Arsenal

Arsene Wenger's belief highlights the flaw with the academy system
November 3, 2014 9:04:54 AM PST
By Rory Smith

Arsene Wenger is at his best when he can get his teeth into a big issue. The Arsenal manager can be dismissive, less than forthcoming, even a little surly when invited to talk about the tittle-tattle that provides the background noise to so much of the season -- the dramas, the characters, the gossip -- and he can be distinctly prickly when you dare to challenge him on things like tactics or defensive midfielders, or his occasional and apparent lack of them.

But give Wenger something of global significance, and you can almost see his ears prick up. 

Last Friday provided a perfect example. It was 24 hours before Alexis Sanchez's two goals against Burnley took the Chilean's tally in his first season in the Premier League to 10, a start of bright promise after his 32 million pound move from Barcelona. Wenger, though, did not really want to field queries about what Sanchez's best position is or how he might dovetail with the returning Theo Walcott.



Presumably, such matters do not interest him. Or such matters do not interest him quite as much as the broader issue that Sanchez represents to him: The fact that Europe -- Western Europe, the part of the world that harbours not only football's most glamorous leagues but some of its most advanced economies -- has stopped producing strikers.

"If you look across Europe, South America is the only continent that develops strikers," he said. "At least 80 percent of the strikers across Europe are South American. If you look at the 1960s and 1970s in England -- even when I arrived [at Arsenal] in 1996 -- in every club you had strikers, and I mean [actual] strikers: who headed the ball, who were present on every cross. We have less now. Germany went to the World Cup with [Miroslav] Klose, who is 36."

This is another truth about Wenger news conferences: Occasionally, you have to check your facts. Clearly, 80 percent of the strikers across Europe are not South American. But, if you ignore the detail, the broad thrust of his opinion is hard to dispute.

If you had to select a list of the game's most prolific, most dangerous strikers -- "actual strikers," rather than fancy false No. 9s and inverted wingers -- then the majority would probably be from the New World rather than the Old.

A simple way of establishing this: Try and pick half a dozen top strikers from each continent. In addition to Sanchez, South America, in no particular order, would boast Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Falcao, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and can even claim Diego Costa. Costa might play his international football for Spain, but he is very much a product of Brazil.

Europe, by contrast, once you are beyond Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, starts to struggle just a little, certainly for strikers uncontestably of the very highest quality.

Wenger, of course, had an explanation for why that might be. Adopting a thoughtful pose and starting the sentence as he often does when addressing a major topic, he said: "I believe [we live in a world where] society has changed.

"We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer. [The South Americans] played street football, park football, football with friends. [For them], outside training [with their clubs], there was football as well.

"Maybe in our history, street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds, so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, to win impossible balls. When it is all a bit more formulated, then it is less developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit in football. We have to ask ourselves, what we can add to our academies [to get it back]."

This prompted two thoughts. The first was that Wenger actually could have used Europe's best forwards as an example of his theory: Ibrahimovic, Benzema and van Persie all grew up playing street football in some of the continent's most deprived areas. Rooney, too, has been called the "last of the classic street footballers."



Lewandowski was born in post-communist Poland: He did not have a choice of consoles to play with and a ready supply of junk food as a child. Strikers, battle-scarred and brave, are not forged in comfortable surroundings.

The second, more lasting response, was that perhaps the drive across Europe in the past 20 years to mechanise the production of footballers -- where advanced academies serve as factories for young talent -- may have a fatal flaw. That the acknowledgement came from one of the men who has encouraged that process and benefited from it, too, simply made it all the more powerful.

Nobody is saying that Europe has stopped producing players. It clearly has not. But academies across the continent do seem to churn out certain types of players with rather greater frequency than others. In Germany and Spain, you only have to whistle in a school and a technically proficient, creative midfield player comes out.

That is the triumph of the academy system; the issue comes with the positions where those traits that are rather harder to drill into players are required. Toughness, courage, intuition: These are the things central defenders and centre forwards require, and they are rather better honed on a street, or in a park, than perhaps they are in the cloistered, antiseptic environment of an academy.

This is something those in youth systems across Europe are already aware of, of course, and there are many fine men and women working to find out how to combat it. There is a risk, though, that they cannot, that something has been lost in the past two or three decades.

In summer 2013, I was in Medellin, Colombia, sitting on the sun-drenched patio of one of the city's exclusive hotels with Juan Pablo Angel, the former River Plate and Aston Villa striker. We were discussing the country's golden generation that he hoped would record their greatest performance at the World Cup in Brazil.

It is a subject that has always intrigued me. Given the constant browbeating in England about how we develop young talent, the endless drive to invest more in facilities, how could a nation like Colombia -- where such things are pipe dreams -- conjure such a rich seam of talent?

Angel looked baffled at the question. "We do not have to stimulate it with state-of-the-art academies," he said, in his pure American accent. "It just grows. It just grows in the ground."

What if that is true? What if good footballers just grow, like crops? Would it not also be true that, like crops, you have to treat different types differently? Some, perhaps, suit being produced on an industrial scale, farmed exhaustively, fed and watered and given just the right amount of light.

But others would do rather better, would be more able to display their beauty, if they were allowed to grow wild, without interference. Perhaps that is where we are going wrong. Maybe, instead of changing the academy system, the key is to acknowledge its limits.


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