Arsenal’s Hale End crew reflect on journey from academy to key members of Gunners’ first team
In 2019, Sky Sports’ Patrick Davison sat down with Arsenal academy manager Per Mertesacker – plus four youngsters beginning to make their mark in the first team – to discuss a changing of the guard at the Emirates.
Alongside Mertesacker were Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, all four of whom are products of the Gunners’ Academy.
The quartet were at the start of their journey with Unai Emery’s senior side in 2019 but, while hopes were undoubtedly high, the success they have gone on to enjoy has surely exceeded expectations.
Nearly four years later, Mertesacker, Saka, Smith Rowe and Nelson – plus Eddie Nketiah, another graduate from Arsenal’s youth teams who has established himself in the seniors – have once again sat down with Sky Sports to reflect on their remarkable progress during that time.
“We are very excited about our new chapter,” Mertesacker said back in 2019 – and he was right to be.
Saka, in particular, has shot to stardom, establishing himself as a key player in the Arsenal side that is vying for his first Premier League title in 19 years and shining on the international stage with England.
“I’m really proud of all of us,” Saka says when looking back on his and his team-mates’ journey. “We all know how hard we’ve worked.
“I’m really happy we’re all here playing a big role this season and hopefully it can be a special one.”
Smith Rowe has been hampered by injuries this season but he has also played regularly under Emery’s replacement, Mikel Arteta, when fit, and earned England honours.
That doesn’t stop the attacking midfielder from having to pinch himself from time to time though, with the 22-year-old saying: “We’ve grown up together in the academy so to walk out to training with the first team is a bit surreal for all of us, to be honest.”
And while Nelson and Nketiah may not be consistent starters for the league leaders, they have made vital contributions this season, with the former scoring a dramatic late winner against Bournemouth last month and the latter filling the shoes of Gabriel Jesus during the forward’s lengthy absence with injury.
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“Everyone’s had different journeys to get to this point which makes it amazing,” says Nketiah. “I’ve seen all of these guys’ journeys, I’ve seen their highs and their lows so it makes it sweeter when you’re able to share that success with friends and brothers.
“To be contributing and doing it all together is what makes it even more special for me.”
As for Willock, he may be the only one who is no longer at Arsenal but he is still impressing at the highest level as part of the Newcastle side that look well set to return to the Champions League for the first time in 20 years.
When he first sat down with Sky SportsMertesacker revealed Arsenal “need a new British core for the next generation”.
Looking back on their progress ahead of their latest test away to West Ham on Sunday – live on Sky Sports – the former Gunners defender now says: “The success speaks for itself.”
Mertesacker will be hoping there is further success to celebrate in the form of a long-awaited Premier League title in six weeks’ time.
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