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Wenger's waning faith in the loan system

Tim Stillman Stillberto Arsenal writer

Arsenal’s performance in the League Cup has dipped a little over the last few years. It is still a trophy that has eluded Wenger’s grasp- losing a pair of finals in diametrically opposed circumstances in 2007 and 2011. However, the manager has found the tournament useful for reasons that go beyond the attainment of silverware. The League Cup has become a kind of laboratory to unleash his young charges. This was especially true during the ‘Project Youth’ years, shortly after the construction of Emirates Stadium.

Young players were much closer to the first team and the League Cup served as a kind of bridge between reserve football and the first team squad. The likes of Denilson, Fabregas, Nicklas Bendtner, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song were inducted into the senior picture via the League Cup. In turn, this led to exuberant, motivated performances, as Arsenal’s starlets saw these games as a fertile ground to audition for more senior status.

As the financial shackles have released over the last 3-4 years, the tournament has been less fruitful in blooding youngsters. League Cup teams are a good deal more ‘senior’ nowadays as the squad has increased in maturity. As such, the Gunners’ core of young players could typically be found out on loan, meaning the teams were made up of squad players and youngsters just out of the academy, or else not deemed ready for loan spells.

Players that would have been on Arsenal’s bench during the leaner stadium years, were now more likely out on loan. Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi are the two most notable young players to break into the first team picture and neither owes a particular gratitude of debt to the League Cup. Iwobi gave a fairly listless display in a 3-0 defeat Sheffield Wednesday last year, alongside such luminaries as Glenn Kamara, currently on loan at Colchester United at the age of 21.

Iwobi’s induction into the first team actually arrived via the FA Cup. Arsenal do not really have dedicated back up for Mesut Özil, so Iwobi started in the number 10 position for cup ties against Sunderland, Burnley and Hull City, before earning a starting spot for a Champions League tie in the Nou Camp. Likewise, the League Cup was not a conduit for Hector Bellerin’s emergence. He came on as a substitute and played in central midfield in a 3rd round tie against West Brom in September 2013.

This year’s campaign has seen a slight shift, however, which gives me pause to consider whether Arsene Wenger has lost faith in the loan system. Ainsley Maitland-Niles spent last season at Ipswich, Chuba Akpom was at Hull and Gedion Zelalem spent the season at Glasgow Rangers. All have remained with Arsenal this season even though they are not close to the first team picture as yet. Krystian Bielik, signed in January of 2015, is another player that one would expect to have been loaned out at this stage of his development, yet he remains with the club.

In the wake of the chastening League Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday last October, Wenger was on the verge of agreeing a loan deal for Iwobi, with several Championship clubs interested. The manager pulled the plug. The Nigerian’s progress since may have influenced the manager’s thinking, with several fringe young players still at the club. It appears that the manager has lost faith in the loan system as a means of developing junior players. Hector Bellerin underwent a brief loan spell at Watford, before the Hornets changed manager and the Spaniard’s temporary deal was cut short.

It has been a little while since the progress of a young player at the club could be attributed to a solid loan spell. Francis Coquelin’s month at Charlton at the age of 23 notwithstanding. Alex Song had a prosperous spell with Charlton in 2007, Ashley Cole’s temporary sojourn at Crystal Palace was enough to imprint himself onto Arsene Wenger’s thoughts. (As well as an, ahem, ‘administrative’ situation with first choice left-back Silvinho).  

There may be a number of reasons that explain the manager’s new found reticence to loan out his younger players. If a loan club starts to experience a rough patch, young players, especially those on temporary contracts, are usually the first to be dropped. Managers in the Championship operate in a harsh, results based environment and while that can certainly toughen young players up, it also means that their development is not the responsibility of the loanee’s new coach.

Arsenal play a particular style of football which is difficult to replicate down the divisions. Again, operating outside of a technical comfort zone can be a valuable learning curve for a player. But that probably does not benefit Arsenal specifically, whose commitment to a technical style of play is absolute. Iwobi and Bellerin were able to develop technically in the club’s youth and U-21 sides without the need to have their noses bloodied on a cold Tuesday night in Rotherham. Likewise, trawling the Championship has not turned Chuba Akpom into a snarling steamroller of a striker.

Significant changes have been made to the calendar in junior football in recent seasons. Competition is far more regular- the days of regular 3-4 week pauses between fixtures are a relic of a bygone age. Competitions like the UEFA Youth League have injected variety and promoted greater regularity in the schedule, as well as exposing young players to different styles of football. A week before Iwobi’s pretty useless workout in the League Cup defeat at Hillsborough, he raved about Thierry Henry’s coaching influence in the wake of a man of the match performance against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Youth League.

It looks as though Arsene has concluded that his young players are better off in the Arsenal cocoon, learning their trade in an improved junior league structure and becoming disciples of the Arsenal way in North London. Though Arsenal’s League Cup sides will continue to harbour a more senior influence than they did a decade ago, don’t be surprised if they start to take on a more youthful hue again in the years to come.

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