Arsenal’s youth project dominated headlines to start the season.
An expensive, but young, batch of transfer acquisitions provided the Gunners the youngest squad in the Premier League. Mikel Arteta had the options at his disposal for natural development of players. The question remained as to how well they would fit in with the squad.
Once again, the highest-paid player at Arsenal is in exile. This time around, it’s probably for the best.
Mikel Arteta left Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out of the matchday squad against Southampton on December 11. The Athletic reported Arteta made the decision due to the striker returning late from a trip abroad.
Moreover, this is not Aubameyang’s first punishment for off-the-field issues. Last season, Aubameyang failed to crack the starting lineup for the North London Derby because of disciplinary reasons. Arsenal went on to defeat Tottenham, 2-1.
Since Aubmeyang’s recent dismissal, the Gunners picked up nine points in three games. A against Southampton, top-four challengers West Ham and Leeds. The club stripped Aubameyang of his captaincy after the Southampton game.
Next month, the Gabonese international will go to Cameroon to play in the African Cup of Nations. His current banishment from the club helps the team play fluid, attacking soccer instead of always looking for the 2018-19 Premier League Golden Boot winner to score.
Arsenal’s youth project in action
Forward Gabriel Martinelli is the biggest beneficiary from decision to bench Aubameyang. The 2020 Olympic gold medalist has started in five of their last six matches and contributed four goals, two against Leeds, and two assists. Manager Mikel Arteta is impressed with his development. He spoke highly of the Brazilian following the Leeds game.
“He’s come a long, long way because his energy, his passion, his commitment, it doesn’t get much better than that ever, but there are other aspects in the game that he’s had to develop and maintain the ones that he’s exceptional at, like today, because when he has chances, he puts them away.”
England internationals Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe also scored against the West Yorkshire-based club. The occasion marked the first time three Gunners aged 21 or younger scored in the same Premier League match.
While the youngsters are playing well, they are given the freedom to play because of a wily veteran.
It is harsh, but, generally speaking, Alexandre Lacazette is a flop since his arrival at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger dropped a hefty $58 million for the Frenchman’s services in 2017.
Now, he is in the last year of his contract, but he is essential to the team’s attack. The Frenchman scores the occasional goal. His strengths are his hold-up play, his link-up play with the forwards and creating space for the midfielders to play in the final third. Essentially, it is the things that do not appear on the scoresheet that allow Lacazette to contribute to Arteta’s side.
In what is now his fifth season, Lacazette failed to live up to his goal-scoring prowess he exhibited at Lyon. In the Leeds game, Lacazette picked up his 100th goal contribution with an assist, arriving in his 186th game with the club. A decent output, certainly, but he must continue to find his role in Arteta’s side. After all, he assumed the captaincy of that Leeds contest.
Martin Ødegaard has thrived with Lacazette leading the line. The Norwegian has two assists in the last three games while giving the club a dose of creativity they haven’t had since Mesut Ozil.
In the summer, Arsenal revamped their transfer policy by signing six players who were 23 and younger. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and defenders Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu solidify the backline. Additionally, left-back Nuno Tavares and Albert Sambi Lokonga provide depth via rotational toles. While the team is getting younger, veterans are still needed to provide experience and leadership.
Granit Xhaka shares the burden of losing the captaincy of Arsenal. In the summer, it seemed like he was headed to Roma to play for Jose Mourinho. Instead, the Swiss international signed a new contract. Fortunately for him and Arsenal, his performances set him as one of the best midfielders for the Gunners in this campaign. Since returning from injury, Xhaka started in every match and his all-around play is crucial.
“We have a lot of young players, and you can see the hunger in them. But as well, the experienced players like me, like Thomas (Partey) for example in the middle, we have to take them to the side, we have to speak with them,” Xhaka told The Independent.
While Arsenal’s youth project is already paying dividends, Mikel Artets must keep everything in perspective. It becomes dangerous when there is an overreliance on players who are still developing. This is especially the case at FC Barcelona, where an overuse of Pedri in 2020/21 yielded an injury sidelining the midfielder for practically this entire campaign thus far.
Arteta understands this and knows it is his duty to protect them.
“There’s no point exposing a player even when there’s a lot of opinions that it has to be done because it won’t be beneficial for the player. And in the end, we are here to protect the player and develop the players that we have in the best possible way.”
As of now, Aubameyang does not look like he will feature for the club in the foreseeable future. He can learn from Xhaka and see that he can find his way back into the team if he is willing to change his ways. Arsenal are currently fourth place and will try to get back into the Champions League for the first time since 2016. With Arsenal’s youth movement paving the way, that goal is within reach approaching the halfway point in the season.
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