Paul Merson thinks Arsenal starlets Saka, Smith Rowe and Co can emulate Man United’s famous Class of ’92… but do they REALLY have what it takes to lead the Gunners to Premier League and European glory like Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles did?
- Arsenal have a stream of exciting youngsters on their books that have impressed
- Charlie Patino was the latest after 18-year-old midfielder made debut midweek
- Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are already established first team stars
- Could the Gunners have their own version of Manchester Utd’s ‘Class of ’92’?
- Sportsmail compares the early development of the stars from both teams
Arsenal have started to see the fruits of their youth team labours in recent years, with the success of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe partly contributing to their recent re-emergence as Premier League top four contenders.
But could the Gunners duo just be the tip of an iceberg of young Arsenal stars ready to burst out in the near future?
Tuesday’s Carabao Cup win over Sunderland also saw a hat-trick for young striker Eddie Nketiah, while there was also a late cameo and goal-scoring debut for the exciting 18-year-old Charlie Patino.
Fans are already relishing the prospect of a youthful side possibly developing into a Premier League challenging outfit, as well as one that could potentially battle for honours on the continent too.
Naturally, comparisons are already being made, with Gunners legend Paul Merson this week claiming that they could be ‘the next Man United’ – a reference to the batch of high quality Class of ’92 stars who, after winning the FA Youth Cup in 1992, went on to dominate for years to come.
But just how similar are the teams’ star men? Sportsmail looks at the development and first-team breakthroughs of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ to see how today’s young Gunners fare.
Manchester United’s Class of ’92, pictured around 1993, were coached by Eric Harrison
Arsenal could have their own breed of talented young guns coming through the youth system including Emile Smith Rowe (front) and Bukayo Saka (left)
The curious aspect of Beckham’s style of play was that in the modern game his position no longer exists. Beckham was neither an attacking full-back nor a forward but he was just as dependable on the right side of midfield as any of his present day counterparts.
Born in London, he soon impressed Tottenham while at their school of excellence, but once the team he supported in Manchester United came calling at the age of 14, he only ever had desires on joining the Red Devils.
After signing as a trainee in 1991, the midfielder had to wait for his debut for another year before in 1993 he signed professional terms. But Beckham had an Andrei Kanchelskis-shaped problem at Old Trafford, who as one of the star players of the early Premier League era, was indispensable on the right side of Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield. So Beckham then spent the 1994-95 season mainly on loan at Preston North End.
When Kanchelskis left for Everton at the end of the season, Beckham’s moment had arrived and he finally found a space as a regular first team footballer at the age of 20 for the 1995-96 season when United won the double.
From there his ability grew exponentially. A half-way line goal against Wimbledon at the start of the following season was followed by his first England cap.
His reputation for delivering a world class pass, cross or free-kick became his trademark in a career that would see him captain England, win it all at United and go on to become a global star.
David Beckham made his debut during the 1992-93 campaign but had to wait until the 1995-96 season before seeing regular minutes for the Red Devils
Ryan Giggs – The maverick winger
Unlike his other class of ’92 team-mates, Giggs was already an established member of United’s first-team once they won that year’s FA Youth Cup.
Manchester City were first to track his talents by enrolling him on their school of excellence but Fergie moved quickly to snap up the Welshman as a youth team player for United in 1987.
Three years later he became a professional after being offered a contract on his November 29 birthday.
He made his debut against Everton in March 1991, and although he was a regular for the following 1991-92 season, he was still featuring for the youth side.
By the time the Premier League kicked off in 1992, there was no longer any secret behind his ability as an attacking left winger. With his incredible pace and technical ability making him a total nightmare for right-backs up and down the country
Having seen off fellow United graduate Lee Sharpe to make the position his own, Giggs would remain at the club for the following 22 years (adapting his midfield role more centrally to account for a natural loss of pace) before retiring having won 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and four FA Cups.
Ryan Giggs was already a first-team star by the time he won the 1992 FA Youth Cup with United
Paul Scholes – The midfield dynamo
Scholes started his fledging United career in 1988 at the age of 14 when he began training with the club, and he impressed enough to rise through the ranks and eventually turn professional before the start of the 1992-93 season.
However, there were no loan spells for Scholes who did not make his senior debut until just shy of his 20th birthday in a League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994.
