The Future of Arsenal’s British Core

It scarcely seems credible, but this season will be the 10th at the Emirates Stadium since Arsenal moved a quarter of a mile down the road from Highbury.

It is a decade that can be split into roughly three periods.

The first covers Project Youth, which was brought to an end by the departures of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie (and hastened by that Capital One Cup Final defeat to Birmingham City).

The second revolved around The English Core, when Arsene Wenger put his faith in the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott after being burnt by those pesky foreign youngsters who wouldn’t stick around.

And the third, which we are currently in, is Operation Spend, when Wenger finally has the financial clout to compete for the finest players.

The only lingering question is when the second phase morphed seamlessly into the third.

Wenger, in fact, might argue there has been no changing of the guard and that he has moulded the English core with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech.

Yet the news over the past few weeks serves to demonstrate how The English Core has not kicked on as has been expected.

When Ramsey, Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson signed contracts together on the same day in late 2012 the message was clear: this is Arsenal’s future.

It was also designed to put pressure on Walcott to extend his deal, which he subsequently did.

But of those six (and I would also include Wojciech Szczesny as part of the English core despite his obvious, well, Polishness) only Ramsey can claim to have progressed as well as or better than expected.

Last season, in fact, that English core started only 71 Premier League games between them, which demonstrates they are hardly the focal point Wenger had hoped they would be.

There are two reasons for that.

To begin with there are the new signings (with Calum Chambers and Danny Welbeck adding to the English talent) and unexpected form of the likes of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin, with Santi Cazorla flourishing into one of the best central midfielders in the division.

Then you have something this group has sadly become all to familiar with: injuries.

Wilshere’s latest ankle problem is particularly worrying and has simply served to demonstrate why he has been unable to string together a consistent run of games to cement his place in the side.

Both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain need injury-free seasons after serious knee problems have dogged them over the past two years, while Gibbs now has to contend with the stellar form of Nacho Monreal while maintaining his fitness.

And Gibbs’ specific problems underline the issues confronting the English core.

The spirit in the Arsenal dressing room is particularly strong at present, but Spanish and German are just as likely to be heard as English.

Part of the reason Wenger has preferred Monreal over Gibbs is that the Spanish-speaking triumvirate of Monreal, Sanchez and Cazorla are able to form a slightly more secure unit than when Gibbs is in the side.

For Wilshere and Ramsey, the issue is how to dislodge either Cazorla or Ozil to claim a spot in their preferred central midfield roles.

Then Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain must contend with Olivier Giroud, Sanchez, Ramsey, Welbeck and each other for two spots in the team.

Jenkinson and Szczesny, for their part, are so far away from the side they have been allowed to go on loan.

Yet Wenger undoubtedly meant it when a year ago he said his dream was for Arsenal to win the World Cup for England.

“I hope we have a core of English national players in the future,” he said. “Spain won [the World Cup] with six from Barcelona, Germany with six from Munich. I hope England can win it with six from Arsenal.”

These were not idle words, but Arsenal have quietly moved away from the idea of having an English core in their side to simply using the best players available.

This, then, is a crucial season for those English players.

With the sad exception of Wilshere, all have had an injury-free pre-season and some – particularly Oxlade-Chamberlain – have been hugely impressive.

Yet if they are to fulfil Wenger’s prophecy and ensure the idea of the English core had more substance than simple words they need to do so now and ensure the first decade at the Emirates finishes in quite some style.

 

By

@julian_bennetts

 

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