Why Aren’t Any Academy-Produced Arsenal Centre-Backs Reaching the First Team?
By Allan Riley
It’s a well-regarded notion that Arsenal have a good academy and youth development system. This is exemplified through the recent crop of home-grown attacking talent has progressed through the ranks in the form of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah, as well as William Saliba, who will qualify as a home-grown player in three years.
However, there is seemingly one gaping hole in the latest crop of players to come from the academy system; defenders. More specifically, centre-backs.
Currently, there’s a good stock of young centre-backs at Hale End. Daniel Ballard, who has recently been called up to the Northern Ireland senior team at age 20, is a good example. On top of that, there’s Zech Medley, Tolaji Bola, Mark McGuinness and Jonathan Dinzeyi.
Despite this new generation of central defenders, there doesn’t seem to be any way into the first team. This isn’t a new problem either, with no home-grown centre backs progressing to the first team since the 1990s. But why, and what can be done to fix this?
Before attempting to answer the aforementioned question, it’s important to assess where Arsenal’s centre-backs are right now. McGuinness and Medley are both currently away from the club on loan at Ipswich and Gillingham respectively. Ballard, Bola and Dinzeyi will most likely spend the season with the under-23s, provided they don’t go out on loan.
On top of that, several spots in the first team are currently taken up by centre-halves who are either not good enough to play for Arsenal or are on the wrong side of 30. David Luiz, Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi are all examples. Instead of looking internally to replace these players, big money has been spent on William Saliba, who’s only 19, and Gabriel Magahaeles, 22.
There are a couple of factors related to why academy graduating centre-backs aren’t breaking through to the first. Currently, the first, and biggest factor is inexperience. Between the five aforementioned academy-produced centre-halves, the average age amongst them is 19.8. This is not an age where players are physically or technically ready to regularly play in the Premier League, particularly in a position which requires experience.
Because of this, it’s good to send these players out on loan, especially to lower league clubs. It’s here that players can get regular playtime and allow them to develop both physically and technically.
That being said, there’s no reason that after a couple of years out on loan, these players shouldn’t be ready to get at least some minutes in the first team.
This moves on to the next point. Once these players are ready to play; they now have to displace the first team centre-halves. Over the past decade or so, Arsenal have had an established duo in the heart of the defence. That being said, Arsenal have been questionable defensively over the years, with some weak centre-half pairings. Koscielny and Mertesacker seem to be the only two that have worked as a defensive duo.
Despite my previous point, you can’t just thrust a 20-year-old into the heart of your defence and expect him to perform at a high level in the league. They need to be eased into the side, which is what Arsenal are doing with Saliba now.
They need time to develop and improve as players. However, this isn’t the case. Centre-backs don’t usually start to consistently deliver until they are in their mid-twenties. As a result, frustration builds up within the fanbase and occasionally within the club as these players aren’t performing at a high level despite being at their supposed physical peak. This then leads to the club selling or releasing young centre-backs purely because they haven’t developed as quickly as other average youth players do.
Additionally, the central defender is one of the most important positions on the pitch. If a player makes a mistake in that position, more often than not, it leads to a goal for the opposing side. This can drastically damage a younger player’s confidence and morale, which can lead to more mistakes.
In short, the reason very few centre-backs from the Arsenal academy are making the first team is a mixture of inexperience, impatience and older members of the squad in front of them in the pecking order.
Now the first question has been answered, the focus moves on to what can be done to address this issue.
Arsenal have seemingly bought their next starting centre-back pairing in the form of Gabriel and Saliba. Behind the two Ligue 1 expatriates, however, are a roster of central defenders that aren’t Champions League quality, which is what Arsenal should be aiming for.
Luiz, Holding, Mustafi, Chambers, Mari and Sokratis are all semi-decent to good players, but shouldn’t be the future for Arsenal’s defence. This is where McGuinness, Ballard and Medley come into the fold. With a couple of years out on loan where these players can progress and get better as players, they should be ready to take the next step and become Arsenal’s deputy central defenders.
Don’t get me wrong, these players shouldn’t displace Saliba and Gabriel purely because they come from the academy. That’s a ridiculous notion, and those two will likely be Arsenal’s starting centre-backs for years to come. Nevertheless, centre-backs like the ones previously mentioned in this article should be, after some time on loan to develop, at least be getting a chance to prove their worth at Arsenal.
Instead of looking abroad for a second-choice centre-back, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta should instead look at Hale End; a decision that could set a positive precedent for the rest of the youth system.