It has been another highly eventful season for Arsenal at youth level, with a staggering 78 players featuring for the club in the four main youth competitions. The Gunners may have ultimately ended the season without silverware on all four fronts, but there are many positives to be taken from the 2012/13 campaign, not least the run to the semi-finals in the NextGen Series and the continued progression of some of the more highly-regarded starlets at the club. Here, we assess how Arsenal fared in each competition.
U21 Premier League
Despite getting off to a flying start at U21 level, with three victories in succession under Terry Burton, results began to tail off for Arsenal’s second-string, but they were still able to take their place in the Elite Group. They largely struggled for form following the turn of the year, however, and, in the end were fortunate to finish fifth out of the eight teams in the group, although they were not helped by the change in coaching staff midway through the campaign, which saw Steve Gatting replace Burton, who in turn stepped up to the role as Head of the Academy.
There were several players who used the U21s as an opportunity to express their considerable potential, not least Chuba Akpom, with the 17 year old striker establishing himself as the side’s main attacker and registering an impressive 13 goals in 19 starts. Hector Bellerin, Kristoffer Olsson, Isaac Hayden and Serge Gnabry also turned in several memorable performances.
There were several contenders to choose from, but the opening game of the season, when Bolton Wanderers were comfortably dispatched of at Emirates Stadium with a 3-1 victory, was particularly impressive, not least because the Gunners had to cope with the early dismissal of goalkeeper Damian Martinez.
After 14 months out of action, it was a heartening sight to see Jack Wilshere back in the Arsenal side as the U21s took on West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns. Arsenal lost 1-0 and Wilshere was far from his effervescent best, but the mere sight of him back on the pitch was one that warmed the hearts of all Arsenal fans.
At one stage it seemed as if Arsenal’s maiden venture into European youth football was going to end prematurely after they went four group stage games without accruing a single goal or victory. A rallying 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao secured their progression to the knock-out rounds, however, and, from there, Inter Milan and CSKA Moscow were fought off in memorable fashion. It ended in disappointment, with an epic seven-goal semi-final eventually swinging the way of London rivals Chelsea, but Arsenal still finished as the fourth best team in the competition.
Akpom was impressive on this front, too, but Bellerin was outstanding throughout, with the Spanish right-back attacking at will whilst also showing a welcome improvement in his defensive capabilities. His showing against Chelsea was of tremendous quality, and, although he didn’t have a goal to show for his efforts the former Barcelona youngster racked up plenty of assists.
It was far from the prettiest game to watch, but Arsenal demonstrated terrific resilience to overcome Inter Milan on a near-waterlogged pitch. Nico Yennaris eventually struck the most dramatic of winners, sparking mass celebrations from all players and the coaching staff.
Gnabry’s stupendous goal to force extra-time against Chelsea certainly set the pulses racing and, although it ultimately proved meaningless, can still be looked back upon as a strike of superb quality after terrific build-up play by Bellerin.
U18 Premier League
Another disappointing campaign in terms of results at this level, with Arsenal having to spend the second half of the season in the lowest group, before only finishing fourth in that section. Like the U21s, there were considerable changes in the coaching staff, with Pat Holland’s short-lived reign followed by the introduction of Carl Laraman. A plethora of schoolboys also received run-outs as many of the more established players stepped up to the U21s.
Glen Kamara stood out from the start following his move to the club from Southend United. The defensive midfielder emphasised his dual qualities as a stylish, yet robust player and was rewarded with a goal late in the season against Middlesbrough. He’ll seek to step up to the U21s next season, whilst Anthony Jeffrey, Jack Jebb, Alex Iwobi and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill also enjoyed impressive seasons.
Arsenal exacted a measure of revenge away to Aston Villa, winning 5-2 against the side who had trounced them 6-1 at London Colney just two months previously. Jeffrey, back from his loan spell with Stevenage, found the net, as did Iwobi, Jebb, Austin Lipman and Alfred Mugabo.
It may ultimately have been a disappointing 3-1 defeat, but Arsenal’s deployment of a side consisting entirely of schoolboys away to Manchester City offered a glimpse of the not-so-distant future, with the likes of Chris Willock and Stephy Mavididi receiving their first run-outs at that level.
FA Youth Cup
Arsenal progressed past the Fourth Round in this competition for the first time since they last won the trophy in 2009, but came unstuck against a spirited Everton side who defeated them 4-2 at Underhill. They had previously overcome Newcastle United and Fulham, the latter thanks to an extra-time winner from substitute Lipman.
Jeffrey was in outstanding form during this run, teaming up on numerous occasions with the equally effective Bellerin down the right flank. His searing pace brought him countless goalscoring opportunities, and he scored against Newcastle and Fulham before surprisingly being substituted against Everton.
The win over Newcastle saw Arsenal playing how they are supposed to- with each member of the side contributing to a free-flowing and highly enjoyable display against a bewildered set of opponents.
Lipman’s extra-time winner against Fulham was superb, as was schoolboy Jordan Brown’s cameo appearance off the bench against Newcastle in the previous round.