How Arsenal are producing next generation amid Nketiah & Saka success


Arsenal’s exciting kids are dazzling at home and in Europe. The secret to success? Scouring the lower leagues in South America, promising them game time and ‘Dragon’s Den’ pitching for clubs wanting to loan the kids

  • Arsenal have a number of good young players emerging in the first team 
  • Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka are becoming key figures 
  • Emile Smith Rowe and Tyreece John-Jules have also had productive loan spells
  • They have dismissed academy staff and restructured behind the scenes 

When Arsenal were picking a loan spell for Eddie Nketiah in the summer, the process went above and beyond what any club had done for a young player before.

The truth is that Arsenal have long had some of the most wanted kids in England. They have a reputation for developing them, and it is not just Nketiah who people have been watching. When his name cropped up, though, teams moved quickly. It is why they had to implement a Dragon’s Den-style process.

The competing teams — Leeds, Bristol City and Fortuna Dusseldorf — were invited down to Arsenal’s Colney training base and asked to pitch on why they deserved one of the more coveted young strikers in Europe.

Eddie Nketiah is one of the more impressive youngsters in the current Arsenal squad

Bukayo Saka has also broken into the first team at the Emirates Stadium under Mikel Arteta

Gabriel Martinelli celebrating one of his goals — he has had a huge influence recently

Each man had to do a presentation. Manager Lee Johnson spoke for Bristol City, while Leeds’ director of recruitment Victor Orta went down. It showed how seriously everyone was taking it, and just how in-demand this academy graduate was.

While Nketiah’s loan at Leeds did not work out in terms of minutes, it highlights how unsurprising his rise to the first-team is. To a degree, Nketiah is just a symbol of the new generation coming through in that Hertfordshire village.

Nketiah is the man to call if you want goals, but Gabriel Martinelli has also shone in recent months. Bukayo Saka has been the standout star of Mikel Arteta’s reign so far. At least some of his young charges will play in the Europa League against Olympiacos on Thursday night, having used the competition to break through.

This crop harkens back to the days when Wenger famously sat down Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson to sign new deals.

An old generation of Arsenal’s young stars, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (left to right) sit down to sign new contracts

It speaks for a club that has made savvy recruitment at youth level one of the tent poles of their approach.

Take Nketiah, for example. He was released by Chelsea in 2015 after seven years in their academy. Their outlook was that he was not tall enough.

It took Arsenal just two days to invite him for a trial. They signed him to a scholarship shortly after. ‘I don’t know what happened at Chelsea,’ Arsene Wenger later said. 

‘He has scored goals at youth level and sometimes I don’t know why they let him go. You see that more and more. Young people travel from one club to another.’

Nketiah was snapped up from Chelsea after they released him and has had his moments

Nketiah has worked his way up the ranks and never been overexposed, despite useful goals at various stages under Wenger and Unai Emery.

He may not have played much at Leeds but it was the perfect club to send him to. Marcelo Bielsa has had a hand in the development of a number of top strikers, including Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Llorente, and improved elements of Nketiah’s game.

The 20-year-old is now starting ahead of £50million man Alexandre Lacazette and bagging crucial goals against the likes of Everton.

Martinelli, meanwhile, was playing for Ituano, who currently compete in Serie C in Brazil, the third tier of the national division.

Martinelli was brought in after impressing in the Copa Sao Paulo for Ituano last year

He appeared on the radar of big sides after scoring six times in four games at the Copa Sao Paulo last year. The competition is the most prestigious for young players in Brazil.

After being called up to the senior side, he then bagged six in 14 to help Ituano to the quarter-finals of the Sao Paulo State Championship, earning a best newcomer award in the process.

It meant he was asked to train with the Brazil senior squad ahead of the Copa America.

Arsenal had scout Everton Gushiken watching him, but they were not the only side keen. Both Manchester United and Barcelona expressed an interest – as did 25 other teams, according to O Globo. By April, though, they had sealed a deal. 

They promised his dad he would not be loaned out straight away which helped convince him

Their trick? Promising he would not be loaned out but would instead work with the first team. His dad Joao Carlos told Bleacher Report: ‘We’ve got a verbal agreement with Arsenal that he won’t be loaned out straight away.

‘They have a plan for him and are expecting to see him reach his peak within one to three seasons. 

‘It would have been no use picking an offer, say, £10m higher, if he did not get a proper chance in the end to grow. I have no doubt that he’ll develop further training with the first team.’

It panned out. Martinelli has had plenty of opportunities this season, scoring 10 in 24 appearances for the Gunners.

Saka provided an incredible assist for Nketiah during the win over Everton at the weekend

That’s quite a record for an 18-year-old fresh to the country, and while Sao Paulo is not exactly a backwater, finding and bringing in Martinelli shows how far Arsenal will go to secure the right young players.

Saka was simpler. While his brother played for Watford until his teenage years, there was only ever one club for him.

He joined Arsenal at the age of seven, so there was no long recruitment process. He just worked his way up the academy, heeded the warnings about how few made it and ensured he was in that number. 

Speaking to recently, Saka said: ‘You could never be sure that you would make it, but what I said to myself is that I would always give my best in every single session. 

The 18-year-old celebrating with Nketiah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang over the weekend

‘I always wanted to learn to get better, I always watched a lot of football to see how I could improve.’

There was a clever move by Freddie Ljungberg to move him to left-back, which has benefited Arteta, but beyond that it seems a routine climb up the ladder.

What is fascinating is that while the likes of Nketiah and Saka came through the system, the man who would have been responsible for their signing was recently canned.

Steve Morrow was the head of youth recruitment until November 2019, when the club parted company with him and seven other members of staff.

Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s head of academy, has been restructuring it behind the scenes

It was part of Per Mertesacker’s moves as the head of the academy, a role he took up in summer 2018. He has clearly sought to restructure how it works.

They have now promoted Lee Herron to academy operations manager with the responsibility of heading up the ‘Talent ID’ department, suggesting there is a new approach to bringing in kids.

It is no real shock. Edu came in as director of football in the summer and has sought to change how the club as a whole operates.

There are other names to come through from the older generation too, though. Joe Willock impressed in flashes when given a chance by Emery earlier this season. He looks a solid midfielder who can also play further up the park if there’s a desire to break up play in the final third.

Emile Smith Rowe has been impressing while on loan at Huddersfield in the Championship

Emile Smith Rowe is also doing well on loan at Huddersfield, providing an assist to Joe’s brother Chris on Tuesday night as they beat Bristol City.

Manager Danny Cowley has been impressed with a kid who played regularly in the Europa League and EFL Cup last season: ‘He looked a top player, didn’t he?

‘He has that ability to find space – he could find space in a telephone box. 

‘He speeds the play up for you and draws and commits and I think it would have been a brilliant performance (against Bristol City) if he had scored. 

‘I am always going to be demanding of him because, to me, he is a Premier League player so I have to treat him like that and demand Premier League standards from him – in training and in games, day in and day out.’ 

Tyreece John-Jules has had a good time of it at Lincoln, playing seven times in League One since moving in January. 

Tyreece John-Jules is on loan at Lincoln in League One and has scored one in seven games

The striker was even named man of the match on his home debut at Sincil Bank as he scored for the Imps against Blackpool.

He has not, it must be said, scored since, but John-Jules has been highly-rated ever since a goalscoring cameo in a mid-season friendly last campaign.

On the evidence of those players coming through, the future is bright at London Colney. 

Clearly Arsenal’s academy is in a good period and plans are being put in place to make it sing in the future. 

Lower league managers might want to start preparing the PowerPoint presentations to sign the next big thing now.

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