Arsenal's best academy graduates of all time: From Bukayo Saka to Tony Adams, Cesc Fabregas and Liam Brady

Arsenal talent factories
GOAL selects the greatest players produced at one of the world's most famous talent factories

Arsenal’s ability to develop players is up there with the very best Europe has had to offer. From Liam Brady to Bukayo Saka, the Gunners have a long and rich history of bringing talent through who have gone on to make a major mark in the footballing world.

Arsenal may have brought in top talent from across the globe over the years, but their squads have always also had a sprinkling of homegrown players who have played key roles in the club’s success.

Ahead of their current crop of Hale End wonderkids contesting the FA Youth Cup final on TuesdayGOAL takes a look at some of the finest players produced by one of the game's great talent factories...

  1. Liam Brady

    Liam Brady

    One of the most talented players ever to wear the Arsenal shirt.

    Brady joined as a 15-year-old and spent a couple of years in the youth system before getting his chance in the first-team at 17.

    The Irishman spent seven years with the Gunners, making more than 300 appearances – winning the FA Cup in 1979.

    Brady then moved to Juventus in 1980 and spent seven years in Italy, enjoying spells with Sampdoria, Inter Milan and Ascoli.

    He returned to England in 1987, seeing out his playing days with West Ham.

  2. David O’Leary

    David O’Leary

    Arsenal’s record appearance-maker.

    He signed as an apprentice in 1973 and made his senior debut two years later.

    O’Leary went on to make 722 appearances before joining Leeds United in 1993.

    The Republic of Ireland international won two league titles at Arsenal, as well as two FA Cups and two League Cups.

  3. David Rocastle

    David Rocastle

    A homegrown hero.

    There are few players as popular at Arsenal as David Rocastle.

    The exciting midfielder tragically passed away from cancer aged just 33, but not before he had written his name into Arsenal folklore with his incredible talent and fearsome tenacity.

    Rocastle was a sensation in north London and his name is still sung by fans to this day.

    He joined the youth set-up in 1982 and made his senior debut three years later. Rocastle went on to win two league titles and one League Cup with the club before being sold to Leeds United in 1991.

    He has spells with Manchester City and Chelsea before moving to Malaysia. 

    Rocastle passed away on March 31, 2001 after a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

  4. Michael Thomas
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    Michael Thomas

    Scorer of arguably the most famous goal in Arsenal’s history.

    Thomas, who joined the club as a school boy in 1982, ensured his legendary status when he scored the last minute goal at Anfield to win Arsenal the league title at Liverpool’s expense on the final day of the 1988-89 season.

    The midfielder added another league title to his honours list in 1991 before moving to Liverpool, where he won the FA Cup in 1992, scoring the opening goal in the final against Sunderland.

    Thomas then held a spell in Portugal with Benfica before ending his career with Wimbledon.

  5. Tony Adams

    Tony Adams

    Arsenal’s greatest ever captain.

    Adams signed as a schoolboy in 1980 and made his debut three years later, just after his 17th birthday.

    He was made skipper when he was just 21 and went on to make 669 appearances, captaining the club to league titles in three separate decades.

    In all, Adams won the double twice during his time at Arsenal, in 1998 and 2002.

    He won four league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup.

    A true club legend, who also captained England during his legendary career.

  6. Paul Merson

    Paul Merson

    The magic man!

    Merson was another player to come through the Arsenal youth ranks in the late 1980s who went on to make himself a club hero.

    He joined as an apprentice in 1984 and made his debut two years later before establishing himself in George Graham’s exciting young side.

    Merson was a key part of the side that won the Division One title in 1989 and 1991. He also won the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners Cup during his time in north London.

    The forward scored 99 goals in all competitions before joining Middlesbrough in 1997. He then had spells with Aston Villa and Portsmouth before playing out his career in the lower divisions.

  7. Andy Cole
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    Andy Cole

    He may not have made much of an impact at Arsenal, but Andy Cole learnt his trade in north London before going on to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s best ever strikers. 

