Graduation - The Hale Enders, Assessed
As discussed on The Different Knock Podcast, Episode 47.
So. Despite some encouraging signs, we're still in the shit pandemic-wise in the UK.
And you don't need some poxy upstart Arsenal blog to remind you that job opportunities at the moment are slim. The complete shutdown of most industries in the UK due to COVID-19 leaves most people (but especially graduates of all types of higher education institutions) at a loss for what their next move might be. Generally speaking, without the pre-existing experience, if there is anything going, more than ever before there is already a queue of much more over-qualified and (crucially) more experienced professionals, willing to grab the opportunity with both hands to get by in troubled times.
However, pandemic or no pandemic, competition has never been higher for jobs in the Premier League, and with Arteta's apparent and understandable reliance on experience over youth (with a few notable exceptions), perhaps the latest Hale Enders are getting just a little taste of what the layman goes through as they struggle for first team minutes.
(I know right, boohoo. Obviously, I'd probably take struggling to get into Arsenal's first team and heading back to my mansion in the outskirts of London over struggling to pay my rent this month... but I needed an angle... stick with me!)
I make the comparison purely based on the numbers game. Certainly in my relatively short time supporting Arsenal, I can't remember a time where we have had such a huge crop of academy graduates who have all at one stage looked the business, and who are all at the age where they should really be getting some game time. Despite Hale End being impressive on the supply chain, perhaps its indicative of Arsenal's decline in recent times that they have all been able to "break through" in one manner or another, but maybe now haven't all worked out - conjecture klaxon needed.
Some, of course, are more lucky than others.
A widely publicised lack of creativity during a dismal run of form at the tail end of 2020 led to the surprise involvement of Emile Smith-Rowe from the start in our Boxing Day clash to Chelsea. It worked, and ESR excelled in a 3-1 win, speeding up Arsenal's play and providing some much needed positional rotation to a stale Arsenal attack. He's since become a mainstay in this Arteta side.
Perhaps luck played less of a role in describing Bukayo Saka's rise to prominence. The teenage sensation's versatility, tactical nouse and star quality have seen him become one of the first names on Mikel Arteta's team sheet, and after making his debut in November 2018 and establishing himself under Unai Emery, he was handed the famous no. 7 shirt at the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign, indicating his future is in safe hands. A new 4 year deal helped too. Here's hoping one for ESR is in the works.
But what of the others?
Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe sit alongside Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and (despite him being from a slightly different generation) Ainsley Maitland-Niles as our current group of Hale Enders in the first team squad. The Arsenal hierarchy have some big decisions to make on the 4 players who may have not yet hit the heights of ESR or Saka.
Let's assess where they are.
Contract expiry: June 2023
Competitive Arsenal debut: 9th December 2014 v Galatasaray (CL)
Age at next birthday: 24 in August 2021
For me, the decision with Maitland-Niles is very clear.
Perhaps he hasn't had his chance in midfield for a run of games at Arsenal... but the coaches see him every day in training and can decide on his capability at CM. He is not, for example, ahead in the pecking order of Partey, Xhaka, Ceballos or even Elneny. This tells us a lot.
He may well do unbelievably well at West Brom and prove me wrong, and I hope he does, but for a club with ambitions as high as us, we need to be aiming higher than AMN in midfield. I watched him against Spurs - he looked ok. A bit out of position at times, a bit sluggish, and doesn't have the most incredible technical skill that sees him rival, say, an Ndombele in that game. I don't believe he has the passing range, drive, awareness or physical capability that suits a midfield role - but he was ok.
But that's it. We need better than "ok".
What is clear though, is AMN can be an unbelievably capable fullback and flourish there - fully able to play at the elite level for Arsenal and maybe even above, and establish himself for England - playing that position is the only time he has been called up for the senior side.
As above, compared to other full backs in the Men's Big 5 leagues and according to FBref.com, he is in the 99th percentile for Pressures and the 98th percentile for Interceptions. He even has a really high xG for a full back, with a decent amount of tackles and solid pass completion. He is agile, and an excellent 1v1 defender. There's things to improve, sure. And these stats, of course, may be down to how Arteta has employed AMN more narrowly when he's played - there is always a justification.
But ultimately, those are really impressive stats for a "cover" full back. Considering Hector Bellerin's form this season, I think this could be AMN's perfect opportunity to nail down that slot, and save Arsenal £20-60m on acquiring a new long term RB option.
The resistance appears to be from Ainsley. He has spoken in the past about his desire to play in the midfield, and how he doesn't see himself as a full back - that attacking is his "trade".
