There’s this idea I’ve been entertaining for a while. It’s about young players and how they develop.
I bet you’re asking why you should care what it is.
Well smarty-pants, you will care after I reveal the pinpoint prognostications I made about our youngsters a few years ago:
When I first saw David Bentley play for the first team, everything in the background slipped out of focus. I had eyes only for the guy with the spiky rattail thing on his head. He was so brash, so stylish!
Yeah he had lines shaved into his eyebrows, but what of it?! He could lob goalkeepers from 30 yards and play those snazzy “I murked you by looking the other way, bruv!” passes.
I smoothed the goosebumps on my forearm and dared to wonder whether I was watching the promised one – the long-awaited English champion of the new Arsenal way. I didn’t want to burden him with expectation, but I was pretty sure he’d take over from Bergkamp in a couple of years.
Later there was the winger, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie. Already better than what we had in the first team 2005, he was an Overmars, Pires and Kanu smoothie. But ouch, baby! Someone added some spice to the mix because that boy was audacious, outrageous and downright paceous. Speedy enough to be the tracer that would light the way to our new home at the Emirates.
Arturo Lupoli was the best finisher I’d ever seen at his age, and so intelligent for a player so young. I had it his career mapped out in my head – allowing for injuries and adjustments he’d be getting 25 goals a season come 2008, no problem. I tell you, back in 2005 the future was so bright I got a tan off my crystal ball.
Don’t worry; this is going somewhere. Well, sort of.
I got a bit carried away and assumed that a couple of good performances in the Carling Cup augured a fine career. I mean, if that was how well they could play on their debuts then they could only improve from there, right?
Wrong! They’d all leave the club within a couple of years, and have since gone on to do not very much.
But to get to the point at long last – often when a young player first breaks into the first team and plays well, I believe we get a glimpse, not of what the guy is capable of producing every match thereafter, but what level he might be able to reach in a few years with luck, hard work and careful guidance.
Beyond having a fine education, I reckon one of the main reasons our teams have done so well in the League Cup is because they’ve known that there’s no shame in losing to a side with five or even ten more years of experience. And if a youngster happens be thrown into a Premier League lineup – hey, it’s his first day. Slip-ups can be excused, both by fans and teammates, and he should be talked through every step of the experience.
Add to that, a youngster playing in his first few games for the team often has no profile. People may have heard things about their possible loan moves or form for the reserves, but they won’t have the kind of detailed information about youngsters that they already know by heart about established first team players.
Youngsters are also desperate to impress. And when you combine that keenness with the spring in their step brought on by the knowledge that the match is relatively consequence-free, and that the other team probably doesn’t know much about them, you’ll get the exciting performances that we’re used to seeing from our youngsters.
This is where the manager steps in. When he’s allowed to make the decision, I think Arsène Wenger is the best around at knowing which players to bring forward, which to hold back, and which to cast the hell off.
Yes, David Bentley looked good in the few minutes he got for the first team, but got to thinking that he deserved a place ahead of our first-choice creative players. I imagine that he didn’t realise what kind of dedication would be needed to get to a level and maintain it. There’s an inevitable comedown to inconsistency after the high of the first few matches, and this is where players prove their worth.
You can be as cocksure as Bendtner fresh from a day at the salon, but what’s important is the maturity and intelligence to knuckle under when football becomes a grind. David Bentley had lots of skill and abundant swank, but he turned out to be a bit of a swanker.
Assuming you can read around the cracks on your smashed computer screens, I’d like to apply my half-baked thinking to our current young players. Take Aaron Ramsey. In the first months after he joined us he looked like a classy fighter. And then came the grind, with a dodgy homecoming against Cardiff and some inconsistent performances in early ‘09.
Two years ago he was just getting up to a good level when he stumbled into the wrong cave. And as a consequence his journey will be more difficult that it ever should have been. Here’s what we know though – he has outstanding potential and he has the makeup to overcome extreme adversity. At present he’s getting by, but before long he will take another step up. I’m sure of it.
How about Alex Song? At Charlton, during his first run of first team matches in England he looked like a creative midfielder with muscle. Back at Arsenal it seemed he was limited, but thankfully aware of it and kept his game simple. With patience, hard work and changing circumstances, the traits we saw at Charlton resurfaced this season, and he’s now a player who can affect both attack and defence.