When I finally stopped drinking the need to have a glass of liquid ever at hand remained with me. I used grapefruit or cranberry juice mixed with carbonated water. This provided a necessarily bitter beverage and a useful prop to ease me into my sobriety. Cigarette smokers have a variety of patches, gums and electronic devices while heroin addicts populate the chemist over the road on a regular basis in order to receive their methadone. After the final ball of the football season has been kicked the Arsenal addict is plunged into a state of cold turkey and must thrash about grasping at any straw to sustain themself. By far the most popular placebo is the nonsense of the transfer window but people can turn to international tournaments, videos of past matches and past masters, and some even use the age old remedy of alternative summer sports such as golf, cricket or tennis. For many, the closest they get to the real fix is the pre season friendly.
These are curious affairs. Their approach is greeted with a blend of anticipation and relieved enthusiasm. Like the first snowdrop they are a portent of the many coloured flowers to come and yet they are entirely meaningless. Glorified fitness sessions and marketing opportunities for the club, stop gap, proxy tournaments to alleviate the cravings of the fans. I enjoy them. Like the League Cup they are no pressure games. You want to see some nice football, a few goals and hopefully a win but you’re not heartbroken if none of these are forthcoming. The aspect of the warm up matches I most enjoy is the chance to see some of our youngsters rub shoulders with the heavyweights of the squad. Once the match is over I can fantasise as to which sparkling young talent might go on to become a world beater in red and white.
The problem is the young players all look so good, so promising and so splendid in their Arsenal strip that you want all of them to succeed. Some become a cause célèbre among the fans, Little Jack springs to mind and of course Señor Fàbregas Soler before him. The problem is for every Kieran Gibbs there are several Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’s, for each Cesc a plethora of Nacer Barazites. We as fans long to see them scale the heights, to strut their stuff in front of an adoring Emirates crowd before going on to lead their countries to the World Cup Final, but alas, it cannot always be so.
In fact now that Arsène has a little more spending power and the team he has been building achieves a certain maturity the route from youth team to first is an ever more perilous, and occasionally tortuous one. How does a player with the unquestioned gifts of Gedion Zelalem or Chris Willock hope to break into a side where Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere are already snarling, baring their teeth and tugging at the couple of bones Arsène has to throw to the four of them? When he brings in a brace of the best players in the world in successive transfer windows the likelihood of breaking into the team never mind holding down a place must seem a very distant if not an impossible proposition.
There are also problems about which a player and a club can do little. Beyond the competition for places, the huge stars already fighting to get their names into the starting line up there is the small matter of timing. Think about it. All players reach their maturity, the point at which they are physically and mentally able to best employ the blend of their natural gifts and their many years of patient tuition and coaching, at different times in their lives. You cannot take a nine year old boy and decide he’ll be ready at the age of nineteen and then spend the intervening ten years either promoting or buying players to some strict plan so that the boy’s best position becomes vacant on his birthday. You just can’t. The boy may be turn out to be a child star, ready at sixteen, he may not flower until a couple of loan spells have passed and he’s into his twenties. He might, for any of a number of reasons, never make the grade. And of course when he does get to the stage in his career when he’s ready, when he needs regular first team football he may have Mesut Özil and Jack Wilshere in front of him in the queue.
Timing, in this context, is an inexact science. Luck. There’s another one. Yet these two play such a huge role. We don’t have to look far for the evidence. Francis Coquelin came good just as injuries and form created the need to recall him from a loan spell. Carl Jenkinson went on loan just before our first choice right back got knacked in the back by Marko Arnautovic in yet another stupid piece of thuggery from Stoke City, while for all his enthusiasm Calum Chambers was looking a lot more like a centre half than a full back. Or maybe a central midfielder – I’m no expert. The point is this these planets aligned at a time which I feared was maybe a year too soon for young Héctor Bellerín to step up. The concatenation of circumstance may have left him diddled by the dastardly digit of destiny. I of course could not have been more wrong. Young Héctor was catapulted into a space which, it transpired, was precisely Héctor Bellerín shaped. In Theo’s absence and to complement Per’s languorous, considered game, we needed a super quick, ultra confident, highly skilled attacking full back on the right side of our defence. Having one as cool in the opposition area as his two goals suggest he is was another pile of cherries on top of an already over iced cake.