Neither did he play in that game as the attacking central midfielder he would go on to excel as but instead in his then preferred role as a striker – as he scored twice in a 2-1 win. Scholes was on target again three days later in a Premier League debut in a 3-2 defeat at Ipswich Town.
Scholes’ strong goal scoring record meant he remained a back-up option in attack to Andy Cole or Eric Cantona in his early Old Trafford career.
It wasn’t until an injury to Roy Keane in late 1997, the year of his first England cap, that he dropped into his more familiar midfield role by which point he was on the cusp of turning 23. But he excelled creatively while still maintaining a goal scoring presence with often incredible long-range strikes throughout the rest of his career.
Paul Scholes, pictured in 1995 against Coventry City, started off as a striker at the Red Devils
Gary Neville – Old school full-back
There was only ever going to be one club for the Manchester United mad Neville who joined his boyhood team in 1991 after leaving school, and played with the same intense passion for the following 20 years as he had shown as a supporter attending games in his youth.
Neville captained United’s Youth Cup winners in 1992 and a few months later made his debut at the age of 17 in a UEFA Cup game against Torpedo Moscow.
However, Neville didn’t appear again until playing just twice in the 1993-94 season, where he made his Premier League debut, and only started seeing regular playing time in the 1994-95 season.
An injury to the ageing Paul Parker had given him his chance at full-back but even then he wasn’t fully trusted by Ferguson, who instead moved regular left-back Denis Irwin to the right side, which also enabled Lee Sharpe to fill in at left-back.
Parker’s form never returned and Neville finally made the right-back spot largely his own for the 1995-96 season.
From there he would form an almost telepathic understanding with Beckham, and their right-sided partnership was the source of many United goals over the next few years.
Neville wasn’t just piggybacking off Beckham though, even after his team-mate’s departure in 2003 to Real Madrid he was just as exceptional for United.
An excellent defender, competent in attack and with a professional approach that saw him become club captain, Neville was one of the best right backs in the world at his peak before his 2011 retirement, even if it is not fashionable to say so.
Gary Neville took time to develop into a top class player due to Paul Parker’s place in the side
Phil Neville – Mr versatile
Every team needs one and Gary’s brother Phil was one of the finest utility players around – and his contribution to United’s 1990s success can not be overlooked.
Although he started training at United around the same time Gary, he had to wait a further three years for his debut when at the age of 18 he was trusted by Ferguson in a Manchester derby victory over City in February 1995.
It wasn’t all plain sailing from that point though, on the first day of the following season when United’s kids were dragged over hot coals by TV pundit Alan Hansen following a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa, he was substituted at half-time.
Throughout the season he would fill in mostly as a back-up player although would sometimes play as a right-back, with Gary moving into a central role. He was even picked ahead of his brother for the 1996 FA Cup final win over Liverpool, playing left-back with Irwin on the right.
Neville would typically feature at left-back for United but was trusted to play in centre-back as well as central midfield on occasions and made the transitions with minimal fuss. Although not typically a dirty player, he would often ‘take one for the team’ by picking up a yellow card to halt an opposition attack.
Neville left United to join Everton in 2005 having played nearly 400 games and also having collected 50 England caps along the way.
Phil Neville, pictured in a 1996 FA Cup tie at Reading, was a useful utility player during his time at United but he featured mainly as a left-back
Nicky Butt – Midfield maestro
Butt was seen as one of the elite from the class of ’92 having joined the club ahead of the FA Youth Cup winning season as an all-round central midfielder.
A few months after turning professional, he made his first-team debut at just 17-years-old in a November 1992 win over Oldham Athletic, but despite sporadic appearances had to wait until the 1994-95 season before really seeing significant playing time.
Ferguson often used Butt as cover for Roy Keane in the result of injuries and suspension but was finally given more regular playing time after fellow central midfielder Paul Ince departed for Inter Milan in the summer of 1995.
Butt didn’t disappoint and along with Keane they formed an excellent United central midfield that would take them to consecutive league titles in 1996 and 1997.
When Keane was injured during the 1997-98 season, Butt was joined by Scholes in central midfield but then started to lose playing opportunities by the time Keane returned – such was the impact of Scholes in his new midfield role.
Butt though was still an excellent option for Ferguson and would continue to be used as a substitute or optional first team player often up until his 2004 departure.
