It cannot be denied that Arsenal aren’t afraid to push their youngsters from a very early age. Whilst Gedion Zelalem, who only turned 16 in January, is earning worldwide praise for his performances with the first-team out in Asia, another technically-talented midfielder, Dan Crowley, who is not 16 until August, is already on the verge of establishing himself as a key player for the club at U21 level.
It was initially expected that Crowley, a high-profile acquisition this summer from Aston Villa, would begin his Arsenal career in the U18s before gradually working his way into the second-string squad as the season progressed. However, having shone on his debut in the 4-3 victory over Sutton United last week, the England U17 international is likely to be given another opportunity to impress in his favoured number 10 role against Boreham Wood tomorrow, and, if he impresses, his place in the side could be a certainty by the time the new campaign rolls around.
The game against Sutton contained both positive and negative aspects from Arsenal’s perspective. The performances of some individuals, Crowley, Jack Jebb, Anthony Jeffrey and Isaac Hayden in particular, were real plusses, whilst a large number of players made their first outings for the second-string. However, the manner in which non-league Sutton clawed their way back into the game in the second half was concerning from a defensive point of view and is something that coach Steve Gatting will be looking to rectify tomorrow afternoon.
Following this game, a large contingent of the Arsenal squad (those who are 19 or under) will travel to Germany to participate in the RUHR Cup, where they will face Borussia Dortmund, China, Hamburg and Valencia. They will then return to England to conclude their pre-season programme with fixtures against Leyton Orient and Luton Town before commencing the new U21 Premier League campaign, the fixtures for which were announced this afternoon.
The format of the league has been re-jigged once again to create one division for all 22 Category One Academies. Arsenal will host Manchester United in their opening fixture, but, despite the suggestions of Chief Executive Officer Ivan Gazidis, it has not yet been confirmed that Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park will be the venue for the majority of the Gunners’ home fixtures this season.
Arsenal will, however, play at least two games at Emirates Stadium, with fixtures scheduled there against West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers, whilst they will also travel to White Hart Lane in late March to take on North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
As far as tomorrow’s fixture is concerned, the composition of the squad should be largely similar to the one that faced Sutton seven days ago, with first-year Tafari Moore set for another run-out at right-back, whilst Wellington could feature again on the left flank. There is also the possibility that Costa Rican starlet Joel Campbell, having received his work permit in midweek, could make his Arsenal debut and Alfred Mugabo, now a full Rwandan international, could make his first appearance of the summer.
Much of the focus will be on the younger contingent, however, many of whom will be hoping that, like Crowley, they could play their way into the side on a regular basis. Benik Afobe, Jon Toral, Zak Ansah, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and Tarum Dawkins remain injured, whilst Hector Bellerin is away at the U19 European Championships.
Arsenal will be confident of victory, having prevailed 3-1 against the same opponents this time last year. On that day both Chuba Akpom and Kristoffer Olsson found the net for the Gunners and the duo are now with the first-team squad in Asia, demonstrating just how quickly progression can be made within the Arsenal set-up.