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Per Mertesacker names two Arsenal youngsters key to club’s Champions League return

EXCLUSIVE Arsenal haven’t played in the Champions League in the last five seasons and are without any European football this season, but academy director, and former defender, Per Mertesacker reckons the talent is coming through for Mikel Arteta

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Per Mertesacker believes Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe can carry Arsenal back into the Champions League.

Arsenal academy director Mertesacker says the two England prospects are good enough to inspire a new generation of young talent at the Emirates.

Gunners starlet Saka, 20, is one of the country’s brightest prospects while Smith-Rowe scored for England under-21s this week as the club look to move in a different direction with young talent under Mikel Arteta.

Ex-Arsenal defender Mertesacker believes the pair are vital to the club’s progression and return to the days of getting back into the top four as they find themselves out of Europe competition for the first time in 25 years.

Mertesacker said: “It’s always been a narrative at Arsenal to give young players a chance to play at the top. We’re asking Bukayo and Emile to lead us back to the Champions League. They will proudly take that but we also have to understand the context.

“It’s always been there. If you ask Bukayo and Emile they will tell you how they were inspired by Jack Wilshere, Fabregas, Bellerin. So the next generation of Under 9 players at the academy will be inspired by these players.

“However they will speak about the bumpy road, their learning, that journey that hasn’t always been easy. The reality is that these two are exceptions.

“The academy staff has always given its all in delivering players to the highest level which can make a difference in our first team or in some other first team. That is hugely important to the club and will always be a priority.

“We are giving young players the chance to learn to be vulnerable, to be exposed to the highest level and to be proper leaders for this club in two or three years’ time, while acknowledging they probably need to suffer before they bring us back to glory.

“That’s my expectations. Hopefully Bukayo and Emile can take on the next level of talent into the first team and challenge them in the right way.”

Saka and Smith-Rowe are the shining lights of the current generation but Arsenal have also signed a ground breaking deal with technology firm STATSports to allow fans and young players to use the same data as the first team and academy.

They will see data – such as speed, distance covered and how long spent in the “red zone” – from Arsenal’s first team and be able to compare themselves against the club’s top stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with the academy using the tech from under-12s upwards.

But Mertesacker also points out that mentality is equally important as physical attributes and it has been Saka’s mindset which helped him overcome the heartbreak of the Euros last summer but also to reach the top while many of his youth team pals fell by the way side.

Mertesacker added: “Even the huge disappointment in the summer in terms of missing the penalty. That’s the making of Bukayo Saka. It was a lot on him but he will deliver for England and for Arsenal in the upcoming years. You can be reassured of that.

“It’s just need to be there to support him when these moments happen and he absolutely has had that from everyone involved.

“So we absolutely love it that he is such an inspiration, his personal skills and how he always stays true to himself and the bumpy pathway he’s had instead of just looking at the shiny things that will come – the contracts and the money.

“No, he is all about the values and he has learned from his parents, his peers and a little bit from the academy.”

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