A new day brings a new opportunity and today, as they assemble at the airport before departing for a tournament in Germany, Arsenal’s youngsters will be hoping to move on as quickly as possible from yesterday’s deeply disappointing 3-0 loss to Boreham Wood.
Arsenal struggled to play their favoured possession football until the latter stages of the game and, even then, failed to find a way through the home side’s resolute defence, having earlier been punished by some ruthless finishing from the Conference South team.
Much of the panache and dynamism that accompanied the first-half of last week’s 4-3 victory over Sutton United was painfully absent at Meadow Park, with the midfield struggling to provide the necessary protection to an inexperienced defensive line. Much has changed in the U21 set-up since the final league game of last season against Liverpool, with a whole host of players having departed on a permanent basis during the summer, whilst eight of the club’s best talents at this level are currently in Asia with the first-team squad, not to mention the absences of Hector Bellerin, Benik Afobe and Jon Toral amongst several others.
The side that was selected yesterday should, however, have performed to a much higher level, with wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Anthony Jeffrey struggling to get into the game, whilst Austin Lipman received very little service up front. The second-half saw a marginal improvement, with Wellington unafraid to take opponents on with his brazen trickery, whilst Nico Yennaris, despite his obvious and expected rustiness, helped to organise the midfield into a more cohesive unit.
The remaining friendlies against Leyton Orient and Luton Town will provide an even more difficult test for the youngsters than the one they faced yesterday, but it is hoped that, by the time the new U21 season commences next month, they will be full of confidence and more gelled as a team.
Already during this pre-season programme several of the new first-year scholars have gained some valuable experience of second-string football, with young defenders Tafari Moore, Stefan O’Connor and Elliot Wright all receiving run-outs, whilst Maitland-Niles and new recruit Jamaal Raage have also featured in both fixtures so far. It is another of the new scholars, however, who has caught the eye the most, with Dan Crowley continuing to impress yesterday with his sublime dribbling. The 15 year old did play a couple of over-ambitious passes that were easily cut out, but, during his hour on the pitch, was undoubtedly Arsenal’s stand-out player as he helped to provide the Gunners’ only real driving force.
Questions have also been raised regarding whether Steve Gatting is a competent coach at this level, but it seems unlikely that the 54 year old will lose his job on the eve of the new campaign, and it is instead expected that he will remain in charge for the whole season. It has been a big step up for the former Arsenal player from coaching the U16s, a position he held for many years, to be propelled into the U21 set-up, but there are several problems that need to be addressed before the campaign gets underway in terms of overall team shape and play.
It is worth remembering, however, that the majority of the players on show for Arsenal yesterday have only fleeting experience of U21 football and many of them will still be eligible for the U18s next season. The manner of the defeat and the overall performance was incredibly frustrating, but the youngsters should be provided with further opportunities to prove their worth before sweeping statements can be made.