It does not need to be reiterated here just how harrowing the events at the Coral Windows Stadium were last night for everybody connected to Arsenal Football Club as the Gunners crashed out of the Capital One Cup at the Quarter-Final stage.
The defeat to Bradford does, however, bring an end to the possibility of members of the club’s U21 squad receiving run-outs in the remainder of the competition this season. Last night’s game was, incidentally, the first time since the Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham City in 2011 that no players from outside the first-team squad earned a call-up for a fixture in this competition.
It also, as we reach the mid-way point of a hectic season, provides an appropriate time to assess which youngsters are currently closest to breaking into the first-team squad, especially with several members of Terry Burton’s U21 side having featured in the victories over Coventry City and Reading, whilst others have also received run-outs in the Premier League and Champions League.
At present there are 77 full-time players on the club’s books, including scholars. If those currently out on loan are included, then 32 of those players are part of the first-team squad, leaving 35 young professionals and 10 scholars.
Of the first-team players, six of them (Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Johan Djourou, Emmanuel Frimpong and Nicklas Bendtner) came through the Arsenal Academy and, at present, Serge Gnabry appears likely to be the next player to join them in making the step-up to the first-team with the German winger, who is currently out injured, having featured in all three major competitions for the club so far this season, with the expectation that further senior appearances will follow in the second half of the campaign.
The table on the right lists all of Arsenal’s young professionals in order of how close they appear, at present, to the first-team squad. It is not entirely accurate and is the consequence of much guesswork but is based on team selections this season and each player’s current standing within the club.
Gnabry’s compatriot Thomas Eisfeld can also be deemed to be on the fringes of the first-team squad, even if he wasn’t involved last night, with Wenger stating recently that the former Borussia Dortmund youngster is likely to feature in the Premier League at some stage this campaign.
Others who remain paramount in Wenger’s thinking include young defenders Jernade Meade and Martin Angha, who featured against Olympiacos last week, as well as Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris, who received Premier League minutes last campaign but have both been hampered by injuries this time around.
17 year old striker Chuba Akpom, who has enjoyed an impressive breakthrough season so far as the lead striker for the U21s, has also been spoken about by Wenger in glowing terms recently, with the expectation being that the England youth international, should he continue his progression, could be part of the senior squad as early as next season.
If it transpires, that would spell bad news for Benik Afobe, another player long admired by Wenger, but who, for various reasons is yet to fully prove his worth out on loan. Chuks Aneke, meanwhile, has impressed on loan at Crewe Alexandra this season, but it is not currently clear whether his performances in League One will be sufficient to earn him a place in Arsenal’s long-term plans.
Midfielder Conor Henderson also still has much promise, but injury is continuing to ravage his career and, most recently, has prevented him from making an impact at Coventry City. Several other loanees who have made first-team appearances for Arsenal, the likes of Daniel Boateng, Sanchez Watt and Craig Eastmond will likely see their associations with the club come to an end when this season reaches its conclusion, whilst goalkeeper James Shea, despite his impressive form of late, is likely to be let go due to fierce competition, especially from Damian Martinez.
Hector Bellerin, Elton Monteiro, Sead Hajrovic and Zak Ansah have all earned first-team call-ups this season, although, of those, only Bellerin and Ansah seem capable of carving out long-term careers at the club, whilst silky midfielders Jon Toral and Kristoffer Olsson should receive some first-team game time next season, if not earlier. Holland youngster Kyle Ebecilio, currently sidelined, also falls into that category.
Then come the group of youngsters for whom it is difficult to envisage a breakthrough at the club. The likes of Samir Bihmoutine, Josh Rees and Nigel Neita have struggled to earn regular game time for the U21s this season, whilst Jordan Wynter is still working his way back from injury, but will have to compete with the impressive Isaac Hayden for a place in the side. Goalkeeper Reice Charles-Cook has quality but, following the signing of Deyan Iliev, also has much competition, whilst Philip Roberts has shone at Inverness Caledonian Thistle but is still a long way from making the grade at the Emirates Stadium.
Wellington and Samuel Galindo, meanwhile, continue to struggle for regular game time out on loan and have had persistent work permit problems, despite the Brazilian in particular possessing considerable quality.
In all, there seem to be four main groups within Arsenal’s young professionals at present- those on the cusp of the first-team squad, players likely to depart in the near future, those who know their chance to shine will come soon enough and others who, at present at least, seem extremely far away from making the breakthrough. As has been shown in the past, however, all this can change rather quickly.