Monday, September 15, 2014

Arsenal's Experienced Youth Movement

Manchester City's visit to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday displayed two contrasting approaches to building and enhancing a professional football squad.

That's no revelation to anyone who's followed the game over the past five years. Man City, propelled by the oil riches of Abu Dhabi, has spent lavishly on experienced world-class players and has been rewarded with two of the last three Premier League titles. Meanwhile, Arsenal has doled out less than it has brought in, selling many of its top performers, acquiring young but unproven talent, and amassing a sizable cash balance in the process.

Many will look at the average ages of the two squads and see confirmation of these long-held perceptions: City has the oldest squad in the Premier League on average; Arsenal, at 25.4 years, the third youngest. (Figures from the September 8 SoccerEx Transfer Review by Prime Time Sport.)

In my view, this conclusion is no longer valid. It ignores significant shifts in Arsenal's methods, which are becoming more apparent with each transfer period, as well as the striking changes instituted by other top clubs.

A core of experienced, valuable youth

Arsenal's youth policy governed the management of the club's playing resources while it paid down the debt and endured the commercial arrangements connected with the Emirates Stadium. Those financial conditions don't exist now. As a result, the type of players the club is acquiring and retaining has changed.

In particular, the youth of today are experienced. The headline signings of the past two off-seasons, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, are now just 25 years old, but they've earned 62 and 71 international caps, respectively. Overall, despite its relatively low average age, the first-team squad has made 877 international appearances. The latest was by 19-year-old Englishman Calum Chambers, another summer 2014 signing. Among 25 first-team players, only four have no senior international experience. That is hardly a callow squad.

While Arsenal players have built their credentials with national teams, they've also been deepening their familiarity with each other. The squad boasts the third highest stability in the League, having played together on average 2.7 years, according to Prime Time Sport's report. That's vital to the Arsenal style characterized by interchanging positions, quick ball movement, and in-game instinct.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger and his colleagues have constructed this squad in a distinctive fashion, but perhaps not in the way most observers assume. Arsenal spent the fourth-highest amount in Premier League transfer fees this summer, while acquiring the lowest number of new players (5). This leads to several conclusions:
  1. The £56 million net transfer fee (from the Arsenal Report Transfer Centre) shows that the days of building the team with a severely limited budget have passed
  2. The club is no longer fighting inflation of player salaries, refusing to pay what the transfer market demands
  3. The club is deploying its increased resources to acquire the players it wants but is not spending indiscriminately
  4. The approach focuses on a tight, unified team over potentially problematic star characters (See "Will Wenger's Roster Gambit Pay Off?")
  5. The team is composed of highly accomplished, highly compensated, but still relatively young, professionals

The core home-grown

With home-grown players at the foundation.

Arsenal now has a reasonable claim to eight home-grown players on its first team roster, the highest number in the League, including six Englishmen. According to "The Premier League's Home Grown Player Rule, Explained," Martin Tomlinson's (@Heisenbergkamp) skillfully researched and argued piece, this makeup gives Wenger considerable roster flexibility.

That's because any 25-man Premier League roster can contain only 17 players who are not designated home-grown. Arsenal's eight home-grown players represent a full contingent, and all but two of those eight, midfielder Francis Coquelin and third-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, compete for starting roles.

In other words, Arsenal can be at almost full strength and depth under the regulations, while many competitors have to carry smaller squads or compromise on quality to comply.

The opposition makes other choices

Arsenal's direct competition has for the most part not sought advantage in experienced, young, home-grown players. Last year's winners Man City lists only two home-grown players on its Premier League roster, meaning its full squad can consist of just 19 players. Now, those 19 are top quality, but perhaps this setup doesn't maximize the club's resources. It's also been dancing around UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and sanctions, which appear to have slowed the club's transfer spending and, according to some reports, caused City to move out striker Álvaro Negredo and halt its pursuit of Radamel Falcao. (Read Ian Herbert's "Radamel Falcao: A Symbol of UEFA Shackling Manchester City in the FFP Era").

According to manager Manuel Pelligrini, City also sent Negredo to Valencia because UEFA's sanctions capped its Champions League squad at 21 players for the 2014-15 campaign. Pellegrini said that "it all starts from the restriction about the number of players. We have restrictions about the number of players and the money we can spend." Don't cry too much for Pellegrini, though, because UEFA seems to be cutting City considerable slack, allowing it to field only one non-club-trained home-grown player among the five (disproportionately) required under the settlement.

Meanwhile, Chelsea is essentially outsourcing player development. It has loaned 26 of its players to other clubs, mostly outside England and Wales. That can remove these players' salaries from Chelsea's books for the purposes of FFP but does not work toward either the Premier League's or UEFA's home-grown requirements. Chelsea has also turned to a much more circumspect spender in 2014: Its net transfer spending was just £10 million in summer 2014.

The tacks of two other clubs do seem similar to Arsenal's in some ways. The most alike is Liverpool's, which was the third highest spender on a net basis and now has a squad whose average age (25.2 years) is even younger than Arsenal's. The main difference is that Liverpool brought in 11 players to Arsenal's five. Manchester United, like Arsenal, has a large home-grown contingent and a relatively young average age, but those traits are secondary to United's net expenditure of £122 million on an assortment of attacking talent, which looks like a desperate rush to return to a Champions League position.

That might work over 38 matches--who can predict? But it seems far more risky financially and less designed as a long-term response to the new Premier League and UEFA regulatory regimes than does Arsenal's approach.

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