You’ve come out of your local town’s youth structure, you’ve signed a scholarship with the Arsenal academy and by the age of 18-20 you’re getting a few chances to impress in the first team proper. Yes, Arsène Wenger has been more proactive than most in fast-tracking talents of a more youthful variety into the first team reckoning over the years with a heavy focus on learning and development. It is difficult to undermine the work of the Frenchman with Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny and Emmanuel Frimpong more recently representing that the endless conveyor belt of talent is still in fully working order.
But if we look back retrospectively, every manager makes mistakes and from an early age, a wise old head can usually gauge whether a player is going to go on to sample a successful long career or not. Arsène Wenger infamously released a young Jay Bothroyd at 18 after the striker threw his shirt at youth team coach Don Howe in frustration at getting substituted. Whilst Bothroyd has tasted relative success elsewhere, this example represented that Wenger takes pride in a good grounded attitude in his players when coming through the system, and if this is sound enough, praise and rewards of a first team berth shall be the repayment. But if we look the attitudes and careers of some past and present Arsenal academy stars such as Nicklas Bendtner, Jermaine Pennant, David Bentley and Denilson, a belief of their own hype and a seemingly inflated opinion have derailed their progress, and their distractions have led to an intermittent career at Arsenal and in football as a whole. So in the case of these players, is Arsène Wenger’s grooming to blame?
Perhaps Nicklas Bendtner is the greatest example of an ego-tripped youth whose performances don’t always match up with those envisaged in his head. Currently on loan at Sunderland, after failing to capture the imagination at the Emirates, the Dane makes himself an easy target whether wearing bright pink boots or simply making brash quotes about his play in the press; his most famous quote being
‘If you ask me if I am one of the best strikers in the world, I say yes.’
Alright Nicklas! Making his Gunners debut in 2007, Bendtner has gone on to strike 22 goals in 99 appearances which isn’t the worst record but at the expectant North London club, a few inconsistent glimpses of clinical striking abilities each season simply isn’t enough to satisfy the watching spectators. Wenger has refused to condemn his overstated opinion over the years and has only praised his mental strength at responding to criticism whilst giving him plenty chances to impress with 27 Premier League appearances representing his involvement last term. It seems Bendtner’s talent has been a bit forced in contrast to the likes of Kieran Gibbs or Jack Wilshere who have recognised their rise to prominence more quietly.
Additionally, Bendtner’s task as a striker will always be more difficult as he will naturally be judged upon his goal tally and when key strikers have been out at Arsenal, the Dane who is still learning the game has been the inadequate replacement. Another currently on loan to his native Sao Paulo is Denilson and his transfer in the summer again represents the backward step made by the youngster as punishment for his coasting whilst being given many first team outings. Surely both players would find themselves in the 2011/12 Gunners’ squad had they made the most of their opportunities in former seasons.
Side-tracked Arsenal youth isn’t an exclusive phenomenon to recent times however, with David Bentley in 2003 representing another who showed great promise, yet has gone on to sample mediocrity at Tottenham in his career. After scoring an audacious lob in a 4-1 FA Cup triumph over Middlesbrough at Highbury, tongues were wagging and even Dennis Bergkamp likened his play and made this bold judgement in response to young Bentley’s performances
“He’s not afraid not to do something wrong, that’s the main thing for a young player -not to have any fear. If you don’t try a chip like that, you’ll never succeed”.
Manager Arsène Wenger similarly jumped on the Bentley-Bergkamp bandwagon stating
“David has a long way to go to match what Dennis has done in his career, but it was a typical Bergkamp goal”.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and perhaps Bentley was misguided by these bold quotes at the time, but to put big ideas into young and impressionable heads is certainly questionable amidst an importance to remain level-headed at that age. Perhaps the example of Bentley has made Wenger even tighter with his fast tracking of Arsenal youth these days with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain still in and out of the team in respect of his age, learning and exposure to top level football. Showing he can cut it at the top in glimpses, Wenger will have learnt not to burn his youth out such as in the case of Jack Wilshere or to introduce and expect great things immediately such as in the case of Theo Walcott.
Whilst many young stars have gone on to achieve acclaimed careers in North London, a handful have also reminded us all that even Wenger can get it wrong at times in terms of mentality and grooming . The readily published myth that the Arsenal academy is flawless is certainly one that could be deemed wide of the mark.
Written By Taylor Wright