But the modern full back can do all of the things he wishes to do - be involved in build up, get forward in the attacking phase and affect the game, and ultimately, if you're getting minutes in a position, and you can do it really well - why not? Look at the difference a midfielder in the Thomas Partey mould has made. AMN is nearly 24 and unless he suddenly turns into Patrick Vieira at WBA... I don't think he's Partey's long term partner.
I respect his effort and self-belief. I really do. He wants to show he can do it, with a run in a team. But in my opinion, taking everything into account, he'd be foolish to come back and not fight for a place at RB.
If he absolutely flies at WBA, there will still be questions if he can do it at a higher level, but I'd be willing to give him one more shot. If he comes back having not proved his worth at CM, unless he commits to being a full back, I think it's sale time - for a player who made his debut over 6 years ago, he's simply not done enough to convince me otherwise. With 2 years left on his deal, it's a good time too.
Verdict: Sell / Keep dependent on player decision to commit to full back.
Contract expiry: June 2023
Competitive Arsenal debut: 20th September 2017 v Doncaster (EFL Cup)
Age at next birthday: 22 in August 2021
Joe Willock has certainly had his chances.
44 appearances in all competitions for Arsenal in the 19/20 season. 5 goals, 1 assist. Stats aren't everything and don't give the full picture, but Willock has always struck me as someone who is more of an "output" guy than a buildup guy, and we've seen him at his best in this season's Europa League further forward. That output from 19/20 is not great for us more widely though, and I can see why he's gone out on loan.
That said, that "best" we've seen really is impressive. Physically dominant, aggressive and proficient out of possession, Willock really does have a lot of potential.
I just don't think it's with Arsenal.
For me the Willock question comes down to a square peg in a round hole. He does his most eye catching work arriving late in the box, as perfectly encapsulated by Newcastle's first goal against Southampton last weekend, with Allan Saint-Maximin's pinpoint pass finding Willock for a first time slot home. See his position in acres of space below. Teams simply wouldn't commit that many players forward and and leave that much space in behind for Willock to exploit against Arsenal, knowing our speed in attack and how well we tend to do against high lines in recent times.
He is better without too many players in front of him, able to use his impressive speed and size to be dominant and aggressive on the counter attack, and he times his runs well. He does not suit a team who looks to have more possession and end up often having to break teams in low blocks down.
I don't think this is a sadness. Not every player ends up being the dynamo we need. He doesn't have the passing range, ball retention skills or presence to play in our midfield as an 8, nor the final pass, star quality and cutting edge to play as a 10 ahead of ESR or Ødegaard (if he's a long term option), but Joe Willock is a perfectly capable footballer who could excel when put in a midfield that plays to his strengths.
In my opinion, it's best for all parties if he moves on.
For a young home grown player we could get quite a lot for him. And that's great. That's what academies are for. He has allowed us to rest key attacking players when we're ahead or chasing games, changed games and even had some great moments, but overall he just doesn't fit. And that's fine. Get £15/20m and that's a success story for me.
Hoping he can boost that price and his reputation at Newcastle - I've never questioned his desire. Seems like a good lad as well - did a great interview with The Beautiful Game podcast recently.
Verdict: Sell this summer
Contract expiry: June 2023
Competitive Arsenal debut: 6th August 2017 v Chelsea (Community Shield)
Age at next birthday: 22 in December 2021
By contrast to Willock, I don't think Nelson's question marks have ever been about his ability. An Athletic article brilliantly details Reiss Nelson's precocious talent, clear for all to see. Indeed, Arsene Wenger thought that Nelson was one of the best 15 year olds he had ever seen.
But four years on, Arsenal fans are still waiting to see the best of Reiss, who is sometimes frustrating in possession, despite flashes of dynamism and promise.
One advantage (of very few) of no fans is sometimes being able to hear what is said to the players, and I will never forget (ironic, because I've forgotten the game it happened in, could be the 0-0 with Leeds in November) hearing Arteta shout "Reiss! Mindset!" as we looked to get some dominance back at the end of a long game.
Arteta's arrival sparked many imaginations around what it might mean for Reiss Nelson. Similar in many ways to Raheem Sterling's journey, there was a feeling that an inconsistent young winger could be turned good in the same manner and with the same methods Mikel had used at Man City. It hasn't quite worked out that way, and I sometimes question whether Nelson is always the most keen and on it in training - I obviously have absolutely no idea, I clearly don't watch Arsenal train, but his consistent omissions from match day squads is notable considering the lack of reasons often given.
