Stefan O’Connor signed his first professional contract last week, with the centre-back being rewarded for an impressive start to the season.
It is quite a turnaround for O’Connor, a player who Arsenal were considering releasing when he was a schoolboy. In the absence of the injured Julio Pleguezuelo, however, he has established himself as a key part of Steve Gatting’s U21 set-up and even trained with the first-team squad earlier this month.
O’Connor’s short-term future is now secure, but the three remaining second-years are yet to be provided with assurances regarding whether they too will be awarded professional contracts.
Even though such a deal is yet to be confirmed, Ainsley Maitland-Niles seems certain to receive one, with the winger having enjoyed a tremendous first season as a scholar. Like O’Connor, Maitland-Niles is now regularly involved in the U21 set-up and has also been utilised in central-midfield in recent weeks.
The futures of Elliot Wright and Renny Smith appear less clear, with both players having yet to make a sustained breakthrough into the U21 set-up. Both have delivered some impressive performances for the U18s, with Wright particularly impressing against West Ham United last weekend, but the pair have several players ahead of them in their respective positions.
Arsenal have added Macedonian goalkeeper Deyan Iliev to their Champions League squad.
Iliev is eligible for the competition’s B-List, with two years having now passed since he joined Arsenal from Belasica.
Iliev’s inclusion is timely for Arsenal, who may be forced to name the 19-year-old on the bench for their Champions League game away to Anderlecht next week. Wojciech Szczesny is suspended for the trip to Belgium, whilst there remains a doubt over David Ospina’s availability, with the goalkeeper still nursing an injury that he suffered after coming off the bench at home to Galatasaray.
If Ospina is ruled out then Argentinian shot-stopper Emiliano Martinez will make his Champions League debut. With Matt Macey not yet eligible to be registered for the competition, it is likely that Iliev will make the bench ahead of Josh Vickers and Ryan Huddart.
Ilias Chatzitheodoridis joined Arsenal on scholarship terms in the summer following a successful trial, but, owing to complications with paperwork, he has yet to feature for the club at U18 level.
That looks set to change next week, with Chatzitheodoridis scheduled to play at last some part when Arsenal U18s host Tottenham Hotspur at London Colney on Friday.
The Greek left-back, who is impressive defensively as well as going forwards, featured for the U16s in their game against Southampton yesterday, but he will be sure to find that playing at U18 level, particularly against Tottenham, will be a much tougher challenge.
Marc Bola has started every game at left-back so far this season for Frans de Kat’s side, but that could be set to change in the coming weeks.
Chatzitheodoridis’ compatriot, and fellow summer arrival, Savvas Mourgos, has already played twice for the U18s, but has yet to develop an understanding with his new team-mates, as evidenced by him conceding possession on numerous occasions against West Ham yesterday. However, it is still very early days for the midfielder and it is hoped that his performances will improve as the weeks progress.
The other two foreign recruits, goalkeeper Hugo Keto and centre-back Krsitopher Da Graca, will also hope to be cleared to play for the U18s in the near future.
As ever, Arsenal have often deployed very young teams at U18 level so far this season. For instance, yesterday, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Tafari Moore, Stefan O’Connor, Gedion Zelalem and Dan Crowley could have all featured if necessary, whilst the likes of Renny Smith, George Dobson, Julio Pleguezuelo, Tyrell Robinson and Ben Sheaf were all unavailable.
Goalkeeper Ryan Huddart and centre-back Elliot Wright were the only second-years involved yesterday, but de Kat’s team have still delivered an impressive set of results in the early weeks of the campaign, registering 15 points from their opening eight fixtures.
They have just three fixtures left, against Tottenham, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion, before reaching the halfway point of the first stage of the season.
Arsenal striker Chuba Akpom emerged off the bench to score two goals in the final two minutes of the game, helping England U20s to secure a dramatic late victory over the Netherlands today.
The striker has been in prolific form for Arsenal U21s so far this season, scoring six goals in four matches, and also featured for the first-team against Southampton in the Capital One Cup.
England are participating in a Four Nations tournament with Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey. Having prevailed past Germany in their opening fixture, things took a turn for the worse for England when they found themselves 2-1 down against the Netherlands.
