Arsenal U23s are due to return to pre-season training next month and, while there will be much focus on the identity of the successor to Steve Bould as coach, there is also the considerable task ahead of shaping next season’s squad.
U23s football is generally an amalgamation of players at various stages of their career – first-team players dropping down, some individuals who should really be out on loan and prodigious youngsters who are playing above their age group.
The core group of the U23 squad, however, should consist of players between the ages of 18 and 21 who are looking to edge closer to the first-team.
Arsenal have something of a problem in that regard as they have 33 players on professional contracts who, as things stand, will be fully fledged members of the U23 squad. Then you have to factor in the five second-year scholars – Nathan Butler-Oyedeji, Ovie Ejeheri, Mazeed Ogungbo, Daniel Oyegoke and Kido Taylor-Hart – who have all been offered professional deals. In addition there could also be some new signings.
Overall, it is clear that Arsenal need to reduce the size of their U23 squad ahead of next season as the group should ideally be made up of around 20 players, but how will they go about that task?
Firstly, the club will have to wait and see whether the five aforementioned youngsters and goalkeeper Arthur Okonkwo accept their contract offers. If any of them decline then it would be a source of frustration but would bring the squad size down a little.
Then Arsenal have to start the clearout. 26-year-old goalkeeper Deyan Iliev will be allowed to leave if a suitable offer is made, while Ben Sheaf could join Coventry City permanently. Tolaji Bola and Jordi Osei-Tutu are both now at the stage of their career where they need to move on, even though the latter has been rather unfortunate with injuries.
Last year Arsenal got around the problem of having too many U23 players by loaning half the squad out. It wouldn’t be too surprising if a similar scenario occurred this time. Folarin Balogun could be promoted to the first-team, but Daniel Ballard, Zech Medley, Trae Coyle, Harry Clarke, Tyreece John-Jules, Mark McGuinness, James Olayinka, Matt Smith and Zak Swanson could all go on loan again having already experienced spells of varying degrees of success. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that some of them could depart permanently.
Others could go on loan for the first time – the likes of Jonathan Dinzeyi, Tim Akinola and George Lewis didn’t exactly set the world alight during their maiden season at the club and there is no need for them to stay and potentially prevent younger players from getting minutes in the U23s.
There are further players who could go on loan, too, with left-back Joel Lopez falling into that category. Jordan McEneff, who was given a contract extension recently, may also be sent out on temporary transfer for the first time.
The goalkeeping situation also needs to be resolved. There is no need to have Iliev, Okonkwo, Karl Hein, Tom Smith, James Hillson, Hubert Graczyk and Ovie Ejeheri all competing for a place in the U23s. One of Okonkwo (if he stays) and Hein should be loaned out, with the other remaining, while Graczyk and Ejeheri could provide cover. Smith and Hillson should be sent on loan.
If all of the above occurred, it would leave Arsenal with a core U23 squad that would look something like this:
This way Arsenal would have quite a young U23 squad, which would enable more of the talented crop of U18s to become increasingly involved as the campaign progresses.
There are others who will be hoping for more chances at this level, too, such as Zach Awe, Khayon Edwards, Luigi Gaspar, Taylor Foran and Charles Sagoe Jr, who have all previously been called up to the squad.
In the second half of the season the likes of Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez could be loaned out which would allow opportunities for players such as Mauro Bandeira.
In conclusion, there is certainly a lot of work for Arsenal to do this summer with regards to their U23 squad as they look to accelerate the development of their various young prospects.
It was confirmed on Arsenal’s Premier League retained list that the club have offered Arthur Okonkwo a new contract.
The goalkeeper’s current deal is set to expire at the end of this month and Arsenal are eager to keep him.
It is clear to see that the 19-year-old is rated very highly at London Colney – he was on the bench for the first-team on three occasions in the Europa League, including both legs of the semi-final against Villarreal.
Okonkwo appears to have edged ahead of Karl Hein in the pecking order at the club and is evidently Arsenal’s best young prospect as far as goalkeepers are concerned, although Hein, a senior international for Estonia, also possesses much in the way of potential.
Arsenal can also call upon Tom Smith, James Hillson, Hubert Graczyk and Ovie Ejeheri, but Okonkwo appears to be the most reliable performer.
