The signs looked ominous for Arsenal’s famed youth set-up earlier this summer as the development programme was hit by several blows in quick succession. First came Liam Brady’s decision to depart his role as Head of Youth Development, and, whilst the Irishman’s tenure was not without its faults, a full-time replacement is still to be appointed.
Then, towards the end of last season, it was announced that a large number of youngsters would be departing upon the expiry of their contracts, which raised serious questions about the club’s ability to produce players capable of breaking into the first-team squad; fears that were compounded by some disastrous pre-season results, not least the now infamous 7-0 loss away to Luton Town.
For all that, though, the season has started well in terms of both performances and results for Steve Gatting’s side. They did surrender a two-goal lead to eventually draw 2-2 away to Stoke City in their opening fixture, but the young Gunners comfortably dispatched of Blackburn Rovers with a 3-0 win last night, a feat made all the more commendable by the lack of options available to Gatting.
When it is considered that players of the calibre of Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem and Hector Bellerin have been unavailable for the first two games of the season due to them training with the first-team, those results seem even more impressive. Add in, too, the fact that Benik Afobe, Jon Toral, Damian Martinez, Zak Ansah and Nico Yennaris have been absent through injury, and that ten members of last night’s matchday squad are still eligible to play for the U18s this season, then things do not seem as bad as initially envisaged.
There are still many problems to address, however. In the absence of Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, who is also sidelined, there is no natural alternative at left-back, with Leander Siemann, usually a right-back or a centre-back, having to fill in in that position. Of the team that started last night, only Daniel Boateng, Kristoffer Olsson, Thomas Eisfeld, Isaac Hayden and Chuba Akpom had previously started at least five games at U21 level.
Due to the lack of numbers at present, it is very much a case of throwing players in at the deep end and seeing whether they can adjust to their new surroundings. Tafari Moore, on international duty last night, impressed during pre-season, whilst another first-year scholar, winger Ainsley Maitland-Niles, has already made a considerable impression during this fledgling campaign.
The current lack of options means that several players will have to frequently interchange between the U21 and U18 sides, with midfielder Glen Kamara, for instance, having already featured four times this season; twice for each age-group. The situation is complicated further by the fact that Julio Pleguezuelo and Jamaal Raage, two of the club’s summer signings, have yet to make their official debuts as their transfers haven’t been formally ratified by FIFA. There could be some positive news in the coming week, however, with the club looking to secure the services of trialist centre-back Semi Ajeyi, who opened the scoring against Blackburn yesterday.
As was the case last season, many schoolboys are likely to be involved in the U18 set-up as the season progresses, with three of them- Chris Willock, George Dobson and Olufela Olomola- having already featured at that level.
Resources could become even more stretched when the UEFA Youth League and the FA Youth Cup kick into gear, raising the possibility that some players will feature in most games at all youth levels. Gatting is not helped by the fact that, at present, the first-team squad is very small in terms of numbers, and, owing to injuries to others, players who could possibly feature for the U21s to preserve their match fitness, such as Ryo and Yaya Sanogo, are currently required to be on the bench for the senior side.
Still, the U21s have coped very well with their difficult situation so far and will hope to continue their unbeaten start to the season when they face West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium next month.