Every few years the Arsenal second-string tend to suffer a heavy defeat that raises severe questions regarding the club’s youth development programme. There was the 6-0 humbling against Reading Reserves in 2006, the infamous 10-1 mauling by Aston Villa five years later and, on Saturday, the still scarcely believable 7-0 loss to Luton Town of the Skrill Premier.
Firstly it must be said that Luton were excellent value for their victory and took full advantage of the deep flaws in Arsenal’s performance. From an Arsenal perspective, however, there is much to be concerned about.
It was, admittedly, just a pre-season friendly and performances and results in such fixtures can often be misleading, but the ineptitude of the overall display from the young Gunners was such that you cannot help but raise serious questions about how such a debacle was allowed to happen.
A team containing the relative merits of Hector Bellerin, Thomas Eisfeld, Nico Yennaris, Isaac Hayden, Kristoffer Olsson and Wellington, should, in theory, at least be capable of providing a threat to the opposition goal, something which was virtually non-existent throughout, as well as providing a stable defensive shield to prevent frequent attacks.
The lack of cohesion in the side was certainly not helped by some of the decisions made by Steve Gatting, the coach. Several players were deployed in irregular positions, and were subsequently out of their comfort zones, with Tafari Moore, nominally a right-back, operating in the opposite full-back berth, Alex Iwobi, who is far better equipped on either flank or as an attacking midfielder, being named up front, and, most bizarrely of all, Hayden being chosen to operate as a playmaker, at least for the first 45 minutes. All of those decisions, along with the aforementioned cataclysmic decision to deploy two vastly inexperienced and unfamiliar centre-backs in Julio Pleguezuelo and Ramy Bensebaini, contributed greatly to Arsenal’s downfall.
The idea of Hayden operating as an attacking-midfielder is not a new one, but only seems to have come to fruition since Gatting took charge. The 18 year old, who is one of the club’s best prospects as a tough-tackling centre-back or defensive-midfielder, has played as a number ten on a few occasions in the past twelve months, but the role certainly does not allow him to express his best attributes.
The fact that Gatting could instead have called upon the talented Dan Crowley, who only played the last 14 minutes, or Jack Jebb, who wasn’t involved at all, made the situation all the more baffling, and, whilst Arsenal were admittedly without some of their better talents in Damian Martinez, Gedion Zelalem, Chuba Akpom, Ignasi Miquel, Serge Gnabry and Benik Afobe, a 7-0 defeat in any circumstances cannot be deemed acceptable.
This pre-season as a whole has been a rather topsy-turvy ride for Gatting and his side. The 4-3 win over Sutton United emphasised Arsenal’s attacking qualities but also their defensive fallacies, which were ruthlessly pounced upon by Boreham Wood in a 3-0 defeat a week later. Then came the heroic fightback to draw 4-4 against Leyton Orient before Saturday’s inglorious failure, which, added together, culminates in a grand total of 17 goals conceded in four fixtures, which suggests that all is not well in a defensive sense, even if the central-defensive partnerships have been constantly rotated.
It is hoped that when the new U21 Premier League season gets underway against Stoke City in 13 days time Arsenal will feel more comfortable playing against teams composed of players of a similar age, having been taught some important lessons by more experienced professionals during the summer.
The game against Luton cannot be brushed over in a hurry, even if the result attracted considerably less attention than it may of done owing to the Emirates Cup, and much better will be expected in future fixtures.
A long-term decision over Gatting’s future, meanwhile, may have to wait until a permanent successor to Liam Brady as Arsenal’s head of youth development is appointed, which may take some time yet.