A lot can change very quickly in football. In pre-season, when a novice central-defensive partnership of recent signing Julio Pleguzuelo and hapless Algerian trialist Ramy Bensebaini were being torn apart by Luton Town, it seemed rather clear that Steve Gatting’s side were going to experience difficulties in the defensive department this season.
It hasn’t quite transpired like that, however, with Arsenal U21’s having conceded only two goals in their three league matches to date, keeping clean sheets in their two most recent fixtures against Blackburn Rovers and West Bromwich Albion.
Those two clean sheets have coincided with two stellar performances from Semi Ajayi, a 19 year old centre-back who spent much of his footballing education with Charlton Athletic. Yesterday it was announced that Ajayi has joined Arsenal on a permanent basis, with the youngster, who is eligible to play for England or Nigeria at international level, having been handed a two-year contract at the club.
His signing is especially welcome, not only because of the talent he has demonstrated during his two appearances so far, but because he will provide a viable option in a position where the second-string are considerably thin on the ground at the moment.
After Sead Hajrovic, Martin Angha and Elton Monteiro, the latter at his own discretion, left the club at the end of last season, Gatting was left with just Ignasi Miquel and Daniel Boateng as his established central-defensive options. Isaac Hayden is another alternative, but the England U19 international, who will be on the bench for the first-team in Marseille tonight, appears to be more suited to a defensive-midfield role.
With Miquel having joined Leicester City on loan for the campaign and Boateng, despite having impressed in the opening few games, having entered the last year of his contract, Ajayi, injuries permitting, is expected to be a regular for the U21’s this season, especially as he is over the age limit for the majority of the other youth competitions.
Quick across the ground, comfortable in possession and a good reader of the game, the former Dartford loanee certainly seems to have much potential, but, given that he turns 20 in November, he does not have too much time on his side as he attempts to make a breakthrough into the first-team squad.
There are some younger options to supplement Ajayi at centre-back in the U21’s. Zach Fagan, who was re-signed after initially being told he would be released, is currently injured, whilst first-year scholar Stefan O’Connor has already featured for Gatting’s side this season.
Pleguezuelo, meanwhile, is not yet permitted to play for the club at any level as his transfer from Barcelona is still to be approved by FIFA, whilst Tom Dallison’s prospects at the club beyond this season will have taken a blow, with the former West Ham United defender yet to be involved for the U21’s.
Ajayi, though, will hope to seize his opportunity as quickly as possible. With just three established options at centre-back in the first-team (although Bacary Sagna can also cover there), some positive performances for the U21’s could see him propelled into the senior set-up earlier than anticipated. It is up to him to take his chance.