Capable of commanding his penalty area with authority, Okonkwo has superb reflexes and is now fully recovered having missed the entirety of the 2019-20 season with a health problem.
If he remains at Arsenal, Okonkwo will hope to be involved in first-team football in some capacity next season, perhaps out on loan.
Arsenal will certainly be determined for him to stay given his undoubted talent.
Signed scholarship: 2004. Arsenal apps: 157 (45 goals). Denmark international. Subsequent career: Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest, Rosenborg, Copenhagen, Tarnby FF.
Signed from Copenhagen in 2004, Bendtner made a huge impact for Arsenal at youth level, striking up an impressive partnership with Arturo Lupoli. The tall Danish striker then caught the eye on loan at Birmingham City in the Championship before returning to Arsenal, where he broke into the first-team squad. The initial signs were encouraging, as he scored a memorable goal against Tottenham Hotspur shortly after coming on as a substitute, but Bendtner found it difficult to establish himself as Arsenal’s first-choice striker. Loans to Sunderland and Juventus followed before a permanent departure in 2014 as he joined Wolfsburg. It was at Rosenborg that Bendtner made the biggest impact after leaving Arsenal, scoring 35 goals in 86 games. Bendtner, who scored 30 times for Denmark, announced his retirement yesterday having most recently played for Tarnby FF’s ‘old boys’ team in the Danish fourth tier.
Signed scholarship: 2014. Arsenal apps: 0. Subsequent career: Juventus, Dijon (loan), Montpellier.
Another striker who was a standout performer for Arsenal U18s, Mavididi made the bench for first-team in the League Cup but didn’t make a senior appearance for the Gunners. An injury suffered on loan at Charlton Athletic meant that he couldn’t really push on as had been expected. After much speculation, he left for Juventus in 2018 and mainly played for their U23 team, although he did make an appearance in Serie A against SPAL. The Hale End product was then loaned out to Dijon and earned a permanent switch to Montpellier, for whom he scored nine goals in 35 league games this season.
Signed scholarship: 2012. Arsenal apps: 0. Subsequent career: Swindon Town, Helmond Sport, Dordrecht, Excelsior (loan), Excelsior.
A left-back who featured in the FA Youth Cup and trained with the first-team, Ormonde-Ottewill signed a professional contract but was released in 2015. The erstwhile England youth international signed for Swindon Town and featured heavily during two seasons in League One prior to heading to Holland with Helmond Sport. Ormonde-Ottewill has remained in the Dutch second division ever since and is now at Excelsior, who he joined permanently following a successful loan spell.
JOHAN DJOUROU Signed scholarship: 2003. Arsenal apps: 144 (1 goal). Switzerland international. Subsequent career: Hamburg, Antalyaspor, SPAL, Sion, Neuchatel Xamax, Nordsjaelland.
Like Bendtner, Djourou arrived at Arsenal as a youngster and went on to make over 100 first-team appearances without truly establishing himself as a reliable long-term option. The centre-back was a member of the first-team squad for many years before eventually joining Hamburg in 2014. After several seasons in the Bundesliga Djourou headed to Turkey with Antalyaspor and also played in Italy for SPAL. A former Switzerland international with 76 caps, he is now playing for Nordsjaelland in Denmark.
Signed scholarship: 1997. Arsenal apps: 30. Subsequent career: Aston Villa, Cardiff City (loan), Manchester City, Reading, Yeovil Town (loan), Leeds United, Southampton. Retired.
A goalkeeper who received a league winner’s medal when Arsenal were crowned champions in 2002, Taylor made just 95 appearances during his entire career. Much of his time at Arsenal was spent out on loan before he headed to Aston Villa, where he wasn’t able to become first choice. Taylor spent three years at Manchester City making just one appearance in the process, and he finished playing in 2018 having not played for three seasons. Now aged 40, there is certainly a feeling that Taylor was capable of making many more appearances overall.
Arsenal have announced that defenders Joseph Olowu and Jason Sraha will both leave the club when their contracts expire at the end of this month.
Having joined as a schoolboy, Olowu signed scholarship terms in 2016 and later progressed to a professional deal. Olowu played 31 times for the U18s and also made 34 appearances for the U23s.
