Pre-season is always a time for youngsters to impress, but for Arsenal’s young centre-backs this Summer is a particularly important one, with a place in the first-team squad for new campaign likely to be available for the outstanding candidate.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are well established as the club’s first-choice central-defensive partnership, whilst Thomas Vermaelen’s future is still the subject of considerable debate. Arsene Wenger indicated yesterday that he would buy a replacement should Vermaelen depart, but, in any case, there is still likely to be a chance for a youngster to be elevated to the position of fourth choice centre-back.
With Mertesacker, Koscielny and Vermaelen all granted extended time off following their World Cup exertions, four youngsters filled the centre-back positions for yesterday’s friendly against Boreham Wood- Semi Ajayi, Isaac Hayden, Julio Pleguezuelo and Ignasi Miquel. It wouldn’t be wise to draw too many conclusions based on this fixture given that they only played 45 minutes each and weren’t posed too many problems by the opposing attack, but Hayden was certainly impressive as he frequently cut out the danger when called upon.
There is an argument that Hayden is more comfortable as a defensive-midfielder, where he can use his much-improved passing ability to greater effect, but his versatility may prove to be an added string to his bow when Wenger considers promoting the youngster into his squad. The 19 year old can occasionally be a little rash in the challenge, but he is hugely impressive in most other aspects of his game.
Ajayi, in contrast, looks as if he still has some developing to do before he can be called upon at the top level. The Nigerian youth international is physically imposing but appears vulnerable when faced with skilful attackers and his positioning also requires some work.
Miquel is the most experienced of the quartet, having already featured for the Arsenal first-team in all four major competitions as well as spending last season on loan at Leicester City. The Spaniard is yet to be informed about his long-term future at the club, though, and will be aware that this Summer may well be his last chance to make the breakthrough.
Pleguezuelo, meanwhile, at just 17, has much time on his side and, although he may not possess the same physicality as Ajayi and Miquel, is very good on the ball and is excellent at reading the game.
Choosing between Hayden, Miquel and Pleguezuelo for a place in the squad would certainly not be an easy task, but Hayden’s ability to also play in midfield if required could well be the tipping point.
Boreham Wood 0 Arsenal 2 (Olsson 68, Afobe 86 (pen)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
Second-half goals from Kristoffer Olsson and Benik Afobe ensured that the Arsenal first-team started their pre-season preparations with a victory away to Boreham Wood on a sweltering afternoon in Hertfordshire.
There were a smattering of first-team players on show, but, with an entirely different line-up named in each half, there were also plenty of opportunities for youngsters to impress. Semi Ajayi, Jon Toral and Julio Pleguezuelo all made their senior debuts during the course of the afternoon, but the most notable inclusion was that of 16 year old Chris Willock, the hugely-promising attacking midfielder who recently committed his future to the club amidst interest from Manchester United.
Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Nacho Monreal and Yaya Sanogo were amongst those who started the game.
Arsenal began brightly, but struggled to make the most of the few opportunities they created in the first-half. Sanogo squandered a presentable chance, with Ramsey and Toral also coming close to scoring as the half progressed.
Szczesny was a mere spectator in the Arsenal goal, barely being called upon for much of the 45 minutes, but Arsenal’s defence still had to be alert at times, with Isaac Hayden making some impressive interceptions. Monreal was also impressive at left-back, and the experienced Spaniard helped to guide Willock through the game by constantly providing him with instructions.
Willock did not see too much of the ball during his time on the field, but he used possession wisely when called upon and didn’t look out of place in a first-team environment. Francis Coquelin, back from a fitful loan spell at Freiburg, looked as if he had never been away, with the Frenchman snapping into crunching challenges with regularity.
Toral was heavily involved in most of Arsenal’s passing moves, but does perhaps need to pass the ball quicker at times, whilst Ramsey was far from full sharpness but still provided occasional glimpses of his quality.
As expected, Wenger changed his whole team at the break, with Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky all receiving their first run-outs of pre-season.
