For a small island nation, Britain has had a lot of influence in the world but none so felt as the introduction of Britain’s favourite pastime – Football. Association Football is the world’s biggest sport and is still growing in popularity in ever corner of the world. Despite the history of invention and an ongoing position of influence in the game British football failed to have a single player in the FIFA World XI in 2015 and no representatives from the top league either. Why does the home of football consistently fail to produce players that not only garner international acclaim but also can advance a British national team to a trophy? Is it because of the large amounts of foreign imports playing in every division, especially the Premier League? It is grassroots coaching or are the national and club managers to blame?
Many claim that the future of British football looks bright with swathes of talented young players breaking through and point to the rise of Wales as an example of improving standards. Arsene Wenger is one of the managers behind the new generation of British players the national associations are pinning their hopes for the future on. This is an interesting change as Wenger was once widely castigated and held up as an example of why foreign imports, both playing and managerial, damages the national set-up. The English press once claimed he was crushing England’s future chances by eschewing a generation of English players in favour of cheap imports. The backlash was worse felt when he put out an Arsenal XI entirely devoid of any home-nations players. The team that lined up against Crystal Palace that day included six Frenchmen, three Spaniards, two Dutchmen, a German, an Ivorian, a Cameroonian, a Brazilian, and a Swiss.
It was a far cry from his first match at Arsenal when he played 10 British players. Wenger’s move towards foreign players is a hard one to definitely expound but certainly cost was a factor as well as a familiarity with his continental coaching methods and dietary requirements. Another, often overlooked, factor is the greater technical ability of European educated players when compared to English players who were often favoured for work rate than ability – something that still plagues British football as evinced by the appreciation and affection for a player like Parker over say Özil or Hazard.
Ultimately for Arsene, I believe the final decision always came down to talent. He has always maintained he doesn’t care what it says on a player’s passport although he also said he prefers home-grown players where possible for their probable loyalty. Finding home-grown talent has been a challenge so he set out to build it through the academy which needed a lot of fine tuning and turning over of generations to perfect the development formula. We are only now starting to see the fruits of those long ago planted seeds.
There have been a few presents from the academy in the shapes of Wilshere and Gibbs but mostly Wenger has relied on the academies of other clubs to provide him with the British talent he desired whilst his own academy was being reshaped. The challenge for the academy is to produce players with the passports to please the press and the cost-effective talent to dissuade Wenger from dipping into the more plentiful and vastly more appropriately priced international market.
Jack Wilshere is an example of that challenge being met, so the academy know it can be done, now the challenge is to do it regularly. Jack is a local boy but unlike English midfielders before him he is a highly technical player. He has the vision and movement of a classically trained Spanish playmaker. Xavi and Iniesta acknowledged his talent and complimented him the best way they knew how by proclaiming he could have come from La Masia – the famed Barcelona academy. Post his Champions League heroics Arsene acknowledge him as the future of English football. What makes Jack Wilshere even more special is that he learnt all that he knows at Arsenal, a club that has been his home since the age of nine and the home of one of his idols, Tony Adams, a man he wants to emulate as both club captain and legend. This endears him to the fans and gives him an edge over players who view Arsenal as an employer, a prestigious employer but an employer nonetheless. In many ways that makes Jack the perfect player for Arsenal.
Following Jack is Kieran Gibbs who hopes to be the next great English left-back to come from Arsenal, emulating the likes of Sansom, Cole and Winterburn. He has to get past Monreal first but let us not forget that Gibbs easily kept Nacho out when fully fit so if he can get back to playing consistently and steer clear of injury he is more than capable of winning his spot back. Aaron Ramsey whose name was almost forgotten after his grievous injury against Stoke and then only used with resentment as he battled to find his way in the team was fortunate to be a favourite of a manager like Wenger. Arsene played him through his issues and allowed him to blossom into one of the best midfielders in Europe. Ramsey is gifted with stamina, technique and wonderful timing to arrive in the middle to support the striker. His strong mentality and style of play suits Wenger’s Arsenal and he is now always one of the first names on the team sheet.
