There is such thing as an eye for a player, yes. Some people are just more sensitive to it and enjoy looking for particular criteria. It would be pretentious of me to say that I have it but I have worked on it for a long, long time. I have bought many young players but I do acknowledge the help I get from scouts and coaches. When I believe in a player, I give him a chance.
What’s the youngest age you can tell if a player has the potential to make it? Have you ever looked at a player and known instantly?
At 12 you can detect if technically a player can make it or not. At 14 to 16 you can detect if physically he will be able to cope with the demands of professional sport. And from 16 to 18 you can start to see if a player understands how to connect with other players. At 20 the mental side of things kick in. How does he prepare? How does he cope with life’s temptations and the sacrifices a top player must make? This is a job where you must be ready. If you get a chance, you have to take it.
More after the break
How much do you need to see of a player to know if he has the potential to go all the way?
I would say the first impression is vital and that takes 20 minutes. It does vary from player to player as some have obvious talent that you see quickly. Some more steady players who have less obvious skills need maybe six months before you realise they are the real thing. Lionel Messi at 13 years of age would have needed about one minute. I have seen tapes of him at 13. He gets the ball, dribbles past everyone and scores. He has talent. Some players – no, most players – aren’t so obvious.
How common is it to scout a player who crumbles under the pressure of the professional environment?
Yes, I have seen many who crumble under pressure. A big thing that goes wrong is general health. A good young player can simply have bad genes, and therefore bad hips or knees put an end to their career early. Health is important. Players must wake up happy, have no pain and jump around in training. It sounds obvious but it’s never guaranteed.
Since you began coaching, how less likely has it become for a player with professional potential to slip through the net?
Frankly, the percentage has been reduced dramatically due to the scouting and professionalism. When I was young, I came from a village where there was no chance of detection. Today if you are good anywhere in England, you have a chance. I have been detecting players for 40 years as I started young but even today I am wrong from time to time. It’s all about opinions, even at the top level, and that’s why I say to some players not to give up on their dreams.
With the advancement of technology and sharing of methods, are kids across the world coached in pretty much the same way these days? Does this include England or are there still cultural differences?
No, the levels are always changing and new methods are always being used. Personally I believe that the skill levels with young players is constantly going up. I met my first coach at the age of 19. Today a player is maybe five, so he or she is being exposed at a far younger age.
You told FFT in 2007 that the changes you wanted to see in English youth development were already in place and that some of the best young talent you’d seen was English. Do you stand by that?
Yes, I do. I told our coaches recently that in all my time here I’ve never seen so many good young English players. I have been accused so many times of bringing only foreign players to Arsenal but that is unfair.
How do young British players compare technically to their overseas counterparts?
Ten years ago they were behind but now they are at the same level. The first touch was not good enough and general technical ability was lacking, but not any more. You can see this in the results achieved by the under-17s and under-19s – things are much better. The school system in England gave up on competitive sport but now professional clubs have taken over the coaching of schoolchildren and the dividends are paying off.
Of all the players you have coached, who are you most proud of?
I refuse to give names as I don’t want to insult others. Some have overcome more than others but might not be as talented. Giving a start to a career such as Lilian Thuram and watching him win 142 caps is amazing. If you had told me that when he was just a boy, I would have said you are crazy. He was not the most talented but you are humbled by his efforts and proud to have been involved. Human beings always surprise you and that’s the excitement.
Arsene Wenger is part of Nike’s The Chance initiative – a global search for young footballers to win a full time Nike Academy place. Follow the stories at Nike Football's Facebook page or www.nikefootball.com