With Boreham Wood refraining from making wholesale changes, Arsenal seemed the fresher side in the early stages of the second period. Olsson and Rosicky, two players who are very similar in playing style, saw a lot of the ball, whilst the ex-Barcelona trio of Hector Bellerin, Pleguezuelo and Ignasi Miquel were all impressive at the back.
Diaby also seemed composed and, for once, free of injury troubles, with the Frenchman coming close to breaking the deadlock before Arsenal finally found the net in the 68th minute.
Olsson had been impressive all half, playing plenty of intelligent passes, but it was Rosicky who was the provider on this occasion, with the Czech Republic midfielder spotting Olsson in space. The 19 year old, who made his competitive debut for the first-team last season, finished adroitly, but Arsenal were still searching for more goals.
Along with Olsson, Chuba Akpom caught the eye with some superb runs down the left flank. The England U19 international almost scored himself before another effort caused confusion in the penalty area which led to a spot-kick being awarded. Afobe stepped up to take it and converted to seal the victory.
Boreham Wood should be commended for making the game much more difficult for Arsenal than many would have anticipated, but the Gunners’ vibrancy shone through in the end. There will be more exacting workouts to come in the next few weeks, against New York Red Bulls, Benfica and Monaco, but this was still a useful challenge, and for Willock in particular, a very memorable one.
Arsene Wenger has confirmed that he intends to give several of Arsenal’s promising youngsters the opportunity to prove their worth in a first-team environment during tomorrow’s first pre-season friendly away to Boreham Wood.
The Frenchman intends to field an entirely different side in each half, as he used to during previous fixtures against Barnet, in order to assess the various players at his disposal.
Twelve members of the first-team squad- Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson, Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Nacho Monreal, Yaya Sanogo, Gedion Zelalem and Francis Coquelin- are due to feature at Meadow Park, leaving ten spaces for U21 players.
If we are to judge by those who have been training with the first-team during the past couple of weeks then Damian Martinez, Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden, Jon Toral, Chuba Akpom, Ignasi Miquel, Kristoffer Olsson, Benik Afobe, Thomas Eisfeld and one of Semi Ajayi and Julio Pleguezuelo are set to be involved. It is not currently clear whether trialist Ahmed Fathi will play any part.
For Toral, it would be his first call-up to the senior squad, as it would be for either Ajayi or Pleguezuelo. The others all have some experience of the first-team environment and their aim will be to perform so well that they prolong their stay with the first-team this Summer, to Austria, New York, the Emirates Cup and maybe even beyond.
Ryo, Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry are all still recovering from injuries suffered last season, whilst most of the players who played at the World Cup, including new signings Alexis Sanchez and Mathieu Debuchy, are still on holiday. Jack Wilshere is back at the training ground, and is likely to be joined on Monday by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla.
Joel Campbell, along with Sanchez, Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and Thomas Vermaelen, should be amongst the next batch of players to return in time for the Emirates Cup, with German trio Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski granted extended time off after their success in Brazil.
Arsene Wenger was back at the training ground this morning following the World Cup, and the Frenchman’s return coincided with that of Tomas Rosicky, who didn’t train last week but is in contention to feature against Boreham Wood in the first pre-season friendly on Saturday.
Another notable attendee was Egyptian trialist Ahmed Fathi, who can play at right-back or in defensive-midfield. The 29 year old, who lists Sheffield United and Hull City amongst his former clubs, was unimpressive when on trial at Arsenal ten years ago.
A clutch of U21 players continued to train with the first-team, including Chuba Akpom, Hector Bellerin, Thomas Eisfeld, Kristoffer Olsson, Benik Afobe and Semi Ajayi.
A young U21 side, including several of the new scholars, trounced Bournemouth 5-0 in a friendly at London Colney earlier today. Dan Crowley scored twice, with Alex Iwobi, Stefan O’Connor and Ainsley Maitland-Niles also scoring.
