Former Arsenal and Germany defender Per Mertesacker is only into the second year of his role as academy manager at the club, but the early signs are very encouraging.
With a promising crop of academy graduates rising through the ranks at the Emirates Stadium the Gunners have placed an emphasis on youth over experience this summer as they look to secure a route back into the Premier League’s top four and a place in the Champions League.
Watford vs Arsenal
September 15, 2019, 4:00pm
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Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson have already impressed this season, while Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are competing for a place in Unai Emery’s squad. James Olayinka and Tyreece John-Jules also impressed during pre-season for the Gunners and Eddie Nketiah, who is on loan at Leeds for the season, has scored three goals in his first five games for the Championship club.
The future is looking bright at the Emirates Stadium.
“We are very excited about our new chapter,” Mertesacker told Sky Sports’ Patrick Davison.
“There was a lot of change at this club, including me becoming academy manager, but the philosophy has never changed.
“We believe in young players, who can represent Arsenal in the first team and for these guys to represent the Arsenal first team in such a capacity is a proud moment for us all.”
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Nelson making his mark
Reiss Nelson factfile Age 19 Squad number 24 Arsenal appearances 18 Goals 0
Reiss Nelson, who started in Arsenal’s wins against Newcastle and Burnley, enjoyed a breakthrough campaign on loan in the Bundesliga last season, scoring seven goals for Hoffenheim.
Despite his success away from the club, the 19-year-old’s target was always to make his mark at Arsenal, and he’s thrilled to be getting that opportunity this season.
“It’s a very exciting time for Arsenal and Arsenal fans. We want to get to the top and we want to be big stars at Arsenal some day.”
From four-years-old to the first team
Joe Willock factfile Age 20 Squad number 28 Arsenal appearances 20 Goals 3
Like Nelson, Joe Willock impressed in pre-season for the Gunners and was rewarded with starts in Arsenal’s first three games of the season.
He has also been given a new “long-term” contract at the club, but it’s been a long journey to the first team for the England U20 international.
“I joined the club when I was U9 but I’ve actually been here since I was four-and-a-half,” he said. “I’ve got two brothers who are players so they let me play with the older age group a few times and I carried on from there.
“Four-and-a-half to the first team – that’s going to take some beating.”
Willock’s performances have caught the eye so far this season and he’s already gone viral.
The midfielder produced an excellent recovery tackle after being bumped off the ball by Jonjo Shelvey moments earlier, which got Unai Emery all excited on the touchline – and Arsenal caught their head coach on camera.
“I’ve seen [the footage], it’s good,” he added. “It shows what the manager stands for.
“Not only brilliance in attack but defence and working hard for the team as well. It shows how much he cares about that sort of stuff.”
‘A shock to be at Arsenal’
Emile Smith Rowe factfile Age 19 Squad number 32 Arsenal appearances 6 Goals 3
Emile Smith Rowe is yet to feature in the Arsenal first team this season because of injury, but he was called upon last season by Emery in the Europa League.
The 19-year-old played three times during the Gunners’ run to the final, scoring two goals, but had things turned out differently, he might have been plying his trade in west London.
“When I first joined Arsenal, I was very surprised,” he said.
“I had a trial at Chelsea at first, but I didn’t get in. I went back to my Sunday League team and Arsenal called straight after. I went to Arsenal for a few trials and I got in a few weeks later.
“But at that young age I wasn’t really thinking about the first team because it was such a shock for me to be here at the time.”
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‘Arsenal the right choice’
Bukayo Saka factfile Age 18 Squad number 77 Arsenal appearances 4 Goals 0
And finally, Bukayo Saka, the youngest of the quartet at 17, is very highly rated at the Emirates Stadium.
He made his first-team debut last November in Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Vorskla Poltava in the Europa League, becoming the youngest player to feature for the Gunners since Jack Wilshere.
And he is determined to make his mark further at Arsenal.
“There were a lot of other clubs but when Arsenal came calling but I thought it was the right choice to come here,” he said.
“It was quite a struggle for my parents to help me get here but they always gave their all and got me into training. For me, that was a lot of motivation. Every time I came to the club, to the academy it helped me to work hard all the time and make sure I just give my all.”
Arsenal turning to youth?
Analysis from Soccer Saturday’s Charlie Nicholas: “Arsene Wenger always planned to give the youngsters he was bringing through chances, but Arsenal were getting it wrong. They weren’t getting the balance right between youth development and the next stage, moving them into the first team.
“We had such a disaster in the signings we were making and the money we were splashing out that there were question marks everywhere. Because Arsene kept such tight control of the purse strings for five and six years, I don’t think these kids, although the club look after them fabulously well, have been tempted to stay long-term because they weren’t being given a sufficient amount of game time.
“But I think now with Per Mertesacker moving in as academy manager and Freddie Ljungberg being promoted from the youth team up to the first team, this is all starting to come into play and it’s changing.”
‘More work to do’
It’s clear to see Arsenal have a very gifted crop of young players in and around the first team.
The club also seem to know it and it’s why Freddie Ljungberg, the coach of Arsenal’s U23 side last season, was promoted to assistant first-team coach in the summer.
The Swede, who knows Mertesacker well from their time together working in the academy, is charged with leading what the club describe as a “transition team” intended to create a smooth pathway from the academy to the senior side.
The early signs are encouraging but with more focus on youth than there’s been at Arsenal for a long time, Mertesacker knows there’s more work to do.
When asked if there is more focus on the academy at Arsenal now than there has been in previous seasons, he said: “Probably because we have made major and good moves in terms of bringing players from the academy to the first team and selling players to other clubs.
“We want to kick on from here and we’re not going to rest. We want to push these guys forward and make them better on an every day basis.
“We need a new British core for the next generation. That’s what we’re trying to build up here so that there’s a feeling and a big identification with the team. It’s a big job to do.”