Mikel Arteta never made it at Barcelona but he knows from first-hand experience how a functioning youth system can transform a club.
The Arsenal manager left his home in San Sebastian at the age of 15 to join Barca’s famous academy boarding school, giving him an insight into an unlikely group of teenagers would revolutionise a club and turn it into the greatest in the world football.
The great Barca team that dominated Europe from 2008 to 2015 was formed largely of youth team players, many of them who had come to Barcelona to live in the reconverted 18th century farmhouse known as La Masia, where the club housed out-of-town teenage prodigies.
Arsenal are enjoying success this season with a number of their academy graduates dazzling
‘I was living in La Masia, it was bedroom of eight and I had Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol, all in that bedroom,’ said Arteta.
That’s quite a five-a-side team even if they have two keepers. Between them those players wold amass 4 World Cup winners’ medals, 6 Euro winners’ medals, 21 La Ligas, 10 Copas del Rey, 10 Champions League, three FA Cups and a Scottish Premier League.
Barca revived the club by the means of an super effective youth system 15 years ago and while Arsenal might not match the Xavi, Iniesta and Leo Messi generation, something is stirring at Hale End, their own equivalent.
Mikel Arteta knows from first-hand experience how a good youth system can transform a club
Charlie Patino has been tipped as another future superstar, and scored against Sunderland
Last Tuesday night was just another manifestation of the promise with the hat-trick from Eddie Nketiah, 22, and the goal from 18-year-old Charlie Patino on his debut, a player who has been touted as one of the most-exciting yet.
Most encouragingly for Arsenal, 2021 has been a breakthrough year for Bukayo Saka, 20 and Emile Smith-Rowe, 21. The fact that those player have been assigned the prestigious squad numbers, the No 7 and No 10, is an indication of the club’s long-term strategy.
‘The reason that we have expended a lot of effort and energy and have been very consistent with our decisions is because we have a huge opportunity with the young talent that we have at the club,’ said Arteta.
‘But that young talent has to be tough in the right way. How much I coach them – movement, tactical decision making – is less important than the environment that they grow up with. And they need that. And now they have the perfect place to grow.
Emile Smith Rowe is another Hale End graduate to have enjoyed a breakthrough this season
‘And that’s why they are growing, because they have the senior players doing what they have to do, they have the culture that is set, they have people that really and genuinely are willing to help them and a club that is fully supportive of them and willing to give them opportunities.
‘And this is what they have to do to raise and fulfil potential and this is the reason why they do it, not because of the coaching or anything else.’
The Arsenal youngster aren’t at boarding school like Arteta. He once spoke about how Reina and his team-mates would console him when he would cry at night through homesickness. But that intense sense of unity that comes from growing up together, which served Barca so well, can be replicated at Arsenal.
‘What I learned at La Masia was that internally there was competition, as we all had the same aim, to be first-team players, and we could not all of us get there, so it was internal competition. But what I learned as well that within that competition that you really have to understand that you have to look after each other.
Boss Arteta and Arsenal have a long-term strategy which places their wonderkids at its heart
‘And that was a big lesson in the period for me. Some of them are still my best friends and that is because you go through stuff that is really important, key moments in your career that stays for life and those relationships are unbreakable.’
At the moment, Saka and Smith-Rowe represent small beginnings. Nketiah may be gone in the summer as his contract is up and his game time limited.
If Patino can develop, Arsenal might have secured three academy players as a core of a team, still far off the likes of Chelsea who regularly field four or five academy players in their first XI.
But even that is a radical change for Arsenal. They may have been long associated with playing young players but since the days of Lima Brady, David O’Leary, then David Rocastle, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Paul Davies the production line of genuine home-grown players dried up.
If Patino can develop, Arsenal might have secured three academy players as a core of a team
There was Andy Cole, though he succeeded elsewhere and the best of all in the Arsene Wenger generation, Ashley Cole, spent most of his career at Chelsea. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Woijcech Szczesny and Robin van Persie were clever recruitments as teenagers from abroad.
The much-vaunted British core of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs were, Wilshere apart, again smart work by the scouting department, though Gibbs did arrive at 15 from Wimbledon so perhaps counts. Wilshere is the only player since Cole who rose from Arsenal as a child to become an elite-level star.
Saka is now following that route in 2021, building on the England in October 2020, to becoming a key player at last summer’s European Championships, an experience sullied by the appalling racial abuse he suffered on social media when he missed England’s fifth penalty in the final-shoot-out.
Arteta has described Saka (right) as a ‘young boy with incredible enthusiasm and passion’
‘What I see is a young boy with incredible enthusiasm and passion for this club,’ said Arteta. ‘I see it in others too. They are really willing to bring success and they are dealing with a lot of difficult situations in a great way.
‘That shows the background, environment and families they have and how supportive the club have been throughout their careers. But it is not normal at that age to do what they’ve been doing. We have to be prepared, that if they can’t cope with something that we are there to identify that and act straight away.
‘I was worried with everything that happened in the summer with him [Saka] but when I first met him after the holiday period I realised he was going to cope with it well because his reaction was incredible.
Arsenal may be on to a budding youth project, with Arteta hell bent on ‘transforming’ the club
‘The support he had from everyone in football was something that gave him a big lift, reassurance and security, and really pushed him forward to say: ‘This is just part of the journey.’
Saka may be the poster boy but Smith-Rowe is but a step behind. Patino may be next. Arsenal may be on to something.
‘The purpose to really transform this club and be successful with this club,’ said Arteta. ‘And the joy that that would mean is even more genuine because they have been raise all the way through our system and that’s again credit to all the people involved in our academy.’