The centre-back, who can also play at right-back, gained experience during loan spells at Cork City and Wealdstone.
Olowu featured for the U23s in the title-winning season on 2018 and also played in the FA Youth Cup final against Chelsea in the same year.
Sraha, meanwhile, joined Arsenal in 2019 having been let go by Chelsea. The youngster wasn’t able to establish himself as a regular in the U18s with a serious injury not helping his cause. Sraha didn’t make a single appearance this season as he spent the majority of the campaign on the sidelines.
It has also finally been confirmed that Levi Laing has joined West Ham United, while Luke Plange has signed for Derby County.
The fact that the remaining second-year scholars – Nathan Butler-Oyedeji, Ovie Ejeheri, Mazeed Ogungbo, Daniel Oyegoke and Kido Taylor-Hart, weren’t mentioned as having been released suggests that they have all been offered professional terms. There remains uncertainty regarding whether the talented Taylor-Hart will commit his future to the club.
Arsenal were granted academy status in 1998, with many of the individuals in the early intakes having now reached the end of their playing careers.
Consequently, we are beginning to see a batch of academy products take their first steps into management, something which is set to become more prominent in the coming years.
The most significant example is that is former midfielder Stephen Bradley, who has been in charge of Shamrock Rovers since 2016, overseeing 161 matches so far. He won the League of Ireland title in 2020 having previously overseen an FAI Cup success.
Stephen O’Donnell (pictured) is another who has progressed into management. The Irish midfielder signed scholarship terms in 2002 and earned a professional contract but ended up leaving in 2005. O’Donnell went on to play for various clubs including Falkirk, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers before retiring in January 2019.
After finishing playing O’Donnell took up the position of Senior Opposition Analyst & Scout at his final club Dundalk before landing his first managerial job at St Patrick’s Athletic.
O’Donnell moved to bring in fellow Arsenal youth product Patrick Cregg as his assistant. Cregg, who was also part of the 2002 intake, made three first-team appearances for Arsenal, all of which came in the League Cup.
As manager of St Patrick’s Athletic, O’Donnell’s record reads: played 41, won 17, drawn 12, lost 12. They are currently third in the League of Ireland Premier Division having finished sixth last season (out of ten teams).
Another Arsenal academy alumni who has started managing is former Northern Ireland international Dean Shiels.
Shiels didn’t play a first-team game for Arsenal but was heavily involved for Doncaster Rovers and Rangers. He is now the manager of Dungannon Swifts, a semi-professional team who play in the NIFL Premiership – the top tier of Northern Irish football.
Others have elected to be coaches at youth level at major clubs. One example is Ryan Garry, who rejoined Arsenal as a youth coach before working his way up to be assistant boss for the U23s. Greg Lincoln, meanwhile, is the U18s assistant and Adam Birchall also coaches at the academy, taking charge of the U14s.
Ashley Cole, undoubtedly one of Arsenal’s greatest ever youth products, has gained experience coaching Chelsea U15s.
Will any of the youth products progress to manage at Premier League level, something that Tony Adams achieved when he was manager of Portsmouth in the 2008-09 season?
Terry Mason, who has received much praise for his work at Southend United, is set to become Arsenal’s head of academy goalkeeping, as reported by the Southend Echo.
Mason is poised to replace Andy Woodman, who was recently appointed as manager of Bromley.
Having previously worked with England’s young goalkeepers, Mason has been part of the Southend setup for the past 15 years, mainly coaching the academy shot-stoppers but also having spells working with the first-team.
The final part of this season’s progress report is split into two sections, with the first part assessing players who were born between September 1999 and August 2000.
League One apps: 12
Carabao Cup apps: 2
EFL Trophy apps: 4
Scottish Premiership apps: 8 (1 goal)
Scottish Cup apps: 2
The tall centre-back hadn’t experienced a loan spell prior to this season but he had two this campaign as he spent time with Gillingham and Kilmarnock. Medley was initially a regular in League One but his spell at Gillingham was cut short, while he also lost his place in the Kilmarnock side towards the end of a campaign in which they were relegated from the Scottish Premiership. He did score his first senior goal but another loan spell is likely next season, with it being difficult to see opportunities arising at Arsenal.