NIcky Butt quickly established himself in the Manchester United midfield in 1995 (right)
Keith Gillespie – The next ‘George Best’
There was always going to be a lot of hype around Keith Gillespie at Manchester United. A Northern Irishman blessed with skill who could play on the wing and dazzle in attack – links to his compatriot and United legend George Best were there to be made.
Big shoes to fill, and although not often remembered, he was still part of the FA Youth Cup winning team of 1992. Gillespie enjoyed a decent start at United too.
He turned professional in 1993 at the age of 18, having made a goal scoring debut at 17 years old in an FA Cup win against Bury during the 1992-93 season.
But as a right winger, Gillespie was at the right club at the wrong time. Kanchelskis had a monopoly of the right side of midfield and in the 1993-94 season Gillespie was loaned out to Wigan in the fourth tier where he impressed before returning.
Although making sporadic appearances at the start of the 1994-95 campaign, the progress of a certain Beckham at Preston made Gillespie a bargaining tool as a £1million component as part of a deal to secure the then £7million British transfer record purchase of Andy Cole from Newcastle United in January 1995.
Gillespie certainly had the ability to shine at United, but with Kanchelskis and Beckham already at the club, Ferguson knew he had to lose at least one of his three right-sided stars.
When Kanchelskis then also left just six months later, there were reports that Ferguson wanted Gillespie to return. The winger stayed with the Toon though and was a key player in Kevin Keegan’s side that nearly pipped United to the 1995-96 title.
Keith Gillespie started to make more appearances in 1994 for Manchester United before being sold to Newcastle United where he nearly won the Premier League title
ARSENAL’S YOUNG GUNNERS
Eddie Nketiah – The late bloomer
One of many young strikers that seem to be rolling off the production line at Arsenal, Nketiah has been around the Emirates Stadium for a few years now, since being released by Chelsea’s youth team in 2015 before joining the Gunners.
In 2017, he caused a stir when at 18 years old he scored 15 seconds after coming on as an 85th minute substitute in a League Cup tie against Norwich – before then also scoring the winner in extra time.
In the current generation of Arsenal young stars he can now be considered as the elder statesman ‘Ryan Giggs-like’ figure given his exposure to the first team has since seen him play 71 times for the club at just 22 years old.
The goals haven’t quite followed, but then many of his appearances have come as a substitute. However, he bagged a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Sunderland midweek and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang now out of the frame, he could be given more chances to impress.
Eddie Nketiah reminded Arsenal of his talents with a hat-trick against Sunderland midweek
Emile Smith Rowe – The ‘Croydon De Bruyne’
You know you are on the right track as a player when your nickname is based on one of the finest footballers to have graced the Premier League in recent times in Manchester City’s attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne.
Originally from Croydon, Smith Rowe has been with Arsenal since he was 10nyears old and he has been a textbook example of how to gradually introduce a player into the first team.
Signing professional terms ahead of the 2018-19 season, Unai Emery handed him games in Europa League and League Cup ties before sending him on loan to RB Leipzig during the January transfer window.
After making his first two Premier League appearances the following season, Smith Rowe then joined Huddersfield in January 2020 where as in Germany, he impressed.
Mikel Arteta decided to keep Smith Rowe at the club for the 2020-21 season and following the team’s poor start to the season he was promoted to the starting line-up in front of Willian who had flopped as a summer arrival from Chelsea.
It’s a chance he has taken with both hands. By the end of the season he had scored and produced a man-of-the-match performance in a win over north London rivals Spurs and netted in a rare victory at fellow capital rivals Chelsea.
Handed the No 10 shirt for this campaign along with a new contract following a rejected £20million summer bid from Aston Villa, Smith Rowe continues to increase in importance to Arteta’s side, adding goals to his game that is also blessed with creativity.
De Bruyne may be he modern day comparison, but there is certainly an element of Paul Scholes to the 21-year-old.
Emile Smith Rowe has taken to his new No 10 role at Arsenal with style in the last two seasons
Bukayo Saka – The wing wizard
Cut Saka open and he bleeds Arsenal. He has been involved with the club since the age of seven, penning professional terms 10 years later in 2018.