Did Arsène know? Could he have known? He knew a lot more than you me or any of the social media armchair experts out there. Of course he did. Arsène Wenger knows as much if not more about football and his players in particular than any person on the planet and yet I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that even he cannot cause the planets to align just to suit his own needs. He can’t have been timing Mikel’s injury and recovery, Flamini’s form, Chamber’s readiness, all to run on a perfect trajectory with Francis’ loan spells. He couldn’t have sat with a slide rule and an Etch A Sketch and plotted every possible permutation of injury, form, game time needed, loan spells and youth development involved in stocking the right back department so that Héctor stepped from the wings just as Mathieu was felled. Running a football club isn’t a tightly scripted theatrical production. Like the game on the field you can plan and practise but in the end improvisation and split second reactions in a fluid unpredictable environment can carry as much weight and have as great an influence over results.
What Arsène and his staff do is to keep all the plates spinning as best they can. Follow the youngsters development closely, train them with the first team, bring them up with all the right principles and in the right environment. Expose them to first team football in cup games and friendlies and send them on loan to get vital game time so that if the fates conspire to plunge them into the limelight they have the best possible chance to win the confidence of both team-mates and supporters and to carry themselves in a manner befitting a first team member of Arsenal football club.
What would have happened if Mathieu Debuchy had not been so badly hurt in that stupid incident? What if young Calum had been the perfect fit alongside big Per? Would Héctor have missed his chance? Not necessarily. I was musing about time travel the other day. I was trying to watch the test match at Lords and thinking to myself if I could have gone back in time and told Joe Root that he needed to stand farther back during Anderson’s first spell – just a couple of feet deeper than a regulation slip – because an Australian batsman was going to send an early chance fast and high, and it would be one of only two chances in the entire day then I could have helped avert the appalling Ashes disaster that was Thursday. Then I thought why stop there? That’s a bit like a man granted three wishes asking for a million pounds in his first wish and another million for his second. Surely I could do more to bring about a righteous and happy day for the cricket lovers of the world. It was then I realised of course that helping Root to take his catch was in fact all a time traveller could do. From the moment a shaky Australian team, low in confidence, lost an early wicket the whole of the future of the test might have been irrevocably altered. They may have come unravelled, England may have gone on to bowl them out cheaply and get in when the pitch so favoured batsmen. They may not. The next man in may have gone on to score three hundred and the outcome would have been much the same had I not meddled with history.
My point is that changing one of the variables in a sporting arena does not allow you to predict future outcomes with any degree of certainty. If Héctor hadn’t played for us last season at right back he may have come on as an auxiliary right winger – we’ve seen the boss do it with Kieran and Nacho so why not with Héctor and Mathieu? He may have set up the winner against Monaco that sent us through to the next stage of the Champions League. No one knows. He may have made gradual inroads to the first team and eventually usurped our French international in the fullness of time, going on to have a glittering career. He might have got Dan Smithed in his first game and Carl could have come back from West Ham and claimed the shirt himself. All the manager can do is assemble the squad get them all as ready as possible, keep them all as happy as possible and keep buggering on. He can develop players, he can buy players but he can’t control the positions of the planets.
I want to see Chuba Akpom play for our first team and become a world beater. Not because he scored a hat trick in a meaningless friendly but because he’s one of us. I want to see Gedion Zelalem become the next Mesut Özil and Serge Gnabry become the first name on the team sheet one day. None of this may come about. There may be another youngster I get all excited about in a couple of years and those three so full of promise may end up languishing at Ashton Gate or some other horrendous footballing backwater. Who knows? Chuba may follow Jack’s footsteps and become one of the best players in the league and still not be able to get a game because of a bought in world class talent blocking his path. He may be the next Thierry Henry, he may end up playing for Hereford. But I’ll tell you this. I’d rather see him, an Arsenal boy since he was six years old, more a part of the club than almost anyone else there, given his chance up front than any number of imported ready made superstars that the press and Twitter’s idiocracy wish to foist upon us.