The state of the reserves and youth teams: Jamie Sanderson interview
With the season quickly approaching, we thought it would be a good idea to check the state of the reserves and youth teams at Arsenal - are they prepared for the new season, and how does the setup actually work outside of the first team?
We asked Jamie Sanderson of Young Guns fame to help clear things up.
AR: Hello Jamie, let's start off with a hypothetical question; pretend you're Arsenal boss for a day - are there any players in the reserves or youth setups you'd promote to the first team, that haven't been promoted already?
JS: I think with the news last week that Arsène Wenger has promoted Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury, Benik Afobe and Ryo Miyaichi, he's covered all the main bases. The only other two I'd have liked to have seen more of are Francis Coquelin, who is away with the French Under-20 side, and Kyle Bartley, now back with Rangers. Both did very well on loan, and its a shame we didn't get to see more of them this pre-season.
If you'd have asked me the same question last summer, I'd have said a lot more. I would have released Mark Randall and Craig Eastmond, worked harder to convince Fran Mérida and Håvard Nordtveit to stay, and also extended Nacer Barazite's contract. A lot of time, money and effort went into these players, without them getting much of a chance.
AR: You mentioned Francis Coquelin - it's a shame he missed pre-season, but how do you rate his future at Arsenal after a decent spell at Lorient? How different is he as a player to Emmanuel Frimpong?
JS: Coquelin and Frimpong are essentially very similar, with only slight differences in their attributes. They are both small, but quick across the ground, aggressive and strong in the tackle - benchmark qualities for defensive midfielders. Frimpong is slightly better in possession, and more powerful, but Coquelin is versatile, more of a talker and keeps the ball moving at all times.
Gilles Grimandi was always very insistent about Coquelin, even when he got injured on trial. It's clear to see why now, and I'm a firm believer that if he had the same chances Frimpong has had, he would have proven himself as a better choice to be Alex Song's backup. Ultimately, another year on loan won't do Francis any harm, and with two full campaigns under his belt, next summer he'll be much better equipped to show what he can do.
AR: You also mentioned Nacer Barazite - if I remember correctly, he was an attacking midfielder; did he leave the club because there were so many other players able to play in that 'Cesc role', like Aneke, Ebecilio or Özyakup?
JS: Barazite came to Arsenal as a central attacking midfielder, but was mostly used on the wings during his time at Arsenal. I felt his best position was always in 'the Cesc role' you mentioned, but the 4-2-3-1 formation wasn't in operation then. It's hard to explain why Nacer didn't get a chance. He was easily one of the best prospects in the system, and although he did suffer a handful of injuries, still showed some good stuff.
I personally believe Arsène has his favourites, and if you're not a favourite, you don't get much of a chance. Barazite consistently scored goals in pre-season at Barnet, but never went to Austria, just like Mérida was always the star for the Reserves, but he preferred to select Mark Randall for training sessions and first-team call ups. Barazite is now playing as a striker for Austria Vienna, and has scored lots of goals and is also part of the Morocco setup. I always felt he had real talent, and now he's proving it. I expect he'll be at a big club again soon.
AR: Leaving individual players aside for a second - apart from their behaviour altering the shape slightly, are there any significant differences between the first team tactic and the reserve/youth team tactic?
JS: As most people will already know, Arsène likes the same formation and way of playing injected into players and teams right through the system. That's first-team, right down to players who join Hale End aged 8. The formations are often quite loosely used at Under-18 level, partly because, although Steve Bould is coach, Liam Brady, the Head of Youth Development, actually picks the team. This means individual coaches can sometimes alter the setup during games to optimise players, but essentially, it's the same throughout.
The coaching staff are all very tactically minded too, and are swift to move on players who don't reach the high levels of technique and tactical intelligent required. This is actually summed up by with the first-team's 4-2-3-1 system, which has its origins in the Under-18's, when Brady and Bould used it to accommodate Coquelin and Frimpong, while also giving Jack Wilshere freedom in midfield for the 2009 FA Youth Cup and Premier Academy League double winning side. It was a big success.
AR: Interesting to note the tactical tweaks made to accomodate/get the best out of players like Jack Wilshere in the youth setup - are there any other players in the current youth teams who would force similar changes?
JS: Not especially. Alban Bunjaku played in the creative role just behind the striker last season with great effect for the Under-18's, after coming through the system as a wide player. But the Reserves have found the 4-2-3-1 a little difficult at times to find personal to fill each role, so quite often play a more traditional 4-3-3, with one holding player, one box-to-box player (usually deployed on the left), and one creative attacker. Chuks Aneke thrived in the creative role last term.
AR: How long, typically, will the club spend watching youth players in the mid to late-teen age group before they sign them?
JS: Arsenal scout players in two ways. The first way, they identify a player, whether that's through a tip off from a freelance scout or one our existing network find. They watch players as much as possible, up to 100 times on occasions. When they're happy that he has the talent to play for Arsenal, phase two comes in, and they then use their contacts to find out about his personality and lifestyle. If all boxes are ticked, Steve Rowley will usually go and have a final look, often up to 10 times before a bid goes in. It's a lengthy process, but it's why a lot of players settle so quickly - because the hours have gone in to make sure they fit.
AR: How about the players already at the club then - how difficult is it for our youth coaches to track and guide the progress of Arsenal youngsters who are away on loan for work permit reasons e.g. Wellington Silva and Pedro Botelho?
JS: The club work very hard on following loanees. Neil Banfield and Steve Bould will go and watch games when they're not coaching, and Liam Brady has excellent contacts throughout Europe, so the coaching staff are always kept in the know about what's going on. Arsenal also request DVDs of each game, which chief scout Steve Rowley will watch, then report back to Arsène. It's a pretty slick system.
But Arsenal have had to learn the hard way. When Carlos Vela went to UD Salamanca, he was one of the first youngsters the club signed where they knew he had to move on loan, due to work permit issues. They didn't think ahead, and Carlos struggled to adapt and didn't learn any English, which hampered him when he came to London. They have now hired a language tutor, Peter Murphy, who has given lessons to both Pedro Botelho - when he could be bothered to turn up - and Samuel Galindo.
AR: We're known for giving youngsters a fair chance (youngest first choice XI of all top four clubs in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and England last season), but how does our academy setup compare to other well-known English club academies, like West Ham for example?
JS: Arsenal's Academy is one of the best in the world, but it's clear that there is a lot more to do. It's important to note that, although the club have been producing good talent for a number of years, the quality of facilities and coaching needed to compete with the top sides have only been in place for around 10 years. This means Arsenal are still a very young Academy.
We're in an excellent position, and can attract the best players and coaches from all over the world, but are still learning the best methods of coaching and still building contacts. I think we're a way behind the likes of Manchester United in the way we do things, like not competing in as many youth competitions and such, but we're still producing top players.
Just imagine how good the Academy will be in another 10 years.