As Arsenal fans we like to think of ourselves as proud of the way young players are developed by the club, patient with them as they progress through their inevitable raw phase, and then justified when they come out the other side shining.
Some make it all the way, some fall by the wayside, and we’ve become accustomed to seeing both sides of that particular coin. For every Cesc, there is an Owusu-Abeyie, for every Bendtner, a Lupoli. Players who, for whatever reason, never fulfilled their exciting promise, those early eye-catching days, and were eventually shipped off, many never to be seen on these shores again. Those that remained in England often dropped down the leagues, justifying the decision to let them go.
But sometimes I fear those judgements are made too soon. Not by the club, who are impressively loyal (and with mixed results – for every minute believing in a Song, time is also invested in an Aliadiere), but by every one of us, giving our opinions on the development of players from the minute they come on to our radar. For some with detailed knowledge, that can be from reserve football, but for most, that day comes when they get blooded in the Carling Cup for the first time.
An starring role in such a tie can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is proof to the player that they can make it, motivation to get to that level regularly, and it can be a wake up call to first teamers that a youngster is after their place. All good stuff. But on the flip side, it can raise expectations to an unrealistic level, with some expecting a string of performances at the same standard, a level of consistency no teenager is capable of, no matter how prodigiously gifted or driven.
Every young player goes through peaks and troughs. But in the era of 24 hour news, the peaks are magnified beyond hyperbole, putting even sharper contrast on the inevitable dips in progression, that period in any young career where it doesn’t come as naturally or easily. And that is where constant analysis is dangerous. Players can be written off in an instant, the victim of the media obsession with the ‘build them up, knock them down’ approach.
Look at the first team squad – Van Persie had people doubting whether he’d ever be fit enough, Eduardo and Rosicky suffer the same fate now. Walcott had many calling him overrated eighteen months ago, while Bendtner, Eboue, Song, Denilson and Diaby are all regular targets for the critics. Even Cesc bore the brunt for a month or so when he stepped into Vieira’s shoes. No one is safe.
Many of the players listed above battled past the doubters, and proved themselves. Some are still in that process. Others are more affected – Senderos springs to mind as a player so bereft of confidence, so shattered by criticism of mistakes, that he will never be the player he could have become. Touted as a future club captain when he was 20, did expectation and subsequent struggles destroy his chance?
Perhaps, but perhaps not. We follow the progress of our players from a much younger age these days, so we often get the impression that they’re older than they are, and consequently write them off too soon. Senderos is only 24, believe it or not, well short of the peak of his career, and more pertinently only a year older than Nani or Ryan Babel, two players still regarded as prospects for the future. Why then is Senderos seen to be finished already?
He is only one example. I’ve already mentioned Walcott as a player written off by many when he was still only 18, simply because he wasn’t justifying Sven’s decision to take him to the World Cup. Theo is still only 20. Bendtner and Denilson are 21, Diaby 23. Even Clichy, who is part of the furniture, is only 24. None of these players should be complete at their age, yet somehow we expect them to be.
The latest to come under fire is Carlos Vela, who according to some is not developing as expected and is showing signs of ‘not fitting in’. What would satisfy these people? His start against Liege was his first of the season in any competition (he hasn’t even begun a Carling Cup game because of injuries), his other four appearances coming from the bench, often after an injury break. And he is criticised for not terrorising opposing defences from the first minute?
It seems a tough ask for a 20 year old to make sporadic appearances and sparkle. It seems we only expect that of Vela because we know he has that capacity – he has proved it in the past. So is that why he’s being written off now? It strikes me as odd that the players to find themselves under fire are those who have shown glimpses of outrageous talent, only inconsistently. Surely they are our most exciting players, the ones that can be honed and developed into stars? Why on earth would we want to knock them down?
I worry for others too – Wilshere is now the ‘great English hope’, so what will happen when he has a few dodgy Premiership performances as an 18 year old? It is an inevitability that he will have his struggles, his dips in form – that is how players learn. There were even voices of discontent at Ramsey’s contribution in our defeat at Sunderland last weekend.
I’m not saying young players should be immune to judgement. Most of the excellent blogs (and you’ll see them in my links) take a realistic approach, saying that a player may not be ready, or ‘looked raw’ in a particular match. Those are usually perfectly fair assessments. But some others take a much more extreme view, writing them off in a heartbeat, penning entire articles on how such and such has been a disappointment and should be shipped out.
Our young players get chances long before they would at other clubs. In the long term, that can only be a good thing for their development, and therefore, provided the balance is right, the club will benefit too. The danger is that it exposes them to the sort of vitriol the tabloids and corners of the internet enjoy dishing out.
And that is destructive. There are fans like that in the stands today, groaning whenever a teenager misplaces a pass, rather than encouraging him in the embryonic stages of his career.
We are Arsenal. They are Arsenal. They deserve our support, and our faith. Believe in them, and you never know what they might become.