    After coming through the youth ranks at Highbury, he made just one league appearance before being sold to Bristol City following a successful loan spell.

    Cole then moved to Newcastle before sealing a shock £7 million transfer to Manchester United in 1995.

    At the time the transfer fee was a British transfer record, but it still proved to be a bargain, with Cole’s goals helping United to five Premier League titles during his spell at the club as well one FA Cup and the Champions League.

    Cole went on to have spells at the likes of Fulham, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers before calling time on his legendary career.

  8. Ray Parlour

    Ray Parlour

    No player has made more Premier League appearances for Arsenal than the 333 that were clocked up by Ray Parlour.

    He joined the club as a trainee in 1989 and made his first-team debut three years later.

    Parlour went on to be a mainstay of the side for more than a decade, winning three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, the League Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.

    The midfielder was a key part of Arsene Wenger’s historic Invincibles squad before leaving to join Middlesbrough in 2004.

  9. Nicolas Anelka

    Nicolas Anelka

    Anelka’s time at Arsenal may have been relatively short, but it was during his spell with the club that he announced himself to the footballing world in scintillating style.

    Plucked from the youth ranks at Paris Saint Germain as a 17-year-old in 1997, it wasn’t long before Anelka was banging on the door of the first-team in north London.

    An injury to Ian Wright during the 1997-98 season gave the French striker his opportunity and he never looked back, playing a major role in Arsenal winning the league and cup double that season.

    He remained with the club for another year, but was then sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 1999 for £22.5 and won the Champions League the following year.

    Anelka went on to have successful spells with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City before ending his career in India in 2015.

  10. Ashley Cole

    Ashley Cole

    An Arsenal academy product who turned into Europe’s best left-back.

    Cole progressed through the ranks with the Gunners, the club he grew up supporting, before being handed his senior debut by Arsene Wenger in 1999.

    He soon replaced Sylvinho as Arsenal’s first choice left-back and went on to win two Premier League titles and three FA Cup before joining Chelsea in 2006.

    Cole added another league title to his collection while at Stamford Bridge, as well as a further four FA Cups, the League Cup, the Europa League and the Champions League.

    The defender represented England at three World Cups and collected 107 caps.

  11. Jack Wilshere

    Jack Wilshere

    One of the most famous Arsenal academy products of recent times.

    Wilshere was a sensation when he broke through into the first-team picture under Arsene Wenger in 2008.

    The midfielder had been making waves in the academy for years and was just 16 when Wenger gave him his opportunity to impress.

    He quickly established himself in the starting XI, producing countless memorable performances, none more so than his showing against Barcelona in a 2-1 Champions League success in 2011.

    Unfortunately, injuries stopped Wilshere reaching his true potential at Arsenal – but he did still win two FA Cups before his departure in 2018.

  12. Wojciech Szczesny
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    Wojciech Szczesny

    Szczesny joined the academy set-up at Arsenal at the age of just 16.

    Arsene Wenger predicted the Polish keeper would go on to become Arsenal’s No.1 and he did exactly that, following some impressive years in the youth set-up and an excellent loan spell at Brentford.

    It looked like Szczesny would be Arsenal No.1 for years, but his relationship with Wenger became strained and after a loan spell with Roma, he was sold to Juventus in 2017.

    He has been a mainstay of the Juventus side ever since and remains one of Europe’s best keepers to the day.

  13. Kieran Gibbs
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    Kieran Gibbs

    Gibbs joined the Arsenal academy from Wimbledon in 2004 and signed his first professional contract three years later.

    He made his first-team debut in September, 2007 and eventually made himself first choice left-back after Gael Clichy left to join Manchester City.

    Gibbs spent a decade in and around the first-team at Arsenal and won three FA Cups during his time in north London.

    He eventually left in 2017, joining West Bromwich Albion.

    Gibbs spent four years at the Hawthorns and now plays his football in MLS with Inter Miami.

  14. Cesc Fabregas

    Cesc Fabregas

    One of the most talented players ever to wear an Arsenal shirt.

