Arsène Wenger has been accused of hastening the decline of the English footballer in some quarters but the Arsenal manager revealed yesterday that his club could provide many of the England team for the 2018 World Cup finals. Wenger said his club's current youngsters were the best yet – and they are virtually all English.
The Arsenal manager was not just talking about the club's under-18s, who played in the FA Youth Cup against Burnley last night, but Arsenal's generation of 13- and 14-year-olds who have been at the club's academy for all their young careers. Wenger even said that Arsenal had two English 13-year-olds who were so gifted that "technically" they have "nothing to learn".
There is a good chance that no Englishman will figure in Wenger's senior squad to face Birmingham City in the Premier League today but he said that will not be the case in the future. The current under-18s side has lost only once in 14 league games scoring 49 goals along the way. From there, Mark Randall, Kieran Gibbs and Henri Lansbury – all English – have appeared for the senior team this season. But the word in football circles is that the younger generation is even better.
Although Wenger preferred not to name his starlets, the player about whom many are talking is Jack Wilshere, from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, who turned 16 this month and has already scored 11 goals in 10 games for Arsenal's under-18s. He is a striker who has played for England at junior level and is rated among the brightest young prospects in the country. Yesterday Wenger signed Luke Freeman from Gillingham, where the 15-year-old striker has already played for the first team three times.
Wenger said that Freeman, who is understood to have cost around £500,000, had shown "something special" in playing for League One Gillingham. With the irony of having signed an Englishman not lost on him, Wenger said he would like part of his legacy to English football to be the development of English players capable of playing in a successful England team.
"I hope not the last one [legacy], but of course a very proud one," he said. "I have been accused of only buying foreign players and I would like to contribute to the quality of English football. I know how much the English national team means here to people. To contribute to that would be a big pride as well. At the moment it is not my first responsibility.
"I believe once the English kids get up to the level of Europe technically they will win trophies because they have a mental side that is usually stronger. You have the same problems in England that people have everywhere in the world. You just become naturally a bit softer.
"Our grandparents worked in the coalmines and the farms and that does not exist anymore. You cannot ask for the same toughness [from young players] but the motivation can still be exactly the same. Because a young kid still wants to be a star with the same intensity. Physically he is not as well-prepared as 40 or 50 years ago."
Wenger will be without striker Robin van Persie again today. Injuries meant the Dutchman made only his first start since 12 December against Tottenham in the Carling Cup on Wednesday and he has now been struck down with flu. The 24-year-old has played only eight times for Arsenal this season. Wenger said: "I am highly frustrated but I take that as part of my job. But Robin is highly frustrated, too. You don't see him smile when he does not play."
The German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who has lost his place in the starting XI, will be staying at Arsenal this season and has turned down a move to Borussia Dortmund.Reuse content