Akpom wasn’t going to give up without a fight, however, and, having scored from the penalty spot, he then found the net again in the dying moments, prompting wild celebrations. Isaac Hayden captained the side.
England take on Turkey on Monday.
U18 Premier League- Game 8
West Ham United 0 Arsenal 0
By Jeorge Bird @ Little Heath
They may not have been able to match the drama of Chelsea’s incredible 12-2 victory over Aston Villa, but Arsenal and West Ham U18s still conjured up a hard-fought encounter at Little Heath today.
This was an engrossing battle between two sides that have started the season in splendid form. Arsenal have lost just once under new coach Frans de Kat, whilst West Ham remain unbeaten this campaign, although that wouldn’t have been the case had Stephy Mavididi converted an inviting opportunity in the second-half.
In the end a draw was probably the correct result, however, with both sides enjoying periods of sustained dominance without creating too much in the way of attacking opportunities. Arsenal had goalkeeper Ryan Huddart to thank for keeping them level on several occasions, with many of West Ham’s best moves involving Hale End graduate Jordan Brown.
De Kat made four changes from the team that were held by Southampton last time out. Huddart returned in goal, whilst there were also re-calls for Elliot Wright, Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds.
Centeno-Wright-T. Bola- M. Bola
subs: Da Silva (for Mourgos), Tabi (for Mavididi). Not used: House, Johnson. Booked: Willock.
There were very few chances created by either side in the early exchanges, with both defences proving difficult to break down. Wright, who will be seeking to follow Stefan O’Connor in turning professional with Arsenal, made some important interventions, but eventually West Ham managed to outmanoeuvre the Arsenal defence.
Brown was spotted in space and, upon receiving the ball, forced a good save from the alert Huddart. The tall goalkeeper was in action again just moments later as he produced a superb double stop to preserve parity.
West Ham’s pressing made it difficult for Arsenal to retain possession, with the young Gunners struggling to get many of their flair players into the game. Willock was impressive when he received the ball, but he wasn’t always offered much support and was the victim of some robust challenges from the opposition.
It was from a Willock free-kick that Arsenal created their first chance of note, but Harry Donovan couldn’t quite connect with it properly. An incisive Willock pass then located Marc Bola in space, but the left-back’s cross was cut out before it could reach the waiting Mavididi.
Brown turned down a scholarship deal at Arsenal as he felt he would receive more opportunities at West Ham and the striker was heavily involved here, with Huddart having to intervene again to make a sprawling save at the feet of the striker.
When Arsenal were forced to defend they largely went about their task well, with a particular highlight being Wright’s superb sliding challenge to deny Brown, who was bearing down on goal.
Arsenal had one opportunity before the interval, with Savvas Mourgos combining with Willock, who eventually found Mavididi. However, the striker, who was so prolific in the early weeks of the season, couldn’t quite direct his effort on target on this occasion.
There was a little more rhythm to the game in the second-half, with Arsenal finally managing to free themselves from the shackles that West Ham had imposed on them. Arsenal were starting to get Mavididi involved in the game, with the striker heading wide from Willock’s cross before a well-timed challenge prevented him from getting his shot away in the next attack.
West Ham still posed a threat on the counter-attack, however, and Tolaji Bola did well to clear the danger with Brown in close proximity.
Hinds was a hub of creativity for Arsenal, with the England youth international seeing a couple of efforts go narrowly wide.
Hinds was involved in perhaps Arsenal’s best move of the game and it was one that really should have yielded a goal. Aaron Eyoma played a perceptive pass into the path of Hinds, who crossed invitingly for Mavididi, but the striker was unable to find the net from close range.
Arsenal then introduced Josh Da Silva in place of Mourgos, who had struggled to impose himself on his second start at this level.
West Ham still threatened, with Huddart watching a shot go just wide of his goal, with Mavididi then directing an effort off target after good work from Donovan.
In an engaging final few minutes, Hinds struck the side-netting, with West Ham then squandering several opportunities to snatch a late winner.
In truth, defeat would have been rather harsh on either side, with both teams defending well. Arsenal’s play was not quite as fluent as expected, but there were some good performances at the back, with Wright and Jonatas Centeno acquitting themselves well.
Hinds and Willock continue to appear to be the club’s standout talents in this age group, even though not everything they attempted worked today. Huddart’s excellent performance didn’t come as too much of a surprise, whilst Tabi did well after coming on as a substitute.
