One Of Us Speaks: Barcelona Set The Benchmark – Will Arsenal Youth Ever Reach It?
Big Al lights the blue touch paper and stands well back…
In the build up to Tuesday night’s defeat I’d been comparing Arsenal’s situation with Barcelona’s. The two sides have been playing their Champions League matches concurrently this season; both teams had qualified early at the top of their groups, and both teams looked ready to give their younger players and reserves a chance. There’s a Catalan connection in my family, but doesn’t make me any fonder. Love or loathe Barça – I’ll take a cocktail of awe, jealousy and resentment – there’s no denying that they’re the benchmark for youth development over the last decade.
Of course their match on Tuesday was a very different prospect to ours. They faced BATE, who have not been masters of their domain, or anywhere else. We were up against an experienced, cosmopolitan and motivated team that had given our first picks a rough ride at home, and had defeated both Marseille and Dortmund.
So OK, the scenarios were very different, but there’s still a comparison to be made, if you’ll humour me.
Barcelona pummelled their opponents 4-0 – we lost 3-1. Theirs was the most one-sided match you’ll see in the Champions League. And though their team was made up mostly of names who aren’t really known beyond the Barcelona fan-base or football nerds, it was sh*t hot.
Taking to the field were players such as Sergi Roberto, Martín Montoya, Rafinha, Thiago, Gerard Deulofeu, Isaac Cuenca and Marc Bartra. Now a couple may fade, but at least three of those players will become world-class footballers.
If the situation in this country remains the same I can promise two things: Firstly, Arsenal will never be able to field a side of youngsters in a Champions League game and expect to win. And also, we’ll never have a batch of young talents that matches any that Barcelona has produced in recent years, even with scouting rules soon being loosened in England.
Ahead of key differences in training hours, international and domestic scouting, the most relevant reason I can think of at the moment is this; when we play more than a couple of youngsters in our senior team they’ll be sharing the rarest taste of competitive football.
But when Barcelona do it, they’ll have plenty of youngsters perfectly comfortable in a senior environment, and all in tune with their teammates and style. It’s their ‘B’ System. Their midfielder Sergi Roberto, while still 19 and not yet good enough for consistent top-flight football, has played more than 50 matches in the Spanish second tier for Barcelona B. Bartra, 70 odd. Deulofeu, only 17, has been a regular this season.
For our young players – and we do have many good ones – there’s the choice of a loan, reserve team football or a total of around four Carling Cup matches for the lucky few. This season the loan system has started to look like a pretty ropey way of getting game-time for our youngsters. The shock of switching from the plush surrounds of London Colney to almost anywhere else can’t be underestimated. I mean, some of these places don’t even have a Nando’s.
And just occasionally they have to go and play with complete berks – a few times we’ve read about Arsenal players receiving special welcomes on the training ground from the team hardman. Wolves’ Karl Henry is probably engorged already at the thought of initiating Frimpong. Meanwhile, Sanchez Watt had to sit a game out recently because Sheffield Wednesday had too many other loanees in the squad.
If they get a place on the bench or in the starting line-up, which many don’t, they’ll be playing in alien systems on dodgy pitches, often making painful compromises. Take Benik Afobe – he was a rare success story last season, but might be paying for it this campaign. He’s a real team player, mature and physically developed – qualities that saw him lumped with a carthorse role. No kidding, they had a potential international striker doing the team’s legwork twice weekly; hustling defenders, chasing lost causes and holding up the ball to the last second of every match. Too much at too delicate a stage in his development.
So maybe it’s no surprise he’s been injured since the summer; six months of development down the pan. And Huddersfield aren’t to blame either – they have to do what they can with what they’ve got. No, it’s the whole damned system that’s wrong.
What we need is for our youngsters to play together in a competitive environment. B Teams won’t happen here. Personally speaking, it’s just one of the many things that makes Spanish domestic football so inequitable – we need to find the middle ground.
This is hardly a new idea, but the answer is surely to improve the reserve league and for it to mirror the top flight, with 20 teams. Strict rules should be in place when it comes to the amount of players over 23 that can be involved. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any older hands though; a sprinkling of experience would be welcome. A chance perhaps for the lost souls to play their way back into contention.
You may snigger at Man City’s pompous title for their reserves, the Elite Development Squad (I know I do), but that’s the kind of sell that needs to be made. I mean, f*ck it. Let’s just call it the Elite Development League. No more matches behind closed doors; make it clear to fans they’ll be supporting the future of their teams. Get some sponsors, get secondary 5,000-seater stadiums – share them if need be. Generally add some prestige to the whole affair.
The benefits will be immense. Not least for the clubs, but also national teams. The onus is on Premier League clubs to bring through more home grown players so it’s only natural that the best youngsters will end up at the biggest teams, but the years between youth football are first still too loosely managed and too susceptible to chance. While it remains so another generation of talent will suffer.
Posted on December 9, 2011, in Arsenal, Champions League, Football, Premier League, Soccer and tagged Arsenal, Champions League, Football, Premier League, Soccer. Bookmark the permalink. 237 Comments.