    Fabregas was brought to Arsenal as a 16-year-old by Arsene Wenger and it was immediately clear that the Gunners had signed something very special.

    After an initial spell with the academy, Fabregas became Arsenal’s youngest ever player when he made his first-team debut aged just 16 years and 177 days in October, 2003.

    He went on to captain the Gunners and made over 300 appearances before returning to Barcelona in 2011.

    Fabregas spent three years at the Camp Nou, winning one league title and the Copa del Rey.

    He returned to England in 2014 and joined Chelsea, where he would win two Premier League titles, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League before moving to Monaco.

    One of the finest midfielders of his generation, Fabregas also won the World Cup and European Championship while representing Spain.

  15. Hector Bellerin

    Hector Bellerin

    Bellerin moved to Arsenal from Barcelona in 2011.

    After spending some time in the academy and having a loan spell with Watford, he was given an opportunity with the first-team by Arsene Wenger.

    More than a decade later, he is still at the club and has three FA Cup winners medals to his name.

    It looks like his time at Arsenal is now coming to an end, with a move back to Spain likely this summer, but on the whole Bellerin’s time in North London has been a big success.

  16. Serge Gnabry
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    Serge Gnabry

    The one that got away….

    Serge Gnabry arrived at Arsenal from Stuttgart as a 16-year-old and quickly started making waves in the academy.

    After some impressive performances for the U18s he quickly started to move up and he made his senior debut aged just 17 in a League cup match against Coventry.

    His Premier League debut followed soon after and it looked like Gnabry was set to make a major impression in north London.

    But injury stopped him in his tracks and he became disillusioned following a disastrous loan spell at Stoke as he tried to regain his fitness.

    After refusing a new contract, he was sold to Werder Bremen in 2016 and then quickly moved on to Bayern Munich where he has established himself as one of Europe's top attackers.

  17. Alex Iwobi
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    Alex Iwobi

    Things might not have quite worked out for Iwobi at Arsenal, but he remains one of the club’s biggest home grown success stories due to the transfer fee they received from his eventual departure.

    Iwobi progressed though from Hale End and was given his first-team debut by Arsene Wenger in 2015.

    He made a huge impact early on and established himself as a key part of Wenger’s plans, going on to make 149 appearances for the club.

    Iwobi won the FA Cup in 2017, but found himself on the fringes of things after Wenger left and was sold to Everton in the summer of 2019.

    Arsenal received around £35m for the winger. No Arsenal academy product has ever been sold for more.

  18. Joe Willock

    Joe Willock

    He may now be playing his football at Newcastle United, but Joe Willock was made in north London.

    The attacking midfielder is the youngest of three brothers who all came through the Arsenal youth system before eventually moving away.

    After breaking into the senior squad under Arsene Wenger, Willock remained on the fringes of the first-team during Unai Emery’s tenure and the early days of Mikel Arteta.

    But a successful loan spell with Newcastle United saw his star rise and Arsenal decided it was time to cash in on their academy product.

    The Gunners sold Willock to Newcastle last summer in a deal that could eventually total around £25m.

  19. Bukayo Saka

    Bukayo Saka

    The current jewel in the crown at Arsenal.

    Saka has been with the Gunners since he was seven and exploded onto the scene in the 2019-20 season when he was just 17.

    The attacker is already a fully-fledged England international with a string of impressive performances under his belt, and has won Arsenal’s player of the season award for the last two years in a row.

    Despite being just 20, he is arguably the most important player in Mikel Arteta’s squad and is the central figure of Mikel Arteta’s new project in north London.

  20. Emile Smith Rowe

    Emile Smith Rowe

    Another of the current bright young talents at Arsenal.

    Like Saka, Smith Rowe has been at the club for more than a decade and has worked his way up through Hale End to become a key first-team player in recent seasons.

    He has flourished under Mikel Arteta and ended the 2021-22 campaign as Arsenal’s second highest goalscorer.

    Still just 21, the best of Smith Rowe is still to come and Arsenal fans will be hoping to watch him star at the Emirates for many more years.