They may have been helped by a clutch of first-team players along the way, but Arsenal U21s secured their first win for over a month as they dispatched of Reading with a 2-0 win at Underhill last night and, in doing so, Terry Burton’s side ensured that they will be in a prominent position in the table going into the second half of the opening phase of the newly-restructured season at this level.
Everything had started so swimmingly for Burton, as following a largely impressive pre-season, he guided his new charges to three successive victories at the start of the campaign, with nine goals scored in the process and only one conceded, including two successes at Emirates Stadium. It was always thought, though, that despite their successful start to the campaign, the real test for the youngsters would come on the road, and they certainly found it difficult in less familiar surroundings, suffering consecutive defeats to West Ham and West Bromwich Albion before yesterday’s return to form.
Several players who started the campaign in the U21 side have since departed on loan, including Conor Henderson, Craig Eastmond, Sanchez Watt and Chuks Aneke, but their experience has been more than made up for in recent games as several members of the first-team squad have received run-outs, not least Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong, who, still under-21 themselves, have been using fixtures at this level to boost their fitness following lengthy lay-offs.
There have also been several encouraging performances from those seeking to join the likes of Wilshere and Frimpong in the first-team set-up. James Shea, who lacked height and authority in his early years, is now a composed, reliable shot-stopper, as demonstrated by his superb display against Reading last night, and the 21 year old benefitted greatly from Damian Martinez’s dismissal in the opening game of the season against Bolton Wanderers.
It could still be the case that Shea will not have a future at the club beyond this season, with his contract due to expire in June and Martinez still regarded as the more promising talent, but the former Dagenham & Redbridge loanee is at least giving the Arsenal coaching staff something to think about.
Serge Gnabry has not featured with regularity at U21 level so far this campaign, with his talents often being saved for the NextGen Series, but when he has been called upon, the young German has demonstrated just why Arsene Wenger is such a big admirer of him with some sublime pieces of skill, lots of threatening running and several fierce shots on goal.
Hector Bellerin has also demonstrated much improvement defensively to add to his attacking strengths, whilst Jernade Meade has been a solid and effective presence on the left flank, whether at left back or in his previous position on the left wing.
Chuba Akpom, meanwhile, has perhaps been the surprise star of the season, with the forward, who only turned 17 today, being fast-tracked to the U21s to such an extent that he is yet to feature for Pat Holland’s U18 side so far this campaign. Although there is still a lingering impression that his myriad talents are better suited to a wide role, Akpom has continued to develop and scored his first goal of the campaign last night. That was followed by the signing of his maiden professional contract this morning and, so far, the England youth international has adapted well to his more senior surroundings.
The U18’s form has been more patchy, although last weekend’s heavy loss to Reading did bring a five game unbeaten run to an end. Holland has rallied the troops following the hefty opening day defeat to Bolton, but has found his resources considerably stretched at times with the likes of Gnabry, Bellerin, Kris Olsson and Akpom featuring heavily for the U21s. Jon Toral, who has demonstrated his ability on numerous occasions for the latter age group so far this campaign, is likely to follow that trio in being promoted, meaning Holland will have to draft in several schoolboys, such as Jordan Brown and Gedion Zelalem, into his squad as the season progresses.