Eight of the 10 youngest players in Arsenal's history were given their debut by Arsène Wenger. That stat alone tells you everything about the manager’s well-deserved reputation for giving youth a chance.
The latest youngster to break through under the boss’s watchful eye is German midfielder Gedion Zelalem. Gedion, in fact, is so young that he wasn’t even born when Arsène became Arsenal manager back in October 1996. Gedion came on during the second half of the 4-0 FA Cup win over Coventry City at Emirates Stadium in January. He was two days short of his 17th birthday, making him the youngest-ever player to appear for Arsenal in the competition.
In an exclusive interview with the Arsenal Magazine, Arsène revealed what he looks for in a young player, and – at the other end of the age spectrum – what attributes older players need to possess to continue to be a force in the Premier League.
But he began by explaining what qualities a 16-year-old such as Gedion needs to have before he can be considered for first-team action at such a tender age.
"Most of the time he needs an exceptional quality and that you sit there and think, ‘OK, I have to play him," Arsène says. "You need to be quite brave to put a boy of that age into the team, but you can only be brave if you are convinced that he has something special. Of course when you think about 16 or 17-year-olds, usually it’s not a physical advantage they have – most of the time it’s an exceptional talent or technical ability.
"For Cesc Fabregas it was on the vision front, and his capacity to deliver the final ball. That’s why you believe that most of the time it’s an offensive talent that convinces you to pick a young player. Defensive talents are not often ready at that age because it demands more experience, more reading of the game and the opponent. With attacking play, you focus more on your own game so usually it is exceptional offensive talent that you can give a chance to"
That certainly rings true for other players who broke into the Arsenal first team at the age of 16 or 17, players such as Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere for example, and – more recently – Serge Gnabry. Arsène adds that there is also a conscious decision within the Club to promote talented youngsters as early as possible.
Arsène agrees: "Wojciech had exceptional talent and I played him very early, so today he’s at an age where most goalkeepers have not started yet, but he already has big experience. He was questioned at some stage and he had a debut that was not very easy, but he has matured earlier than expected because we gave him the chance earlier than expected. That’s why I think he’s ahead of schedule for a normal goalkeeper. It’s down to his mental strength and his exceptional talent as well." There’s no question a manager needs to be brave when putting his faith in an untested teenager, especially with the stakes so high in modern football, and with little or no time to learn on the job. But Arsène argues that the players themselves need to be brave, learn to have faith in their ability and not let early criticism affect them.
"We want to be very successful without neglecting the need to give a chance to people"
"It’s a big mental test for the players because you see how they resist stress, how they can deal with the pressure and how they can be committed in a very demanding environment. These kinds of qualities you discover only when you play the players.
"Of course it’s an early test that not everybody can take on. Some fail but the strong ones just feel they belong there. They are not at all surprised that you give them a chance. In fact they are more surprised that you did not do that earlier! So when they have the chance, they think, ‘Finally, he saw the obvious situation and at least now I can show how good I am."No matter how good these young players are though, to really help them fulfill their full potential they need the guiding hand of an experienced manager, and they also benefit from senior players in the dressing setting a perfect example to follow. So whereas the current Arsenal squad has several regular players under the age of 21, there are also a number of players over the age of 30, who are doing vital jobs off the pitch, as well as on it.Tomas Rosicky and Bacary Sagna are two examples, and Arsène reveals that the importance of older players in the modern game is one of the reasons why he changed his policy of not offering contract extensions to outfield players over the age of 31."Football has changed," he argues. "You need more experience nowadays. I believe that the players are better prepared now, and they last longer because they take care of their health much better. The medical environment is much better than it was 10 or 15 years ago and the individualised injury-prevention training is much better than it was before.
So I think everybody lasts longer today because he is better prepared." The boss adds that this could be a long-term trend, and in 20 or 30 years’ time we will see the average age of a Premier League team going up. "Yes, it could go up a little bit because the players are always better prepared from a very young age. Their bodies can take more on and for longer."I think we might see players extending their careers a bit. For a defensive player it has always been easier to extend their career but today we see players like Rosicky who was born in 1980 and is still very sharp and has a good change of pace. Why? Because he takes complete care of his body and because he’s looked after much better than before."Tomas is a good example of a player who burst onto the scene as an exciting youngster (breaking the Bundesliga transfer record when he was just 20) but who is still playing at the top level some 15 years after his senior debut.
"We all love the game and the longer we can play, the happier we are. You feel the clock ticking when the three turns up at the start of your age! You think, ‘Now I have to fight for every season,’ and usually those who last a long time do their job in a top professional way. The ones who aren’t professional enough are eliminated early on in their career anyway.
"It’s quite amazing because football is like a fast train on the evolution side, which forces the players to adapt to the evolution," he continues. "Some players can cope with that and some cannot. Those who cannot cope get off the train and stay in the station and the train goes on without them. We are in a period now where in the last five or six years the physical evolution has been absolutely tremendous."When evolution comes in, it always forces the players to adapt and to find the response to the new situation. The response to a higher physical level is of course a higher technical level, because you have to respond to more pressure with more technical ability. That makes the whole game always go up – but not everybody can cope with the evolution. That’s where some players get out of the Premier League or the top level, because the train goes too fast for them." The average age of the Arsenal first-team squad this season is roughly 26, with a range of ages from 17 to 33, and Arsène believes that the optimum average age of a Premier League squad should be between 23 and 30: "I would say the players are the most efficient between those ages. It takes you four or five years to really learn the job, not to be caught doing stupid things and to have an average consistency in your performances. Then at 30, sometimes your body lets you down a little bit, so between those ages is the peak.
"Today I know more about any player than I did 10 years ago"
"Having said that, it’s very interesting to have players at 32, 33 and 34 in your squad as well. They can anticipate situations well on the pitch, they give you a serene attitude and the defenders read the game better. Mentally, they can cope much better under pressure. To get that balance right is certainly one of the secrets of any good team." At 64 years old, Arsène is the oldest manager in the Premier League by four years, with Everton’s Roberto Martinez the youngest at 40.So how does Arsène think the generation game will affect managers over time? Does he anticipate the average age of a Premier League boss to increase or decrease in future?"It is maybe becoming older, maybe, I don’t know," says the Frenchman, who was 46 when he took over at the Gunners. “But at the big clubs the pressure is so high and you have to learn to deal with that kind of stress. It is very difficult. I don’t see any special trends. What is for sure is that the investment in the big clubs is so big now that there is less of a tendency to take a risk and appoint people who have not experienced dealing with big players. That is a little bit of a handicap sometimes for young managers."We will see in the future – but what is for sure is that the modern manager is surrounded by much more information than ever before, and much more objective information. Today I know more about any player than I did 10 years ago. You know how much they run, what their heart rate is, what they eat – all objective information. The experience helps to know what is important in that.
"I believe that the modern manager has to make a compromise with all this objective information he gets, choose five or six important ones and put that together with his experience and his observation to make the right decision from that. I believe that that is what the modern-day manager is confronted with."
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