenal charged into title contention on the back of having one of the youngest senior squads in the Premier League (and the youngest in 2022-23) with an average age around Wenger’s mentioned number, but the real lack of minutes across all competitions dolled out to talented academy prospects shows that Arteta is of one mind with his former boss.


Truthfully, it is not so different from most other top sides anywhere in Europe’s top club competitions, however. When considering budding league rivals City, only England starlet Rico Lewis and Norwegian youngster Oscar Bobb have been shown faith by Guardiola this season in any measure, while former academy product Cole Palmer had to set off to Chelsea in order to find sufficient valuable minutes.


Player Analysis: Rico Lewis


In Palmer’s case, his move paid off in spades as he went on to bag 22 league goals, and sits behind only Erling Haaland on the goalscoring chart. Taking a look at an example closer to home in Folarin Balogun, not even the US international’s excellent loan spell with Stade de Reims was enough to see Arteta offer him guarantees.


Simply put, young players that come through the ranks in North London must now be at the level that Saka hit when he made his breakthrough under Unai Emery, or that of Jack Wilshere before him, if they are to have any chance at all of lasting at a club whose mission is to not just become champion, but ultimately, go toe-to-toe on an annual basis with City’s hegemonic dominance of the English top-flight. Those same standards can be found at not just the aforementioned Barcelona and PSG, but the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, the Milanese giants, Juventus, and others.


It is true that other clubs have made a name for themselves as fantastic youth conveyor belts over the years, and clubs such as AFC Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Club Brugge, SL Benfica, Sporting CP, FK Partizan, and Dinamo Zagreb have all contributed massively to club’s of higher standings in that vein. But unlike at the very highest level, those mentioned here have the luxury of playing in domestic club competitions that are far more forgiving, and in leagues where the focus of player development is a tenant above almost all others.


The Premier League is unforgiving, and that reality has chewed up and spat out many a talented young player over the years; players who made the jump from foreign shores far too soon, or those who came through the domestic ranks with aplomb but just could not take next steps.


Player Analysis: Brooke Norton-Cuffy


As Arteta and Edu remain hard at work looking at the squad depth chart and planning to reload the chamber this summer regardless of if title honors are bestowed upon the club or not, many must remember that if a player is good enough, age is of no consequence. But in that same light, stripping the shackles of homegrown bias is paramount if Arsenal is to keep pushing to become the tip of the spear.


Links with possible moves for Red Bull Leipzig’s Benjamin Šeško, Ajax’s Jorrel Hato, and calls from some sections for another wide player as well as a central midfielder could have direct consequences to those waiting in the wings at Hale End.


While we all love the success story that has been Saka’s rise from schoolboy to star boy, those stories are becoming more and more difficult to read time and again in the modern era. Just ask Reiss Nelson, who many viewed as a player who outshone Saka by comparison when in the academy ranks. Or Smith Rowe, who played a vital role for the club not all that long ago before injuries hindered his development. Both could well be viewed as surplus to requirements in twelve months, if not sooner.



Truly, the price of success coupled with expectations in Europe’s top league will always come with a ruthless demeanor when it comes to squad and youth management. And that is okay. It must be okay.


Standards are meant to not only be upheld but they undoubtedly will continue to adjust in conjunction with where a club finds itself in the table. After all, its nothing personal, it’s just football.


By: Andrew Thompson / @Geecheekid

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus / Getty Images