Arsenal's youth blueprint is working perfectly... but at rivals Tottenham
It was only five years ago next month but for Arsenal it probably feels more like a lifetime, especially when they take a glance over at what's going on at Tottenham Hotspur these days.
On Dec. 19, 2012, Arsene Wenger stood proudly behind five young players who had just signed new five and six-year contracts. Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Carl Jenkinson were the young, British players that Wenger was backing to form the nucleus of the next successful generation at the Emirates.
Theo Walcott, 23 at the time, joined his five teammates by committing his long-term future to the club the following month, so Wenger's vision was clear -- Arsenal's future rested on these young shoulders.
"The plan is to build a team around a strong basis of young players, in order to get them to develop their talent at the club," Wenger said. "I'm a strong believer in stability and I believe when you have a core of British players, it's always easier to keep them together and that's what we'll try to achieve going forward."
So, Arsene, how did it go? The inconvenient truth ahead of the North London derby on Saturday is that the Frenchman's blueprint is working perfectly -- but at rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal and Wenger -- there is a shared responsibility here -- have combined to waste their crop of emerging talent, but Spurs are now thriving thanks to Mauricio Pochettino's readiness to trust and nurture the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Ben Davies and Harry Winks.
Arsenal supporters will quite rightly point out that, in the five years since Wenger's new "core" signed up to long-term deals, the club has won three FA Cups and qualified for the Champions League in all but one of those seasons. Spurs, on the other hand, have won nothing. Yet there can be no denying the direction both clubs are travelling in right now and which one is in the ascendancy.
But how much of that is down to Wenger's failure to turn his bold prediction of 2012 into reality?
The list of names, with Walcott thrown in too, is impressive, but none of those players have come anywhere close to realising their potential in an Arsenal shirt.
Wilshere, now 25, appears to be locked in a spiral of injuries, with the world still waiting for the midfielder to live up to the hype, while the 28-year-old Walcott is in danger of seeing his career pass by with little to show for it.
Ramsey, 26, has had one good season at Arsenal, but the rest have been middle-of-the-road campaigns that have not produced enough for a player of the Wales midfielder's ability. While Jenkinson, 25, spent two years on loan at West Ham and managed just half an hour into his new loan to Birmingham before dislocating his shoulder and being ruled out "long-term."
As for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs, they have moved on permanently -- to Liverpool and West Brom respectively -- after repeatedly failing to nail down a spot in the first-team.
Indeed, Wenger has been unable to develop and improve any of them and it has been a long-standing criticism of the Arsenal manager that, since polishing rough diamonds such as Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry in the early years of his reign, he has allowed too many young players to wither on the vine at the club.
Young players do not sign for Arsenal any more with the belief that Wenger will make them great. They sign for Tottenham instead because Pochettino is doing exactly that, right here, right now.
Kane's emergence as one of the world's leading goal-scorers is testament to Pochettino's ability to get the best out of young talent. The same applies to his work with Alli, a £5m buy from MK Dons in 2015, and Dier, whose progress under the Argentine coach led to him captaining England against Germany and Brazil during the recent international friendlies.
Davies has become a steady, reliable left-back under Pochettino's guidance, while Winks, at 21, was given a chance to show he was good enough to take on Real Madrid, home and away, in the Champions League by his manager. Which he did.
Pochettino has been able to make it work with young stars, but Wenger has not and that is one of the reasons why the balance of power has shifted in North London. Spurs are now the team in the ascendancy because their manager has been bold enough to focus on working with, and improving, young players.
In recent years Wenger has never quite convinced he is fully wedded to the same policy and the decline of players like Walcott and Wilshere, alongside the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs, are a reflection of his lack of conviction.
Maybe Spurs have found better young players and that is why they are thriving, but nobody was questioning the potential of Arsenal's young stars five years ago. They were tipped to be the backbone of the team for the next decade, but their failures have ultimately only shown how far Wenger has fallen himself.
Tottenham's emergence just makes that reality more difficult to swallow at the Emirates.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_