Folarin Balogun and Charlie Patino expose the tough times facing Arsenal's next Hale End stars

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The current crop of young talent coming through at the Gunners might find it tough to break through into Mikel Arteta's first-team

The conveyor belt of talent that has come through from Arsenal’s Hale End academy to the first team has been the one shining light amid some dark times at the club in recent years. With the Gunners hurtling towards rock bottom just a few years ago, teenage talents Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were thrown into the mix and helped spark a revival that now sees the north London club competing for the Premier League title.

Saka and Smith Rowe aren’t alone when it comes to academy boys making an impact with the senior side during what has been a period of huge change at Arsenal. Eddie Nketiah has made his mark and continues to be a key part of Mikel Arteta’s squad. There was Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who was an integral part of the team that won the FA Cup in 2019, and the likes of Joe Willock and Alex Iwobi have had their moments, before being sold for big money.

The pathway through from Hale End has been essential to the Arsenal rebuild, and the success story that the academy has enjoyed is something which the club and its supporters around the world are rightly proud of.

But times are changing at Arsenal. The revolution under Arteta has seen standards rise across the board and next season, for the first time since 2017, Arsenal will be back dining at the top table of European football in the Champions League.

  1. Raising standards

    Raising standards

    A return to the Champions League is something the club has craved for years, and understandably there is lots of excitement as to what the future now holds in north London.

    The journey back towards the top has been swift under Arteta and the Spaniard’s rebuild plans are expected to go up another level this summer, whether Arsenal go on and win the title or not. Big-name signings are expected to arrive during the transfer window, especially in midfield as the club looks to get a squad in place that is capable of not only competing with Manchester City domestically, but also with Europe’s best in the Champions League.

    It’s exciting times for Arsenal. But one issue that will undoubtedly arise from the drive to keep improving is that the pathway through from the academy that has proved so successful in recent years, will not be as clear. And we are already seeing the impact of that, with the decision that has been made to allow Charlie Patino to move on this summer.

  2. A talent on the move

    A talent on the move

    Patino has long been known as the one of the brightest young talents coming through at the club, and it was only 18 months ago that the midfielder marked his senior debut with a goal against Sunderland in a Carabao Cup quarter-final at the Emirates.

    But Patino, who will turn 20 in October, is now set to leave in search of regular first-team football, something both he and Arsenal accept is not really achievable in north London at present. With several senior players already ahead of him in the pecking order and Arsenal looking to invest heavily this summer to further strengthen their midfield options, Patino has very little chance of making a breakthrough.

    And that’s the issue success can bring. When Arsenal were scrambling around towards the bottom of the Premier League just a few years ago, Saka and Smith Rowe benefitted from the situation. The opportunity was there to come in and make a difference. Now, the quality has risen so dramatically that chances are going to be far more difficult to come by.

  3. Wilshere’s view
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    Wilshere’s view

    “I think you can look at it two ways,” Arsenal Under-18s coach Jack Wilshere said, when discussing the difficulties some of his young players might face progressing through at Arsenal due to the sudden improvement in the first-team and the rise in expectation levels. “If they [the first-team] keep raising the level and we don’t, then that gap becomes too big. So we have to keep pushing. 

    “But, you can look at it the other way. When I was a player and wanted to get into the team, I made my debut when we were 4-0 up against Blackburn. For me, it was easier to come into a better team. Of course you have to be at a higher level as a player. 

    “That’s why I think credit to Emile and Bukayo because, and I don’t think Arsenal were quite at rock bottom, but the team weren’t playing as well as they are now. They came in all of a sudden and everyone was looking at them to make the difference. And they did.”

  4. The rise of Balogun

    The rise of Balogun

    As well as Patino, Arsenal find themselves in a difficult position this summer when it comes to another rising star from the academy, Folarin Balogun. The striker has excelled while on loan in France with Reims this season, scoring 18 goals.

    But after enjoying the type of campaign that he has, he will not want to return to Arsenal next season and be a bit-part player. If a clear pathway is not there for him to continue his development, he will push to move on and there will be plenty of clubs interested in signing him.

    “What I’ve been able to do so far, I’m sure it’s making a lot of noise. Not just at Arsenal but everywhere. It’s just about continuing that," Balogun said, while discussing his future. "I'm not sure what is going to happen. A lot could happen in football, a lot could change. It just depends on the conversations between me and the club in the summer. We’ll see what happens."

  5. A more congested pathway

    A more congested pathway

    There is an acceptance at Arsenal now that things are going to get tougher for the youngsters who are currently coming through. A higher quality of player is going to come in during the transfer window and Champions League group stage games next season will not present the type of opportunity for youngsters and fringe players that perhaps the early stages of the Europa League would, such is the improved level of competition.

    But the club still want to ensure a pathway is there for the likes of Ethan Nwaneri, Myles Lewis-Skelly, Amario Cozier-Duberry and other academy graduates. “I agree it’s a bigger challenge,” academy manager Per Mertesacker admitted. “Do we think we’re going to create more opportunities for them? Absolutely yes. It’s on everyone’s radar that we have to keep producing youngsters who are home grown within our first team. 

    “That will always be the case and if they’re good enough, no-one will be rejected, I can reassure you. Maybe the pathway gets a bit tougher, but we’re here to support and pick them up in adverse moments.

    “It’s not going to be the rosy pathway that everyone sees on social media. There’s going to be tough and difficult moments. They will go through patches when disappointment will be involved. I’m sure it will be more difficult to get in a Champions League squad, but they will get these opportunities and they will be watched.”

  6. Selling for profit
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    Selling for profit

    Not every academy graduate can go on and achieve what Saka and Smith Rowe have done at Arsenal. The first priority for the club is always to produce players that will make the grade with the first team. But if that is not possible, it’s essential that they are good enough to be sold for big money that can be reinvested.

    “In the last five, six years, if you look at our £20m+ sales, you have to look at Alex Iwobi, Joe Willock and Emi Martinez,” Mertesacker said. “The academy has been big in funding a lot of investment. And we go back to a squad that now has good enough players that some get sold to fund new investments. This is just brilliant to see, that we have got a squad now that has got the capabilities. 

    “There is a clear message that we need to create good people and good players that can make that step to the first team or create value for the first team.”

  7. A more uncertain future
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    A more uncertain future

    Arsenal are rightly proud of the key role that Hale End has played in the rebuild the club has gone through during the past few years. Homegrown talent have seized their opportunity to impress and some of them have now flourished into genuine stars on the world stage.

    The signs are, though, that it might be tougher for the next crop to follow in their footsteps, and the tricky situations involving Patino and Balogun are already showing that. But should they have to move on, then they will be doing it with the best possible apprenticeship behind them.

    And whilst Arsenal may not get to benefit from them on the pitch, the money that will be brought in should they move on will help ensure the improvement that has taken place in recent times can continue at pace.