To describe it as tumultuous is being kind. Arsenal U18s have hardly enjoyed a smooth start to the season, having had to cope with a managerial change, a small squad and the loss of several key players to the U21s, all of which culminated in them finishing second bottom of their division in the new Premier League competition at that level.
There is a chance for reprieve, however, as Steve Gatting’s team will enter a new league in January where they will compete against other sides that struggled in their initial divisions. A good run of form could still result in them winning the overall U18 Premier League trophy, via the means of the play-offs, but, far more importantly, as thoughts begin to turn towards 2013, several first-years who have endured difficult starts to their full-time careers are beginning to demonstrate some long-anticipated promise.
With Serge Gnabry, Hector Bellerin, Kristoffer Olsson and, latterly, Jon Toral, having stepped up to the U21s on an almost permanent basis, not to mention the likes of Chuba Akpom, Isaac Hayden and Alfred Mugabo, Gatting hasn’t often been able to field his strongest side since replacing the sacked Pat Holland earlier this season, but victories such as the FA Youth Cup success over Newcastle United and last Friday’s 5-0 trouncing of Blackburn Rovers demonstrated that, when the big guns are available, Arsenal have the capability to sweep aside all before them at this level.
The same cannot be said when those aforementioned players are absent, however, with the victory over Blackburn being Arsenal’s first in the league under Gatting and representing their first points for well over a month. The likes of Tarum Dawkins, Alex Iwobi and Arinse Uade struggled initially as they began the process of adapting to Academy life, but in recent weeks the trio have shown some signs of improvement, not least Dawkins, with the winger, signed from Luton Town in the summer, scoring two excellent goals in as many games.
Iwobi, meanwhile, has had to adapt to a new role off the main striker having previously been primarily deployed on the wing, but has also found his goalscoring touch in recent weeks, whilst Uade seems rather more comfortable at centre-back having been caught out on several occasions whilst operating at left-back earlier in the campaign.
Glen Kamara and Jack Jebb, too, are continuing to foster an impressive understanding in midfield, whilst the New Year should see schoolboys Jordan Brown, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Tafari Moore receive further run-outs, as well as the much-vaunted midfielder Gedion Zelalem, who has already trained with the first-team.
Once again, a young Arsenal U18 side has struggled to hold its own against its counterparts, but there remain some promising talents in this group, and the hope is that in the New Year, against a lesser calibre of opposition, those individuals will flourish.