Frank Arnesen, who was poached from Spurs in 2005 to help spearhead Chelsea’s drive to create a world-leading youth academy, today defended his ‘record’ at the club. One of the few people out there to be promoted despite achieving nothing – in a recession no less – Chelsea’s new Sporting Director was today quoted in the Berlingske Tidende, saying:
"It is clearly laid out in our long term planning for 2004 to 2014 - after which we aim to be self-financed - that from 2010 and onwards our top priority is to introduce one player [per year] into the Premiership squad. But that is from 2010. It was never the objective that I should be delivering two talents for the first team from 2007 on a yearly basis. I don't know how that misunderstanding has surfaced. You don't create talents at the assembly line. Patience is a virtue. In a top club like Chelsea you do not waltz into the team at the age of 18-19 years.”
An interesting statement, if only because Arnesen obviously felt there was a need to defend his record. On the face of it though, he hasn’t really much of a record to defend, having singularly failed to bring through even one young player to make consistent first team performances in the four years he’s been at the club. Yes, I’m sure patience is a virtue – but in my view Abramovich and Chelsea fans have the right to expect more from an academy that has had money chucked at it (to fund both facilities and personnel) left, right and centre.
And if Chelsea’s board are happy to give Arnesen five years to produce just one young player of sufficient ability to play in the Premier League, they’re not setting their expectations high enough. Look at the youth set-up at rival clubs – for example Arsenal and even West Ham – and you would expect Chelsea’s expensive academy to be working more like an assembly line. Arnesen is suggesting that it’s too much to expect that any of the 16,17 and 18 year old players bought when he arrived in 2005 (or already at the club) should now be making the first team. Frank – that would make them either 20, 21 or 22 now. How many players at that age – or younger - have made their debuts with our main rivals, Man Utd, Arsenal or Liverpool? And how many of them have made successful debuts? There has been plenty of time to either grow or identify young talent.
And on another one of his points, Arnesen is just plain wrong. 18-19 year olds are ‘waltzing into’ other top clubs – and also clubs that have been more successful than Chelsea over the past four years. I’m not talking about Arsenal, who are a unique example and have achieved little success. But how old was Evans when he debuted for United last year? How old were Messi or Bojan when they started playing for Barcelona? Pato at AC Milan, Balotelli at Inter or Lucas and Insua at Liverpool? While United were blooding Evans and Macheda last year, Chelsea’s Mancienne, Sinclair and Di Santo were either on loan, on the bench or in the reserves. Mancienne, perhaps Chelsea’s most promising young player, made four appearances last season. Evans made 34 for Utd. Both sides had significant injury problems in defence.
This summer, long-term hopes Sahar, Nouble and Tejera have left the club permanently while Taiwo and Stoch have gone out on loan. Of course it’s ok for players to not make it and for others to go out on loan for more experience. Clearly Mourinho didn’t think it was too much to ask that one or two might break through, but he was one of the people suffering from the ‘misunderstanding’ Arnesen cites in his quote. Just crossed wires, and certainly not ol’ Arnesen’s fault.
But let’s make one thing clear: this doesn’t have to be about finding the next Messi. The first priority of a good youth system for a top class side, in my view, should be to unearth an alternative stream of talent to supplement signing more established players. Chelsea are fast approaching a situation where a large number of the squad will need replacing inside the next 3-4 years – as I mentioned in this morning’s post on Chelsea potentially buying Pirlo, the club already has 11 players over 30 in the first team squad. The lack of good, if not excellent, young players coming through the ranks puts real pressure on the club to bankroll expensive new signings, and damages its ability to break even, if that is the aim. On the playing side, it also boxes the management into a tricky corner with regards to coming up with a strategy to replace those ageing players – they can’t afford to release them gradually without viable replacements getting game time.
Arnesen’s role sits right at the heart of the future of the club. Despite what he says, he hasn’t delivered – and if he continues in that vein his failure will pose significant problems both on and off the pitch.