In December 2012, Arsene Wenger announced that five of the club’s most promising young talents had signed new, improved, long-term contracts, an announcement due to make any fan of the club ecstatic. What was especially iconic about this announcement however was the fact that the five players in question were all British – Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. Wenger described this group at the time as the ‘core’ of the team, with Wilshere in particular noted to be the ‘leader of the group’. Fast forward four years however, and this core group that was destined to be the future spine of the team has not only stalled, but arguably gone backwards.
Kieran Gibbs has since lost his place to Spanish fullback Nacho Monreal, and as a result has started just one league game this season. Oxlade-Chamberlain has lost his place to a man three years younger than himself in the form of academy gradate Alex Iwobi, whilst Jenkinson finds himself in an identical situation against Hector Bellerin. Wilshere meanwhile, still arguably the ‘leader’ of the group when fit, has been sent on loan to Bournemouth (who at the time of his contract signing were in League One) in order to recover from his injury nightmare of the last two seasons, something that Aaron Ramsey can also painfully relate to.
This was not the outcome that Wenger and the Arsenal hierarchy had envisioned, but doubly painfully, it is an outcome that no longer affects their plans to the same extent. Since the contracts were signed, new kit and stadium deals have ensured that the gunners can now buy (as Wenger would say) top, top quality in the Transfer market, proven by the acquisitions of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Furthermore, league positions have also improved, with third and second place finishes in the previous two years, as opposed to the constant struggle for fourth in 2012. As a result of this, this British Core, whilst obviously still massively talented, and capable of a turnaround, has become second-rate in the very team it was meant to dominate.
So what next? Wenger is not duty-bound to play them, so why would the manager swap out players who are performing, such as Bellerin and Coquelin, to facilitate for this group that, due to their age, can no longer claim to be ‘developing’? With seven Premier League wins in the last eight, the team-sheet is clearly working, so how does this core galvanize itself, and get back in the starting eleven.? The answer is one that has been thrown at this group since their names were put on the dotted line – consistency.
This matter of consistency is perfectly illustrated in the case of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Throughout his five seasons in North London, he has shown flashes of absolute brilliance; at just 18 years of age, he terrorized the Manchester back-line on his premier league debut, claiming an assist in the process, and he also scored a late equalizer in the North London Derby at the Emirates. However, his highest scoring season for the club is the tally he is on currently, which is just five goals. Given it’s not yet November, double-digits has to be the target this season, and if achieved, it would be a milestone achievement. Given his two goals against Reading last Tuesday night, and his assist for Sanchez at Sunderland on Saturday, it is my opinion that the Ox has more than stated his case for a starting place in the games to come. A trip to Ludogorets this week is followed by the visit of Spurs next weekend, before a trip to Old Trafford, giving a perfect platform to demonstrate the skills he claims should have him in the team week in week out.
The situation for the fullbacks however is, fortunately for them, a great deal simpler than that of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Whereas there are around six or seven names competing for the attacking midfield positions, there are only four fullbacks in the squad, competing for just two positions in the starting eleven. This ensures that performances in cup competitions will not go unnoticed and will certainly place pressure on those fullbacks in the starting positions, who if don’t perform, will find themselves on the substitutes bench. Nacho Monreal for example, who started 37 of the 38 league games last season, was replaced by Kieran Gibbs on Saturday lunchtime, due to a combination of a lack of match fitness and the strong form of the Englishman. With news breaking today that Monreal is also set to miss Tuesday’s game versus Ludogorets in the Champions League, Gibbs is presented with possibly one of the last real chances of his Arsenal career to resurrect; another strong performance midweek would surely guarantee his starting spot for the visit of Tottenham the following Sunday, illustrating how quickly fortunes can change in football. The situation for Jenkinson is an identical one as he finds himself against the lightning-quick Hector Bellerin for the right full-back position. Although Bellerin propelled himself into the PFA Team Of The Season last year after an electrifying season, Jenkinson has more premier league experience on the back of his successive loan spells, and previous Gunners appearances – any slip up from Bellerin could be all Jenkinson needs.
The situation for the two central midfield players is a different one entirely. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have since gone onto establish themselves as, when fit, two of the finest midfield players in the country.
Ramsey in particular has flourished since the signing of his contract. An FA-Cup Final winner, along with 31 other goals have followed since he put pen to paper, as well as being named in the official European Championships Team of the Year for the 2016 finals. In his press-conference on Monday morning, Arsene Wenger hailed the Welshman as Arsenal’s answer to Frank Lampard, due to his ability to ‘drive the team forward’. However, like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey found himself in somewhat of a comfort zone at the club last year. After two very good seasons from 2013 to 2015, it seemed the former Cardiff man took his foot off the gas last year, ending the season with just five goals and two assists to his name. Regardless of status, this return is well below what is expected of an Arsenal team that has ambitions to win the league. With the addition of Granit Xhaka in the summer, and the emergence of the Coquelin-Cazorla partnership during the opening months of this season, you would hope this comfort period is over, and that Ramsey returns to his goal-scoring best to win back his place in the starting XI.
Similar to Ramsey, Wilshere also more than established himself in the side since the contract signing. He continued to ply his trade in central midfield, and although his goal tally was never something to shout about, his composure on the ball and drive from midfield ensured that he was still invaluable for the team. However, injuries, which unfortunately are a by-product in any discussion about Wilshere, took over. The boy who had been at the club since age 8 made only 17 appearances between 2014-2016, and found himself a forgotten man at the club he was meant to make his own. Glorious nights in which he outplayed Barcelona at the Emirates, scored a stunning brace against Marseille and wowed fans in North London at such a young-age seemed like a lifetime ago, and after a lack of assurances from Mr Wenger about first-team football, he took the decision to ply his trade for the season on the south coast with Bournemouth. Although he received a lot of negative press for his move (mostly from a fan group that has won less trophies in their entire history than Wilshere has in his seven-year career), I am of the opinion that the move is a great one. He will be playing in the first team week in, week out in the most competitive league in world football, the lack of European football will ensure he does not once again become ‘run down’, and the football there would seem to suit Jack down the ground. If all goes to plan, Wilshere will arrive for pre-season training in North London next year with a year of Premiership football under his belt, ready to pick up where he left off all those years ago. Whereas the likes of Elneny and Xhaka are exceptional when called upon, Wilshere provides a dynamic and fast alternative, that, when in full flow, are, despite what the doubters say, unequivocally world-class.
To conclude, when you analyse the four years following the signing of these contracts, you can’t escape the fact that the core has underachieved. Other than Ramsey, when fit none of the five have fully established themselves in the current starting eleven, let alone have they proven to be a golden generation. However, to simply write them off as ‘hype’ or ‘overrated’ would be a truly foolish assertion; each one of these five players has the ability, as well as the potential, to be the players most fans believed they would be, the players that will end the Premier League Trophy’s 12-year hiatus from North London. With the team competing on four fronts this season, and the savage competition for places, the opportunities for starts are there for this group, but now more than ever the time is ticking to make the appearances count, rather than count the appearances.