Arsenal’s young Guns make their breakthrough…now there can be no holding them back

I have written a lot this season about the dawning of new eras and the changing of guards in this Arsenal squad, the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

And, although we’ve seen only snatches of what’s possible with our young stars, glimpses here and there in cup or European competition, it felt like we witnessed the real extent of their talents in glorious technicolour against Chelsea on Boxing Day.

While necessity and desperation forced the manager’s hand to a certain extent, there is no denying that his willingness to dip into the pool of Hale End talent has increased steadily since his arrival at the club.

First it was Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka, then came Gabriel Martinelli, Joe Willock was next and then, after more fleeting glimpses of Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun, came Emile Smith-Rowe.

Here, at long last, was the best of Arsenal’s academy unleashed, given a chance to shine in the absence of those senior players who had so badly failed, and, boy, how the young Gunners seized their chance.

I wrote that the Manchester City defeat last week felt like a changing of the guard, the death knell of a clutch of players brought together over the years who simply weren’t able (or didn’t want to) perform for the team any more. In their place was a contingent of young professionals showing twice the energy, desire and talent of their seniors.

Given their chance on Saturday, those boys helped deliver a 3-1 win over Chelsea and, in doing so, raised the level of their senior colleagues, their energy and commitment to the cause seeping into their colleagues by osmosis. It was rare thing this season to have seen so committed a performance from an Arsenal team that has toiled and stuttered its way through countless matches, plumbing new depths with every defeat. No more.

At last Mikel Arteta has found faith enough to give these boys the opportunities they have long deserved. I know that, in many ways, his hand was forced but it still took a fair amount of gumption to start Smith-Rowe, Saka, and Martinelli in a front three against a team that is as stacked with talent as Chelsea.

On the strength of this performance, though, there is nothing left to fear. The work rate and discipline of our youngsters, and their colleagues on the bench, was relentless and they had the quality to match their opponents for 90 minutes too.

Of course, a decent dollop of efficiency in front of goal and a sprinkling of good fortune – the like of which had long since deserted us – added a layer of gloss to the performance but the foundations were unquestionably laid by those on the pitch. They earned their luck.

Whatever happens from now, the Boxing Day clash against Chelsea will forever belong to those young stars and may well prove to be a watershed moment for them, a moment that defines their futures at the club and at the highest level. And this is not some post-match hyperbole fired by the joy of a victory long-sought, this performance has been a long time in the making, since Freddie Ljungberg fielded many of these boys against Everton some 12 months ago.

This isn’t some flash in the pan moment, some Adnan Januzaj-style arrival. These players have worked hard to earn their opportunities and have had to suffer the disappointment of being left out altogether while older, less committed players have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt. These players have built up their pile of chips over the last year with hard work and good performance alone, and now those chips have been cashed.

It might still be that the manager seeks to cool expectations around these guys, if only to ward off against complacency. Indeed, some of them may find themselves back on the bench for the trip to Brighton on Tuesday, but that can only now be a way of preserving them from over-exertion or from the pressure of expectation, particularly from fans desperate for a new set of heroes.

What should be clear, though, is that these boys have well and truly arrived, and not a moment too soon. The sun may be setting on many of the tired and feckless in the Arsenal squad but dawn is breaking for those who will replace them.

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