Date: 14th May 2010 at 1:11am
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Lee Dixon used to make his money playing football and now he makes it talking about football. As with playing the game, in order to profit from talking about it he has to be doing something special for there to be any value to his paymasters. His specialist subject will not just be football it will be in talking about Arsenal`s football so anything that he might say that could be presented controversially is a result for him. It then becomes tempting as other former players intent on becoming media personalities, Ian Wright for example, have discovered to try to find something to say worthy of a headline.

The headlines given to Lee`s recent musings don`t really reveal anything too controversial. Who would disagree with the contention that Arsene Wenger is responsible for us not winning silverware this season? Every manager of every professional football club in the world is responsible for their failure to win trophies. Rarely ever exclusively though.

He isn`t entirely wrong in claiming that Le Boss is changing his policy towards youth players either:

“Arsene has given the youngsters a period of time but I`ve heard signs from him that it hasn`t worked. So he`s going to do things differently this summer” the famous back four full back claims “Wenger has moved forward in his attitudes towards his team. You can`t turn a bunch of kids into champions and he realises that now.

“Any Arsenal fan should be happy with that – he’s finally accepted what’s wrong with the team and has plans to change it.”

Where he is wrong is in implying that this is some sudden Damascene conversion some point of epiphany that Wenger has arrived at. The so called youth project was just that, a project, and like all projects they have starting and finishing points. Such a project that never ends could probably more fairly be described as an ideology. This was never that. It was a means to an end that had to be allowed to reach a point of maturity. Whenever that might have been it was a point some time before now.

You would need to go back to the summer of 2008 to find a teenager, Aaron Ramsey, signed as a first team squad player. Even then he made relatively few starts other than in the domestic cups until this season. Before that you need to look at summer 2006 when the then 18 year old Brazilian Denilson joined the squad. Just two teenagers in 4 years then. In the same period we have tended to go for senior players Rosicky, Gallas, Eduardo, Sagna, Diarra, Nasri, Silvestre, Arshavin, Vermaelen, Campbell, the youngest of which still came with plenty of experience. When you look at the two that got away over the last two summers Alonso and Melo its clear the focus hasn`t been on youth for some time. If the project did have an end, at least in its future commitment to the strategy, it was in the summer of 2006. The summer in which we moved into the Emirates and our revenues were set to increase.

You can look at the decisions that have been made over the last season or so to see that things have changed. No concerns about Silvestre, Vermaelen or Campbell ‘killing` the development of central defenders over the last couple of seasons for example. Arshavin may well have ‘killed` Vela`s prospects for a time at least. The emphasis has changed to such an extent that Merida is reportedly bound for Atletico Madrid as his path to the first team seems to be such an opaque one. Jack Wilshere hasn`t been allowed the room to develop in the first team to the extent that Fabregas, who had made 34 starts as a 17 year old in 2004/2005, was permitted. In that one season Cesc started more games than Ramsey, Wilshere and Merida combined have made over the last two. The talk is that 18 year old Wilshere will be allowed to continue his development next season away from the club. Other than those former youngsters that have been a regular part of the first team squad over the last few seasons many such players are likely to find that their route to the first team is much harder than it might have been 4 seasons or so ago.

The decision to embark on the youth project probably started in 2002 or 2003 and the decision to unwind it by 2006. The project may well have reached its maturity by last summer and the average age of the team now being allowed to reach a more familiar level. Lee Dixon wasn`t wrong in saying that Wenger has changed tack (though it was always his policy to do so) – he was just 4 years too late in saying it.

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