Other British players at Arsenal are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson. When he joined Ox was described as almost the same as Walcott in terms of speed but with the capability to play in the middle. He has been more effective on right wing since his arrival but he is still spoken of as a future central midfielder at Arsenal. He is still to tap into his full potential at Arsenal but nonetheless is still a favourite of England’s manager, Roy Hodgson. Oxlade-Chamberlain badly playing up and down for the fifth season at Arsenal and yet still ambiguous for a starter.
Carl Jenkinson arrived from Charlton Athletic and was quickly expected to adapt to top flight football. The boy has Arsenal in his blood, red and white pumping through his veins every time he plays for Arsenal. He is a fan living the dream. That doesn’t necessarily make him good enough to play for Arsenal but Wenger saw something in him, something raw and mouldable. If any player ever had the motivation and desire to be whatever Arsenal wanted him to be it’s Carl Jenkinson. He’s sadly injured at the moment having spent most of the season playing for West Ham on loan but with Debuchy itching to leave there is room for him to return to Arsenal as a functioning member of the squad.
Those players, along with Theo Walcott, made up the so called British core of Arsenal. Arsene had visions about British talent forming the nucleus of the side but since the unveiling of this core Arsenal has taken a noted swing towards the exotic imports. The likes of Cech, Monreal, Bellerin, Coquelin, Özil and Alexis are core members of the starting XI. Ramsey is the only nailed on starter from that British sextet. Walcott is battling for the sole striker position with Giroud, which is both a benefit and a threat to both players at the same time. Gibbs and Ox are struggling to find game time, the latter falling foul to the ironically greater work rate of a less technical import in Joel Campbell and Jenkinson has spent the season on loan. Just over three years later, Wenger’s British core visions seems to be falling foul of his early preference for quality regardless of the origin.
“Now we have some good young British players for the first time in the group – Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain for example. We have a core of young players that we want to build on. My dream was always to produce 60 per cent English and 40 per cent foreign young players, We are still only focused on quality but for the first time England produces so much quality. It’s not that I have changed. For me the quality is the most important thing.” Arsene Wenger, 2012.
The signing of Calum Chambers from Southampton in 2014 demonstrates the vision is still there even if Calum too is finding game time at a bit of premium. Calum is a fine player who is benefiting and falling foul to his ability to be utilised in midfield or defence. It enables him to always be in the manager’s mind but is also stopping him from developing enough in one role to force a run of games. Hopes from the academy are being fulfilled by Isaac Hayden, Alex Iwobi, Chuba Akpom and Daniel Crowley. Iwobi aside however, the player most involved in first team preparation and closest to getting some minutes under his belt is Matt Macey, the 3rd choice Goalkeeper, signed from Bristol Rovers.
Talk of English talent, waiting for a chance to establish themselves as a regular starter, often goes past without mention of Danny Welbeck. Understandably his injuries has made many Arsenal supporters forget about him but when fit he is most likely to be thrust immediately back into the fray. Overall, Wenger has a healthy roster of British players who merit inclusion in Arsenal’s squad but aren’t quite making a case to start every week.
Arsene Wenger believes that the British Isles boasts the best league in the world and seems to be eager to do his part to ensure that league produces a few players deserving of a mention as being truly world-class. However, with the various struggles of Walcott, Welbeck, Wilshere, Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and Jenkinson it looks like there’s still a long way to go for Arsenal to realise their visions of a British Core. Non-British players like Bellerin, Campbell and Coquelin have been showing what fine players we produce and polish when given time to flourish so it’s surely only a matter of time before Arsenal’s British players do the same. And when it does Wenger will be far too classy to tell the media and rival managers who bad mouthed him “I told you so”.
Anzala Ryanto as Author of this post, big Gooner and right now focused as freelance sports journalist in Indonesia, USA and UK.