The loan market has long been considered something of a ‘finishing school’ in football, and recent examples at Arsenal certainly back up that theory.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles returned from a successful season at Ipswich Town last year as a more experienced and mature player, enabling him to force his way into the first-team reckoning for the Gunners this term.
Francis Coquelin also benefitted from a short spell with Charlton two years ago, while Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs gained valuable experience on loan in the lower league earlier in their careers.
In fact half of the current Arsenal first team squad have at least one loan spell on their CVs, and that’s not including the 13 players who are currently away from the club on a temporary basis.
The size of squads in modern football has led to a rise in the number of these short-term deals, and Arsene Wenger believes that although they remain an important part of a youngster’s education, football needs to address the way the loan market is used by clubs now.
The boss spoke exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine about the advantages and disadvantages of loan deals, the process behind them, and how the system could be improved.
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Arsenal have several players on loan at the moment, how do you decide which players would benefit from such a deal? First of all it’s a step in the players’ development, and normally it’s the final step before their integration into the first team. The development of players is made up of three steps: scouting, coaching and integrating them into the first team. The final stage of that last step is to give them competitiveness at the top level so that they can show that they have the mental maturity to cope with pressure, the demands of a first team who have to win games. They have to fight with players to get into the team, to win football games under difficult circumstances and that’s what it’s about.
Do some players benefit from a loan deal more than others? Alex Iwobi never went on loan, for example... Everybody’s career is different – the maturing phase is different for everyone. Some stand still and then suddenly have an acceleration in the speed of their maturity which allows them to get straight into the first team. Some take advantage of situations where players are injured. You give them a chance and they don’t need to go through the loan step because they have been given an acceleration to the first team. Some are not completely ready so they need to go to another club where they can acquire that maturity. Everybody is different but, for 90 per cent of the players, the loan phase is an important one. It is a problem everywhere today because the gap between the youth team and the Premier League has become bigger than before. Most of the clubs feel a necessity to fill that gap with more experience at a lower level. It doesn’t have to be in the Championship, it can also be in League One.
So is the level at League One/League Two better than youth football? Well there are more chances to play with the same mental requirements needed in senior football at Arsenal. Because the level of the Premier League has gone up, so has the Championship’s. The demands in the Championship are very high and the demand for experienced players is higher than ever before. Maybe we have to adjust to send them down a few levels on loan.
What are the possible pitfalls of a loan deal? First of all they are sometimes in an uncomfortable position, because the manager also has to deal with players who have a permanent contract with their club. The loan players only have a partial contract with their club because they will go back after three months, six months or one year, so sometimes I feel they don’t get the advantage of their quality – they’re a bit disadvantaged in their selections. The other disadvantage is that they don’t always get the same medical care, in terms of injury prevention, as they would here. That’s a bit more sophisticated in the Premier League. Also sometimes they feel a bit isolated. If it doesn’t go well for them, they don’t have their usual environment where they’re surrounded by their friends, their coaches who they have known for years, so this reality is a bit of a shock for them. They are a bit more lonely in that environment and it is a bit tougher for them to deal with than it is here.
How does the process work? Does the player or yourself usually instigate a loan? How do you choose where they go? Usually I sit down with the player and sometimes with their parents as well, and I explain my feelings about the player and what he needs. After that, we have a structure of people at the club who take care of it. We have people responsible for our young players who get in touch with managers at other clubs. If we feel that the player is really wanted and that they really see a position for him in the team, we do the deal. It has to be with the agreement of the player and the agreement of the parents. They have to feel comfortable with the situation as well.
Most of the time it goes well but sometimes it doesn’t. We keep that in our minds. If we have had clubs who promise us something, but then don’t deliver, the next time we won’t necessarily give them the players they want. On top of that, we have Liam Brady and David Court – our former academy managers – who take care of these players on loan and make sure they keep in touch. That’s new for us. We always used to scout them, and follow their progress, but we also need to make sure we go to the game and have contact with the players regularly, so that they know we still care about them. We speak to them, how well they are, what they feel, what they need to create a positive psychological environment with the players and keep them attached to our club.
Is a loan deal sometimes an easy way out for a club which is afraid to lose a player permanently? That is the most difficult part of it. The level of the Premier League has gone up, the requirements are much higher and, because everybody has a different speed of maturing, sometimes the boy is 20 years old and he’s still not playing. You think, ‘This boy has arrived here at the age of nine, we have taken care of him for 10 years and now for six months, while he has to wait for a first-team chance, you’re in danger of losing him completely’. As a manager, that’s something difficult to swallow because you worry about him and think ‘his destiny is here, not somewhere else’. That’s a very difficult situation. On the other hand, you do not want to spoil his future because you’ve forced him to stay here and he only has a 10 per cent chance of playing. That’s the difficultly for me as a manager, having to make these kinds of decisions.
