It’s no secret that youth is at the heart of everything Arsenal are doing right now. Mikel Arteta has built his side around emerging talents like Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe and the Gunners have fielded each of the 20 youngest starting lineups in the Premier League this season.
But is this just a flash in the pan brought on by a golden generation, or a sign of things to come? Behind the scenes there is a team working hard to ensure it’s the latter.
Back in 2020 academy director Per Mertesacker and technical director Edu took the decision to rip up the existing scouting structures and implement something completely new. Head of youth scouting Steve Morrow – who brought Serge Gnabry, Emi Martinez and Eddie Nketiah to name but a few to North London – was dismissed, along with other scouts including David Lee (under-16s and seniors), Kevin Beddell (16s-23s), Dan Rice (12s-16s) and Joe Sutton (9s-12s).
In their place came a brand new talent ID team headed up by Lee Herron, who moved across from his previous position of head of academy football operations to take up the role. Joining him were Steve Brown (lead talent ID coordinator for under-8s – under-16s), Yousuf Sajjad (Head of Emerging Talent for U17 – U23), Phil Antwi (12s-14s) and Ayo Durojaiye (9s-11s) to name but a few, all appointed with the remit of identifying and recruiting a reliable pipeline of exceptional Arsenal DNA talent for the Academy and, ultimately, the first team.
Filtering down all the youth talent across the world into a carefully cultivated elite group at Arsenal is a daunting task though. So where exactly do they start?
“Per in the academy has implemented four pillars which are – effective team player, efficient mover, lifelong learner and champion mentality,” Steve Brown tells football.london . “For the mentality stuff, you look at where people show a desire despite the score in the game, despite the conditions, despite the pitch, despite someone who may not be successful playing against someone who’s stronger than them, but they still have a champion mentality. We just look at different sorts of criteria within those pillars to ascertain whether we should sign them and whether they have the right indicators to be an Arsenal Strong Young Gunner.”
With this clarity of purpose from the top, the talent ID team scour the globe in search of the next group of players who can fit the Arsenal mould. As they seek to do this no stone is left unturned.
The club have invested heavily in partnerships with data companies like STATSports who help them create statistical profiles for each position that they can marry with in-person scouting. Like for many of us though, the COVID-19 pandemic made working life a lot more difficult.
Without the ability to see players in the flesh, scouting became an almost Sisyphean task. It was at this point that they began to get creative.
“COVID was challenging,” Brown says. “It was challenging in many aspects for football, but from a talent ID perspective, because of the government guidelines, we couldn’t really get the development centre up and running, so when we were scouting some of the lads off grassroots, they were coming straight from the grassroots centres into the academy setting, which is a big step. What we found is that some of them thrived off that. Some of them came in, we signed them and they were up and running.
“From a talent ID perspective, we had to really work creatively when COVID. There was a time where Lee (Herron) said ‘come on lads get your coats on, let’s go and have a look around the local parks’ and we invited lads in who had just been playing around local parks. There was nothing else to do really! We got fed up of being indoors and sitting on (video calls). But when difficult times like that come you’ve got to be creative.”
Thankfully though, things are now starting to get back to normal. Brown was in Italy a fortnight ago to watch some of Arsenal’s England under-15 players and will be heading out to Croatia this week with Herron to scout more players. The rest of the team meanwhile are out scouring grassroots matches, academy games and under-23 fixtures in search of more Strong Young Gunners.
This is a competitive business though. Being situated in London, Arsenal are fighting against a host of category one academies at clubs like Tottenham, Chelsea and Fulham. The capital city is currently a hotbed for footballing talent, with 10 of Gareth Southgate’s most recent England team having come through youth set-ups here. As a result the rivalry to accrue the next group of promising youngsters is fierce, with the key battleground coming far earlier than you might expect.
“A typical pathway would be that they start in the academy around six or seven,” Brown says. “But at six or seven you can’t sign them until they’re under-8 year where they’re going to be nine from the September 1. So, they’re allowed to go around and get this free coaching whether it be from Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Fulham or whoever, and what you find is that those young ones get a lot of good coaching. But when it comes to that under-8 year, now you’re trying to sign them.
“One thing I’ve learned coming to Arsenal is that the biggest fight in London is signing the under-8s. You see when teams like Chelsea about the good groups coming through at 15s and 16s a lot of them have been there since the under-8s, and it’s the same here. So you try and get the group right, some will drop in and some will drop off and then you just add to that. But that group from the age of eight if you can generally get that core right, that’s the key.”
The more you delve into the talent ID team, one of the things that comes across is how open Arsenal are to fresh ideas that will help them find people who fit into the remit they’ve set themselves. No door will be closed.
This philosophy spreads into the work they are doing in the community. The Gunners are keen to bring historically underrepresented communities on board with their mission and have already begun work to make this happen.
“One of the things I’ve learned being in London is that the grassroots football itself is an academy, so, we’re probably picking out of the best pool of players in London,” Brown says. “You’ve got to be creative, you can’t keep looking at the same spots, you’ve got to go and face all those challenges that are out there.
“On Saturday we opened up with a massive South Asian project at Hale End. In football, we feel that South Asian players are underrepresented, that’s not just in players, that’s practitioners as well. So there’s a big event going on at Hale End, and that’s something we’re going to be going at in the future to make football accessible to that community. It may become another talent pool and players come out of it, but actually if it doesn’t we may get practitioners out of it.
“You know about Arsenal For Everyone and this is another round of that with talent ID involved. Being in a melting pot of cultures that is London you’ve got to go and make it accessible to all of them and that’s what we’re working to do.”
While youth is clearly a part of the present at Arsenal, the work the talent ID team are doing is ensuring that this will continue to be the case in the club’s future. Mertesacker has created a diverse team united from top to bottom in its core aim of creating more Strong Young Gunners that is well-placed to ensure Hale End’s golden era continues for years to come.