He took a similar path to Smith Rowe in then being exposed to first team football in the Europa League by Unai Emery, but was kept at the club at the start of 2019 rather than being sent on loan. On New Year’s Day he made his Premier League debut off the bench in a 4-1 win over Fulham.
Saka’s ability to play anywhere on the left flank meant he saw even more first-team action during his breakthrough 2019-20 season, making regular appearances as a left-back.
HIs real ability though is contributing to the attack though and his reading of the game allows him to constantly find space on the flank, enabling him to contribute towards making chances with deliveries into the box.
Saka has not looked back since and his rise to stardom at the club can be linked to Giggs at Manchester United.
A key player for the Gunners, having been named their player of the year last season, and now an England regular, the only way is still up for Saka… and he is still just 20.
After winning player of the year last season at Arsenal, Bukayo Saka continues to excel
Folarin Balogun – The ‘next Ian Wright’
Arsenal have been excited about the talent of striker Folarin Balogun for a long time, with the striker having been at the club since he was eight having initially trialled at Tottenham.
Eleven years on, he signed professional terms in 2019 but like Gillespie at United has found a route towards the first-team an issue despite Arsenal’s problems in attack.
He has only made 10 appearances, and scoring twice, with half of those games coming in the Europa League. He started alongside Nketiah in the win over Sunderland but failed to shine before going off in the 56th minute.
Former Arsenal defender and Sportsmail’s Martin Keown though believes there is a gem in the 20-year-old and as recently as 2020 said he could develop into a player similar to Arsenal legend Ian Wright or United’s Andy Cole.
‘I am looking at him and thinking “remember the name” really with the way he looked tonight,’ the Keown said last December following a Europa League win at Dundalk.
‘The way he links up and turns. You try to compare, is it Andy Cole or Ian Wright? There is that sort of movement about him. I know those are big name players and if he can live up to that he will have some career.
‘I just like the way he is always looking on the shoulder and his movement. The way he scores the goal, the way he comes onto it he is pointing, give me it, this is my moment.
‘He has had to wait for his opportunity, he is 19 years old and showing really good signs.’
Folarin Balogun has been compared to Ian Wright by Gunners legend Martin Keown
Charlie Patino – Once in a generation star?
The tagline may seem hyperbolic after a goal-scoring debut against Sunderland in a League Cup tie, but there is much more to Patino than his instant impact debut from off the bench on Tuesday night.
One thing Manchester United didn’t have in their class of ’92 was a secret weapon. You could perhaps argue a case for Giggs, but otherwise there was already a lot of buzz about the names who were starting to pop up in United’s team in the early 1990s.
Arsenal though may have caught many, including some of their own fans, blindsided with the emergence of Patino.
The 18-year-old has been at Arsenal since leaving Luton Town as an 11-year-old in 2015 and there has been plenty of buzz from inside the club ever since.
Arsenal’s head of scouting Sean O’Connor has described him as the ‘best player who has ever walked through the doors at Hale End’ and another scout in Brian Stapleton has called him ‘the best kid I’ve ever seen.’
His ability has not evaded all the top clubs though. Barcelona have been monitoring him but having penned a professional deal at the Gunners earlier this year, he is staying put at the Emirates Stadium for now. How good he can become will remain a topic of high interest.
Charlie Patino made a sensational goal scoring debut midweek against Sunderland
Miguel Azeez – Box to box playmaker
Could Arsenal have an even bigger gem on their hands though? Another midfielder who has shown high potential around the club’s academy is Miguel Azeez, who has also been with the club since 2008 before penning professional terms last year.
He made his debut on the same night Balogun impressed in the win over Dundalk but the 19-year-old hasn’t kicked on since.
Many around Arsenal’s set-up consider him as one of the best young prospects at the club and a player who should have been pushing for first team football this term.
Instead he is out on loan at Portsmouth and hasn’t really impressed too much at Fratton Park.
That’s no proven indicator of long term success or failure of course, but there will be concerns over his development.
Comfortable as a playmaker high up the pitch or deep in the midfield, Azeez is also blessed technically on the ball and has the confidence to dribble past players and has an eye for goal too.
His usefulness to Arsenal could be like Butt at Manchester United, but he may have to wait patiently like the Neville brothers or Beckham to make his real mark on the first team.
Miguel Azeez is highly rated by Arsenal coaches but has stumbled in the last year
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