Whose decision is that ultimately, yours or the player’s? I can only be honest with them. I tell them my deep feelings. Sometimes when the time has gone, the player’s 22 and I’ve still not played him I say, ‘You have to go somewhere’. You can only be honest with your feelings. We all have to make difficult decisions at some stage and we have to accept that it could be wrong, but you can never stop anybody from becoming a big player. If I’ve been wrong, and the player goes somewhere and has an exceptional career, then I was still right, because what is most important is that the player makes the career he deserves. Nobody in our job has any fault in that.
Do you try to include buy-back clauses for young players you sell? I try, especially when it’s abroad. I try to put clauses in so that we get a percentage of the future transfer. That means it gets us in a better position to buy the player back. It’s a bit of the price to pay for the education you give him here. You have seen many examples recently of how expensive it can be to buy back a former player!
Clubs try to prevent this by stockpiling players and having dozens out on loan at once, do you think that is healthy for the game? It is one of the big problems in the modern game. You’ve invested a lot of money into players because we’re paying more and more money, and then at the age of 20 you don’t usually get much money for any of the players, so the reflex is to stockpile the players. That’s not right. When you look at the number of loans that happen here and there, the whole system has to be thought about again because we have two kinds of solution in there. The first is to continue developing players, the second step is just to make sure your investment is safe – that’s not the right way to think about it but it’s the natural reflex for the clubs.
How would you change the system? Maybe you could create a possibility for some clubs to own part of a League One club as a feeder club. After that, a limitation on the number of players on your books could work. The way a youth team is organised now is that all the best young players go to the richest clubs, which is where they have fewer chances to develop, so you have to make sure the system shares out the best young players equally. It’s difficult because the development of the players depends on the concentration of the good players. The more good players you have together, the more chance they have of becoming even better players.
Is there a danger of young players not getting enough game time?Some goalkeepers might only play two or three times in the youth setup It’s a problem for them more than any other player. The goalkeeper can only play in goal and they also play the longest. If you think that Petr Cech arrives at a club at 20 years old and he plays until he is about 38. That means the boy inside the same club who is 18 when Petr Cech is 20, will be 36 when Petr eventually stops. That is a big problem for him and all the other goalkeepers. To organise a training session you need two goalkeepers, so if you have under-18, under-19 and under-23 teams, you need six goalkeepers.
If you take the number of goalkeepers in all the academies today and calculate the statistical chances they have of playing in the Premier League one day, you will certainly have a bad surprise. It is less of a problem for other positions. You have more chances to adapt and adjust. In these positions you can go down to any of the 92 Football League clubs to find your level. When you don’t get the chance, you go down and then you come up again. If you have the quality and the passion, you can come up again.
What have been the most successful loan spells for Arsenal in your experience? Maybe the most successful cases I have are two players who were educated here at the club. One is Ashley Cole (loaned to Crystal Palace in 2000) and the other is Jack Wilshere (loaned to Bolton in 2010). These are two players who became internationals and made huge careers after going out on loan. At the time I sent them out, the competition here was too high, but they came back ready to play and then developed very quickly after that loan spell. You have many examples like that.
The latest being Ainsley Maitland-Niles? Yes, he was at Ipswich last year and that season changed him a lot. Before he was a bit shy, a bit introverted, but he has become much more extroverted, open and a happy boy, because he has gained confidence over the last year. We will never know how much of that is down to his loan, but I would say that it helps to feel that you are ‘one of them’. You are in the dressing room, considered as a big part of the team inside the club and I think that helps you psychologically to grow up.
How do other sports manage this transition to the top level? I feel there is a general worldwide process now of getting young players ready for first-team sport. We were talking about this recently at the Leaders in Performance conference. That’s a meeting between people from all sports, and everybody seems to have three main problems to sort out now. One is whether we specialize the players too early. By that I mean should we give them a multi-sports influence from a young age? The second issue is how we deal with the parents of young sportspeople today – that’s in every sport, you have to manage that in the right way. And thirdly, how do we integrate young sportspeople into the top level? Well we have just spoken all about the third point. The other issues to think about at the moment concern the parent; how to manage their anxiety, the demands on the players and the pressure on the players. So more and more now the clubs are developing structures to work well with the players’ parents too. But the big thing today is whether we should develop multi-sports at a younger age. Do we specialise too early? Because there can be a transfer of skills from one sport to another.
What’s your opinion on that point? Personally I am convinced that we should keep the academy boys within a normal social life, make them attend a normal school, so they are in touch with people who are not just in football. So that could be music, or handball - anything. Then after they finish school, we give them the education at the club. Also, I think they should experience different sports up to the age of 15 or 16. So they should try handball, they should do trampolining – whatever it is. These are all sports which can help you to develop, and make you more balanced. I personally believe that young boys are under too much pressure too early in their lives. They lose a lot of their freedom and passion for the game as a consequence. Football was always about going out onto a football pitch in order to counter-balance the boredom in everyday life. Once it becomes your main focus, and you have to absolutely be successful too early in life, it can create a pressure which makes it less fun and less enjoyable.
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