Even with hugely promising players such as Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom on show, the Arsenal U18 side that took to the field at home to Manchester United on Saturday did not exactly resemble a vintage crop of youngsters.
Arsenal were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when Akpom was fouled in the area, but their defending left much to be desired, with Leander Siemann, admittedly playing out of position at left-back, frequently squandering possession in dangerous areas.
The unfamiliar central-defensive partnership of Stefan O’Connor and Tom Dallison, meanwhile, were given a difficult time by the mobile United attack, whilst the deployment of a third different goalkeeper in as many Academy league matches in Matthew Macey certainly didn’t help in terms of continuity.
In an attacking sense there were at least some positives, with Dan Crowley demonstrating his vast potential with a few superb dribbles before withdrawing through injury before the break. His ankle problem will be assessed this week and it is hoped that he will not be kept out of action for too long, particularly with the new UEFA Youth League getting underway later this month.
Alex Iwobi, too, has started the season in good form despite being deployed in several different positions already this campaign. Operating as a right-winger on this occasion, he provided a frequent threat to the United goal and found the net for the first time this season when he followed up Akpom’s missed penalty. The second-year scholar has started both games for the U21s so far this season and is likely to be involved again when West Bromwich Albion visit Emirates Stadium on Thursday.
As for Zelalem and Akpom, both players showed glimpses of their undoubted quality, but seem to thrive when surrounded by more talented individuals, as they are in the first-team and U21 set-ups. Zelalem was making his first appearance of the season at any level and was not at his sharpest, but the German youth international, who is now part of the first-team squad, could also be involved against West Brom.
The U18s’ start to the season under the tutelage of Carl Laraman has been decidedly mixed, with a win, a draw and two defeats from their first two fixtures. An astonishing 32 players have already been used by Arsenal at U21 and U18 levels already this season, underlining one of the key difficulties at this level in that it is extremely challenging to field a consistent side, with many schoolboys often called into action for the younger age group, as they were against Sunderland in the previous game.
Injuries have certainly not helped the cause either. When Benik Afobe, Zak Ansah, Jon Toral and Nico Yennaris return for the U21s, for example, the U18s will in turn be able to call upon stronger players on a more regular basis, whilst Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Alfred Mugabo and Tarum Dawkins are also approaching full fitness.
Arsenal’s resources at youth level have been considerably stretched already this season, which raises the question as to how they are going to contend with fighting on five fronts during the campaign. As well as the U21 and U18 leagues, the Gunners will also enter teams in the UEFA Youth League, FA Youth Cup and the new U21 Premier League Cup.