De Kat could be forgiven for being a little worried that, following the glut of goals his team scored in the early weeks of the season, they have now gone two games without finding the net. He will be hopeful that Arsenal, and Mavididi in particular, will be able to rediscover their goalscoring touch in time for their next assignment against Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsene Wenger said in the summer that Gedion Zelalem will not be ready to feature for the Arsenal first-team for at least six months.
That statement raised eyebrows in some quarters, with fears arising that the 17 year old was struggling to fulfil his vast potential. However, with hindsight, Arsenal’s decision to allow Zelalem to develop in the youth teams, rather than rushing him into first-team action, has been an informed one.
When Zelalem made his debut for the Arsenal first-team against Coventry City in the FA Cup last season, his appearance was expected to be the first of many, with some even suggesting that he would feature in the Premier League before the end of the campaign. That didn’t materialise and Zelalem has had to be mightily patient for his opportunity, having not even made the bench for the recent Capital One Cup tie with Southampton.
What he has been doing in the interim, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed at London Colney. Having first played in the U21 team as a schoolboy, Zelalem now possesses considerable experience of second-string football, and, at last, is beginning to develop the sort of consistency and ability to influence matches that was so lacking from his game last season.
Whereas previously Zelalem could go an entire U21 game without making a notable contribution, he is now, gradually, beginning to become more tactically aware to add to his renowned technical gifts. He scored his first goal for the club with a superb strike for the U19s against Galatasaray in the UEFA Youth League and is starting to play killer passes with the regularity that he has done so when afforded an opportunity in first-team friendlies.
Having previously appeared too afraid to go into challenges, Zelalem is now prepared to fight for the ball. His talent has always been obvious, but his all-round game is now improving immensely. He still needs to develop physically, which is perhaps why he hasn’t featured in the Premier League yet, but, slowly but surely, he is getting towards the stage where he’ll be ready to represent the first-team regularly.
He hasn’t quite developed as quickly as Cesc Fabregas, who slotted into Premier League action as a 17 year old, or Jack Wilshere, who was dominating Carling Cup games in the first year of his scholarship, but Zelalem’s time will come eventually.
U18 Premier League- Game 7
Arsenal 0 Southampton 0
Last week Ryan Huddart produced a superb display as Arsenal U18s took on Fulham and Frans de Kat’s side were again heavily reliant on their goalkeeper this weekend.
On this occasion it was Josh Vickers, captaining the side as an over-age player, who made several excellent stops to keep a clean sheet with an inexperienced defence ahead of him against bottom of the table Southampton.
Arsenal created little going forwards in the first-half, but their build-up play improved in the second period following the introductions of Kaylen Hinds and Chris Willock. Hinds was unfortunate not to score himself, whilst Tyrell Robinson perhaps should have done better in front of goal when a Willock pass scythed open the Southampton defence.
In the driving rain, this wasn’t a particularly fluent performance from Arsenal, but it has to be taken into consideration that, of the outfield players that started the game, only Renny Smith was a second-year. Schoolboys Mich’el Parker and Tolaji Bola were deployed at centre-back, whilst Savvas Mourgos made his debut in midfield.
Many of Arsenal’s first-year scholars have already featured for the older age groups this season, but that has come at a cost for de Kat, with Hinds, Willock and George Dobson, arguably the three standout players from this year’s intake, all missing from the starting line-up on Saturday.
Stephy Mavididi failed to score at this level for the first time this season, although he did come close with a header on one occasion, whilst Harry Donovan was denied in the final seconds following a mazy run from Hinds.
The plaudits should go to Vickers, though. The goalkeeper has long been tipped as having a bright future, but his development has been rather held back due to the plethora of young shot-stoppers on Arsenal’s books at present. With Emiliano Martinez, Matt Macey and Deyan Iliev all ahead of him, Vickers struggles to even make the bench for the U21s these days, although, on this evidence, the 18 year old, who spent last season on loan at Canvey Island, should be provided with some opportunities at a higher level soon.
The dropped points saw Arsenal relinquish their status at the top of the southern section, and they face West Ham, one of the two sides that are now above them, next week.
Centeno-Parker-T. Bola-M. Bola
subs: Huddart, Johnson, Willock, Hinds.