Nearly 200 players have signed scholarship deals with Arsenal since the Academy’s reformation late last century. Some of those players have gone on to enjoy hugely successful careers, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere, whilst many others have established themselves at lower levels and some have drifted out of the game completely.
Here, we assess the best products of the Arsenal youth system since the Academy was reformed, with players selected more for their overall career trajectory as opposed to their performances for the club at youth level.
Stuart Taylor received a league winners medal with Arsenal but has endured a rather nomadic career since and has barely played at all in recent years, so Wojciech Szczesny appears to be the club’s most successful graduate goalkeeper. Signed nine years ago from Legia Warsaw, the Polish stopper, via a hugely productive loan spell at Brentford, went on to establish himself as Arsenal’s first-choice goalkeeper. Szczesny may have lost his place last season to David Ospina, but he still played a major part in the FA Cup success and is an established international for his country.
Justin Hoyte once threatened to make the breakthrough, but has seen his stock fall considerably since leaving Arsenal, whilst Moritz Volz enjoyed a successful stint in the top flight with Fulham. However, it is one of the more recent academy acquisitions, Hector Bellerin, who takes his place in the Academy dream-team. Bellerin started last season on the fringes of the first-team but concluded the campaign as a regular in the side and, like Szczesny, was involved in the FA Cup triumph. The young Spaniard still has some things to learn defensively but he looks well equipped for a sustained career at the top level.
One of the places certainly has to go to Johan Djourou, who, despite not always being convincing, did have some good performances during his lengthy Arsenal career. Now 28, the Switzerland international plays for Hamburg in the Bundesliga. Choosing who should fill the other centre-back position is an altogether more difficult task, with Ignasi Miquel and Kyle Bartley possible options, but Matthew Connolly has achieved the unique feat of being promoted to the Premier League with four different clubs (Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Cardiff City and Watford). He will hope that next season he will finally be afforded an opportunity to play regularly in the top division.
This certainly has to be one of the easiest choices to make out of the whole team. At the age of 34, Ashley Cole may be showing some signs of decline following a difficult first season at Roma, but for several years he was widely considered the best left-back in world football. An Invincible (amongst several other successes) with Arsenal, he left in hugely controversial circumstances to join Chelsea in 2006, where he went on to win further trophies, including the Champions League, whilst also winning the FA Cup for the seventh time. An honourable mention should, of course, go to Kieran Gibbs, who is closing in on 200 first-team appearances for Arsenal.
Francis Coquelin doesn’t count as an Arsenal youth product, given that he was signed at the age of 17, so an alternative will have to be chosen. Steven Sidwell won the FA Youth Cup twice with Arsenal and has spent the vast majority of his career in the Premier League with various clubs. Fabrice Muamba saw his career cruelly come to an end in 2012, but he also established himself as a top flight regular before his early retirement.
Cesc Fabregas can be classed as an Arsenal youth product having arrived at the club from Barcelona as a 16 year old. He had many memorable moments in his 303 appearances for the Gunners before his return to Spain, prior to his surprising return to the Premier League with Chelsea last year.
Jack Wilshere also has to be included. Despite the fact that he isn’t guaranteed a regular place in Arsenal’s starting line-up, the England international remains one of the country’s most promising talents and can still reach great heights in his career if he receives better luck on the injury front.
Oguzhan Ozyakup, meanwhile, has done very well since leaving for Besiktas and was recently linked with a high-profile move to Inter Milan.
This position conjures up two stories of players who didn’t quite hit the heights that they threatened to as talented youngsters. David Bentley retired last year after falling out of love with the game, whilst Jermaine Pennant hasn’t had as successful career as many predicted when he first joined Arsenal. However, Pennant has still had some good moments, featuring in a Champions League Final for Liverpool no less, so he gets a place in the team.
Luke Freeman enjoyed an impressive season with Stevenage, but he tends to operate more as an attacking midfielder these days. Jerome Thomas is currently without a club after leaving Crystal Palace, but he has featured prominently in the Premier League throughout his career and will hope to remain in the top division next season.
It has been well documented that Arsenal haven’t produced a first-choice striker from their Academy since the reformation of the club’s youth set-up. Several players (Jay Simpson, Rhys Murphy and Marc Elston to name just three) have scored many goals at youth level but haven’t managed to translate that to the senior stage at the highest level.
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was perhaps Arsenal’s most consistent performer at youth level since the Academy reformed, but he has struggled to hold down a regular starting place for Bristol City.
Last season Benik Afobe enjoyed a stellar campaign as, first with MK Dons and then Wolverhampton Wanderers, he scored goals galore, ending up as the joint highest goalscorer in the top four English divisions alongside Sergio Aguero.
However, for longevity and the fact that, despite his considerable faults, he is an established international and a player who made over 100 league appearances for Arsenal, Nicklas Bendtner gets a place in the side. The tall Dane isn’t exactly somebody who you would associate with greatness, but it can’t be denied that he has enjoyed a more successful career than many other Academy graduates.
So, this is the Arsenal Academy all-star XI that has been selected:
Do you agree with the team and, if not, which players would you select instead? Remember you can view a list of all the Academy graduates here.