Maybe it's injuries, but I find often that the lack of clarity around the timeline of recovery for injuries with players like Nelson indicate maybe something going on beneath the surface. Arteta is razor sharp setting out the exact problems and timeline of returns for key players, and very vague on players like Nelson, often mentioning "fitness". Ozil's back trouble springs to mind. Perhaps trying to protect him - not a bad thing, just notable there might be something more.
For me, I think Nelson needs a clean slate, and to go and enjoy his football somewhere for a long period of time, ideally in England, for 2 years. Establish himself, feel loved, find that youthful spark again and perhaps get out from under the pressure a bit - it worked wonders for ESR at Huddersfield. I'd also like to see the club give him a 2 year extension to express their trust in him, if indeed it's there.
To be clear - I don't think we're in a Joel Campbell type situation here. I don't think we're going to get into some mad loan cycle. There is a player in Nelson, often compared at youth level to the likes of Jadon Sancho. The margins are so fine in football, and the signings of Willian and Pepe over the last few years, both predominantly right sided wingers can't have helped his confidence. Get him out to a top level Championship side, or a Premier League side who'll guarantee him game time, and see what happens. In 2 years we would benefit either way by selling a then 23 year old with lots of Premier League experience, or getting a top player back on our books to use ourselves.
It's a shame a loan move didn't materialise this January. His value only depreciates further sitting outside of the match day squads with no game time.
Verdict: New contract + 2 Year Loan
Contract expiry: June 2022
Competitive Arsenal debut: 28th September 2017 v BATE Borisov (EL)
Age at next birthday: 22 in May 2021
"England Under 21s star Eddie Nketiah" as he is now referred to is probably the trickiest one of the bunch to assess.
Eddie is great for a more defensive side who like to defend as a whole team. He comes out really highly in defensive stats, 87th percentile for blocks, 91st for interceptions, 95th for tackles and 96th for pressures - compared to other players in similar positions in the top 5 Men's leagues, according to FBref.com.
As for the eye test - the application is there. He chases every ball and clearly loves his football.
Arteta likes him too; “He makes sure every day that he’s on track, the way he trains and the way he pushes everybody,” said the Spaniard. “I’m not worried about that.”
He's a goalscorer through and through, often referred to as a "penalty box poacher", and as alluded to, at U21 level for England there's no doubting his pedigree - breaking the all time goal scoring record.
It may seem strange then, for me to say this - but I think he should go out, certainly on loan and maybe permanently. And probably to another league for his own sake.
For me, Eddie just simply hasn't got enough about him physically to cut it for us moving forward. To be clear, I really like him, but I don't think he's what we need. We've seen the advantages of Lacazette's hold up play this season with runners around him in Saka and ESR. Eddie has the physical capacity to get through a lot of work, and takes up some excellent goal scoring positions but he's not dominant enough in the air, not strong enough to hold it up, not so quick or canny that he can just burst past players or play on the shoulder - that's not his fault, or through lack of trying.
I suppose what I'd say is look at the no. 9s at the clubs we should be trying to compete with - Calvert-Lewin, Vardy, Cavani, Firmino potentially even Haaland fairly soon if reports are to be believed - all rounders, or players who can do one thing to such an unbelievably consistent level so it doesn't matter. Eddie is pretty good at a lot. That's not enough, unfortunately, in the Premier League.
He doesn't need to be performing at that level yet, he's 21. He's barely had a chance to get started. But to get to the next level, especially to improve some of his poor decision making at times, he needs to be getting regular minutes, and I don't actually think his ceiling is particularly high. Just my opinion.
Eddie is the sort of player who I think would have thrived 10 or 15 years ago. A low touch player. He has a lot to offer somewhere else, I'm sure, maybe in a 2. Maybe that club could even be Arsenal, if we changed systems and played with two centre forwards. But In Balogun's short Europa League cameos I have seen more like what I like, a more complete centre forward. Eddie may be taking Balogun's minutes.
As the game becomes more and more pace and power based, Eddie may not be what we need... but I'm willing to hold off a definitive judgment a while longer.
Verdict: Sell/loan this summer.
So there you go. Until 26th December, Smith-Rowe might have sat on this list. As always, things can change very quickly in football - but right now, I think that's where we sit with all those.
Right - thanks for reading. Here's hoping for 3 points on Sunday against Leeds.
See you next Friday.
Contract, debut and age data from TransferMarkt.
- Alexander Moneypenny (@alexmoneypenny)