First-year scholars George Dobson, Tyrell Robinson, Chiori Johnson and Marc Bola all made their debuts at this level, whilst second-years Renny Smith and Elliot Wright also featured. In addition, young professionals Jack Jebb, Josh Vickers, Glen Kamara, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Tafari Moore and Austin Lipman all received run-outs in front of the watching Andries Jonker, the club’s new Academy Manager.
Shaun O’Connor, the renowned scout credited with discovering Jack Wilshere, has returned to Arsenal after a five-year absence.
O’Connor, who also recruited Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Sanchez Watt and Cedric Evina during his initial ten-year stint at the club, left in 2009 owing to in-house politics and relocated to Brentford.
However, he has now returned to Arsenal and it is hoped that he will be able to put his vast collection of contacts to good use as the Gunners attempt to drastically improve the quality of players coming through the club’s academy. Wilshere and Ashley Cole are the only players to have established themselves as first-team regulars since the Academy’s reformation who have come all the way through the club’s system.
With Andries Jonker about to commence his tenure as the club’s Academy Manager, this is a time of considerable re-shuffling for the club beyond first-team level.
Arsenal’s Wellington Silva is on the verge of joining La Liga side Almeria on loan for the entire 2014/15 campaign according to Sky Sports.
The 21 year old has spent the entirety of his Arsenal career on loan in Spain, spending time at Levante, Alcoyano, Ponferradina and Murcia. It was only during the most recent of those spells, however, that the Brazilian really demonstrated his potential, and with his Arsenal contract due to expire next Summer this will certainly be his final loan spell away from the club.
With Joel Campbell now back at Arsenal, not to mention the recent acquisition of Alexis Sanchez, it is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage Wellington making the grade at Emirates Stadium, despite his tremendous technical ability. The Brazilian had hoped to be involved in Arsene Wenger’s first-team squad this season, but now seems set for yet another spell in Spain.
Arsene Wenger has long considered Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill to be a promising player for the future, with the young left-back having trained with the senior side on several occasions during the past three seasons.
Today, the 18 year old, along with goalkeeper Matt Macey, was temporarily promoted from the U21 training group to the first-team one, with several players still away following their participation in the World Cup. If he is to make that transition a permanent one in the future, however, Ormonde-Ottewill has a rather difficult challenge on his hands.
Like many modern left-backs, Ormonde-Ottewill is adept in an attacking sense, frequently delivering dangerous crosses into the opposition’s penalty area, but concerns have emerged about his defensive capabilities over the past year, with his lack of positional awareness horribly exposed by the likes of Everton U18s and Barcelona’s UEFA Youth League side.
With Kieran Gibbs, another Academy product, having been handed the number three shirt today, Ormonde-Ottewill faces an immense task if he is to succeed at Arsenal in the long-term, but he will be hopeful of making his senior debut this season in the Capital One Cup.
Macey, meanwhile, is edging closer to the first-team picture and it seems as if he is locked in a battle with fellow shot-stopper Damian Martinez for a place in the senior squad as third choice, presuming a deputy to Wojciech Szczesny is acquired in this transfer window.
Ignasi Miquel, Chuba Akpom, Hector Bellerin, Kristoffer Olsson, Julio Pleguezuelo, Benik Afobe, Semi Ajayi, Thomas Eisfeld and Isaac Hayden have also been training with the first-team this week, with each of those 10 players possessing varying short-term aims. For Miquel, Ajayi, Afobe and Eisfeld, this is perhaps their final chance to make the breakthrough. Akpom, Bellerin, Olsson and Hayden will be hoping to add to their limited experience of professional football and perhaps earn a promotion this Summer.
The most intriguing case, though, is that of Pleguezuelo. The Spanish centre-back is almost unrecognisable from last season having dyed his hair and switched to Puma boots, but his potential remains hugely encouraging. There have been tentative murmurings that the youngster could be named as the club’s fourth-choice centre-back for the new season, although, at just 17 years of age, he may initially be restricted to outings in the Captial One Cup.