Valentine's Day, 2005. Crystal Palace at home. It is a day that signalled a shift in the way English football was heading, as Arsenal became the first Premier League side to field an entire matchday squad without a single Englishman.
Since those days, we've seen a plethora of wonderful, world-class foreign players grace the English game. We've also seen the Gunners affectionately referred to as 'Le Arsenal' due to their large contingent of French players.
However, on Sunday Arsenal fans were able to look down from the away end in the upper reaches of St James' Park on a starting lineup which – while it screamed 'pre-season friendly' – was in fact their newly transformed squad in a top-flight encounter.
For the first time since 1998, two English teenagers featured in the Gunners' starting XI for a Premier League game. A remarkable statistic and, even more significantly, another English academy product earned a spot in the side for the 1-0 victory, with three academy stars in the lineup.
It was a plan set in motion when the decision was made to promote Freddie Ljungberg from Under-23 coach to the first-team fold, and the fruits of those labours were laid bare in Arsenal's opening day win over Newcastle.
All summer fans were bellowing for a flurry of big money additions, and rightfully so. A squad severely lacking in quality both defensively and elsewhere needed serious tinkering during the window in order to both appease supporters, and set a marker moving forward in the quest for Champions League football.
And while club-record signing Nicolas Pepe entered the squad alongside three defensive acquisitions, it was the youngsters who stole the show in the pouring north-east rain.
Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles all got the nod from the start, with a sea of talent warming the bench that both teased and titillated the fans watching on.
In a reveal-all interview with the club back in May, both head of football Raul Sanllehi and managing director Vinai Venkatesham spoke in depth about the club's vision moving forward. While the issue of transfers were naturally addressed, one area of discussion centred around a desire to incorporate youth more prominently for the coming campaigns.
That said, in order to fulfil that brief, there needs to be certain degree of talent readily available. Simply promoting youth on the basis of a philosophy won't suffice if the players in question haven't got what it is required for a sustained run in such a rigorous division.
Fortunately for Arsenal, said talent is on their doorstep.
Granted, while Nelson, Maitland-Niles and potentially Willock wouldn't have started last weekend if Unai Emery had a fully fit squad at his disposal, it was clear to see that the Spaniard has underlying faith in his young stars to realise their potential.
Notably, the fact that the trio featured heavily throughout pre-season indicates the direction that Emery is looking to take. Arguably the star performers for Arsenal during their warmup fixtures, the decision to select players on form was vindicated with solid outings from all three youngsters at St James' Park.
While youth has already been at the forefront of the philosophy Arsene Wenger built throughout his 22-year reign, the new model the club has adopted is in place to ease the burden off one individual's shoulder, making for a more seamless transition from academy to first-team.
As aforementioned, Ljungberg's work with the Under-23's has given him first-hand experience with the up and coming crop of stars. Now as part of the first-team fold, his expertise and know-how will be invaluable to both Emery, as well as the talented individuals who are seeking to push their way into senior contention.
What is plain to see though, is that they're going to get a chance. If the raw ability and hunger to succeed is prevalent, then no matter what influx of expensive signings enter the fray there will still be place for the local lad to stake his claim for a squad role at least.
Dani Ceballos joined on loan from Real Madrid, but even he isn't assured of a first-team role given the excellent form of 19-year-old Willock. Furthermore, with Hector Bellerin out, Maitland-Niles will continue to grow and develop as a right-back, while Pepe's lack of match fitness has opened the door for Nelson to impress the man in the dugout.
Of course, after years of failing to launch a meaningful assault on the Premier League title, Arsenal fans have been crying out for marquee, big-name signings that can propel them back among Europe's elite.
However, ask the fanbase how much it meant to them to see three of their academy products starting a Premier League match, because they'll tell you that feeling is invaluable.
Eddie Nketiah, among others, hasn't even been given a mention, as he got his season-long loan at Leeds United off to a rip-roaring start. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang now the wrong side of thirty, his potential successor lies in wait, while Mesut Ozil could well be overthrown by Willock who is 11 years his junior.
Integrating that crop with the more established names in the squad will be key, but that motion has already been brought into effect.
A foundation of youth willing to seize their moment whenever available adds further competition for places, and with four tournaments to play in this season, they will heed their manager's call when it arrives.
Source : 90min