Sam Hart takes a look at the six Arsenal academy graduates that will save the Gunners millions in the next few years.
In April 2016, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said: “We have a core of 6 or 7 players who, I do not name them all now but, who are really guaranteed for the future of Arsenal football club.”
Four years on and Arsenal fans are beginning to see the talent Wenger saw when these youngsters were hidden away in the academy, and there are still more to come.
Arsenal’s U21 academy graduates have managed to rack up a total of 89 competitive Arsenal first-team appearances in all competitions, contributing to 24 goals between them, in what has been a very successful season for Arsenal’s young stars.
Here are the six Arsenal academy graduates that, in my opinion, can be first-team regulars for the club, just like Arsene Wenger predicted.
Aged just 15, Bukayo Saka scored and assisted in the FA Youth Cup against Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool at Anfield, making him one of the youngest ever players to feature in the competition. With every season, he has progressed up one age group above his own and has never looked out of place.
At the start of the season, the 18-year-old winger was still officially part of the academy squad, despite making eight first-team appearances the previous year.
However, due to unforeseen issues at left-back in the first team, the forward, who had some experience at left-back with the England youth teams, was drafted in by manager Unai Emery to cover for the injured Sead Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney.
While Saka’s talent was obvious, after his performances in various cup appearances, including getting a goal and two assists away to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, few could’ve predicted the impact Saka would have for the first team, whilst playing out of position.
The England youth international sits on three goals and nine assists in 29 games this season, with the majority coming from left back, making his stats even more impressive.
While playing for the Arsenal U18s, most of the focus was on Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah, who both seemed a level above their opponents. However, Joe Willock came up almost unnoticed to some and became a vital part of the Arsenal youth sides he played for.
Willock’s debut season for Arsenal was Wenger’s last in 2017/18, and much like his French manager, he came under criticism from impatient Arsenal fans, after not scoring or assisting in 11 first team appearances.
After his senior performances, the critics had it out for Willock, especially after not standing out much in the youth games either. However, the following season, Willock experienced a huge physical growth and more fans began to see what Arsene Wenger saw in him.
The English midfielder scored an impressive 6 goals in 8 competitive games against senior opposition, whilst scoring six and assisting two in 12 U23 league games.
Willock has had a breakthrough season this campaign, making 32 appearances, whilst currently standing as Arsenal’s highest-scoring midfielder for the second successive season with four goals to his name.
While it is unsure whether Willock is best deployed as a box to box midfielder or as a number ten, the talent he has is obvious and his ability to prove his early critics wrong is something to be applauded.
At only 17 years of age, Reiss Nelson made his Premier League debut and won the Premier League Two Player of the Year as Arsenal’s U23s stormed the league in the 2017/18 season. Nelson scored nine and assisted three in 11 games for Arsenal’s youth team that season, playing alongside fellow academy graduates Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah.
Nelson’s development into senior football hasn’t been as easy as some may have hoped. While the 20-year-old has shown moments of brilliance, especially during the first half of his loan spell at Hoffenheim, he has had to deal with a few injury problems that have restricted his progress.
While at Hoffenheim last season, Nelson managed some impressive stats given his lack of game time, scoring six goals and getting one assist in just five league starts, with the other 18 appearances coming from the bench.
This season, Nelson’s game time has been quite hit and miss, managing two goals and three assists in nine starts. With the arrival of Nicolas Pepe, Nelson will have to work extra hard to become that regular in the Arsenal squad, however, with the possible exit of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, there may be an opening in the team for the young winger.
Similar to his fellow Premier League 2 winners Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah made his first Arsenal appearance during Wenger’s last season. On his debut vs Norwich City, the 18-year-old English striker came off the bench in the 85th minute, only to score seconds later, taking the game to extra time, where he then scored the winner to push Arsenal through.
After such an incredible start, the pressure was always going to be more intense every time he stepped on the pitch, not many players get a chant before even playing a full game. However, Nketiah’s following season under Unai Emery was spent as the bench striker, where he rarely came on and just provided cover for duo Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a role that can easily hinder a young player’s development.
To avoid a repeat of this, he was sent on loan to Championship side Leeds United, however, he faced a similar problem to Nelson at Hoffenheim where he was mainly used as a bench player, despite clinical performances whenever he came on. He scored three goals in just two league starts, making 15 appearances off the bench.
This misuse of Nketiah led Arsenal and new coach Mikel Arteta to recalling him and whilst many expected him to be loaned again, he impressed so much in training that Arteta decided to keep him, and started him in Premier League games over Lacazette.
Since returning in January, Nketiah has scored three goals in seven games for Arsenal, with early signs showing that he’s a good fit to Mikel Arteta’s system.
Prior to Unai Emery’s appointment, Emile Smith-Rowe hadn’t played a minute of senior football. However, after impressive pre-season performances, including scoring an excellent goal from range against Atletico Madrid, the attacking midfielder found himself a regular on the team sheet in cup competitions.
After scoring three goals in six appearances for Arsenal in the EFL Cup and Europa League, he was loaned out to Champions League side RB Leipzig. Unfortunately for the 18-year-old, this spell was the start of a horrible injury filled period that saw him only make three Bundesliga appearances, all of which were off the bench.
Despite his limited game time, Leipzig recognised his talent and according to German outlet ‘Kicker’, Leipzig wanted to insert an option to buy in Smith-Rowe’s loan, however, Arsenal strongly turned down this idea.
This season had been another case of injury problems for Smith-Rowe as his ongoing groin strain kept him out of action, allowing the 19-year-old to make sporadic appearances throughout the season. The Englishman made five starts this season for Arsenal before being loaned out to Championship strugglers Huddersfield Town.
Thankfully for Smith-Rowe, he has avoided injury and has not missed a single Championship game for the Terriers, getting a goal and three assists in 10 Championship appearances. His performances have been superb, providing a much-needed link between midfield and attack and is loved by the Huddersfield faithful.
For anyone at all related to Arsenal, it’s great to see Smith-Rowe finally get some consistent senior game time under his belt. There was a possible worry that he could become one of those youngsters whose careers are ravaged by injury, however, this is hopefully the beginning of an excellent career for the midfielder.
Unless you watch youth football, Folarin Balogun probably isn’t a name you would have heard of. The 18-year-old England youth international, who was born in the US, has been a goal machine ever since he stepped foot into the U18s.
As a 16-year-old, he scored nine goals in 14 U18 Premier League games, whilst making seven appearances for the U23s, scoring one goal. For any player to play that number of PL2 games at 16 years of age is remarkable. To put that in perspective, Balogun made the same number of PL2 appearances as a 16-year-old as Jadon Sancho did during his time at Manchester City.
However, the 2018/19 season was where Balogun truly announced himself onto the youth stage, scoring 25 goals in only 19 league games whilst also grabbing four assists. His inspired form saw the Arsenal U18s win the Premier League’s Southern division, however, they lost to Derby in the final, the winners of the Northern division.
This campaign was Balogun’s first full season at U23 level and he adjusted to it with ease, scoring 10 and assisting four in 15 games. The teenager could consider himself unlucky to have not played for the first team yet, having trained multiple times with the seniors, however, he has shown that he is capable of adapting to whatever level he’s playing at. It would be very surprising if he doesn’t make his debut next season.
Arsenal fans have every right to be excited about the future of the club. Their Hale End academy is acting like a conveyor belt of talent at the moment, and with the help of their young foreign purchases like Matteo Guendouzi, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba, the future of Arsenal football club, as Arsene Wenger predicted, looks to be in safe hands.