National League apps: 12
U23 apps: 3 (1 assist)
Olowu had a varied season as he represented three different teams. The defender started out at Cork City in a continuation of his previous loan spell, then had a few games back in the Arsenal U23 side before finishing the season in the National League with Wealdstone. Olowu is a proven performer at U23 level and helped the young Gunners to enjoy a mini resurgence but it wouldn’t be surprising if he was to leave permanently this summer.
League One apps: 27 (2 goals)
FA Cup apps: 2
U23 apps: 2
In stark contrast to the previous season, when his loan spell with Swindon Town was cut short due to injury, Ballard has thrived this campaign. Now an established part of the Northern Ireland senior squad, he has made fantastic progress at club level too, featuring heavily for Blackpool during their promotion push and producing consistent displays. Regardless of whether Blackpool are promoted or not, it seems likely he will be playing on loan in the Championship next season.
U23 apps: 10 (1 assist)
EFL Trophy apps: 1 (1 goal)
The most surprising of surprise signings, Lewis previously played in the third tier of Norwegian football but ended up joining Arsenal. His move hasn’t gone to plan so far, though, despite a bright start that encompassed him finding the net against Ipswich Town in the EFL Trophy. Lewis has pace in abundance but has lacked consistency and has struggled to establish himself as a regular starter for the U23s, although an injury earlier in the season didn’t help his cause. He could still be part of the U23 squad next season but first-team chances seem unlikely.
U23 apps: 17
EFL Trophy apps: 1
Another shock signing, Dinzeyi joined Arsenal having been released by rivals Tottenham Hotspur. The centre-back featured prominently and has plenty of experience of U23s football but never really stood out. By the end of the season younger centre-backs such as Alex Kirk and Zane Monlouis were outperforming him, which suggests Dinzeyi’s chances of succeeding at Arsenal are rather slim. Next season he could go out on loan before leaving permanently.
Emile Smith Rowe has already emerged from this group, and Reiss Nelson is also in the first-team squad. Daniel Ballard looks to most set up to have a successful career, although it is very difficult for a centre-back to make it at Arsenal. Medley has talent but time is running out for him, while the rest of the players probably won’t remain at the club beyond next season.
The final section of the progress report looks at the slightly older youngsters – those who are older than 21.
League One apps: 3
A goalkeeper who has been unfortunate with injuries throughout his career, Iliev is still part of the Arsenal U23 squad at the age of 26. Last season he had a loan spell at Shrewsbury Town where injury affected him again. The shot-stopper, who previously had spells with Sered and Jagiellonia Bialystok, has a year remaining on his contract at Arsenal. If a buyer can’t be found this summer he is likely to be loaned out for his final season at the club.
Championship apps: 30 (1 assist)
FA Cup apps: 1
Carabao Cup apps: 1
Sheaf, who has been at Arsenal since 2014, has steadily worked his way up the divisions in terms of loan spells and featured for Coventry City in the Championship this season. The midfielder started off well before losing his place in the team in the second half of the campaign. Sheaf has the quality to be a success at League One level at least and is set to be sold this summer if a suitable offer is made.
League One apps: 11
FA Cup apps: 1
U23 apps: 9 (1 assist)
EFL Trophy apps: 1 (1 assist)
Hard-working left-back Bola got his long-awaited first loan spell as he headed to Rochdale but he was unable to make a significant impact and returned to Arsenal in January. The Hale End product lost his place in the U23s starting lineup to Joel Lopez and wasn’t considered when the first-team had a crisis at left-back, which suggests that his future lies elsewhere.
Championship apps: 8
Carabao Cup apps: 1
Misfortune with injuries meant that Osei-Tutu was unable to build upon his successful stint with VfL Bochum. The right-back started off well at Cardiff but spent the vast majority of the season on the sidelines and made a brief return prior to getting injured again. The 22-year-old requires ankle surgery which may mean Arsenal are unable to sell him this summer but his chances of making the breakthrough, which looked encouraging at one stage, are fading fast.
Iliev, Sheaf and Bola all appear to be on their way out of the club, whether that is this summer or next year, and Osei-Tutu seems unlikely to make it now.