A 5-1 defeat, at any level of football, is not a result that can be brushed aside with much ease, but the Arsenal youngsters who featured in last night’s heavy loss to Sunderland at U21 level will be forced to do just that, with several games at various levels coming thick and fast before the New Year.
On Friday Torquay United visit Meadow Park in the FA Youth Cup, whilst next week the U19s will be seeking to secure qualification to the next phase of the UEFA Youth League when they travel to face Napoli.
There are still some aspects of last night’s performance, however, that are worth reflecting on, particularly the inability of Arsenal’s ball-playing midfielders, namely Kristoffer Olsson, Jon Toral, Gedion Zelalem and Thomas Eisfeld, to make a significant impression on the game. They found their passing moves regularly stopped by Sunderland’s resolute defence, with Chuba Akpom receiving very little in the way of service up front, whilst Isaac Hayden was not at his most resolute in defensive-midfield, meaning the opposition were free to wreak havoc upon Arsenal’s vulnerable defence.
The lack of a natural wide player in the side, until Ainsley Maitland-Niles was introduced midway through the second-half, seemed to be part of the problem for Arsenal, who had fielded at least one nominal winger from the offset in each of their previous fixtures at this level this season.
Nonetheless, the relative experience of Benik Afobe, Nico Yennaris and Hector Bellerin was missed last night, although the presence of Dan Crowley amongst the substitutes indicates that the latter is on track in his development having impressed since joining from Aston Villa in the summer.
Crowley, as he demonstrated in pre-season, is already well equipped to play at U21 level in terms of his technique and tactical awareness, but he may be held back from regular involvement at that level until he is more capable of coping in a physical sense, with Zelalem, another slight midfielder, being frequently pushed off the ball last night.
The situation regarding Zelalem remains somewhat strange. His ability to play defence-splitting through-balls is unquestioned, as he demonstrated for the first-team during pre-season, but too often at U21 level he has failed to make a sustained impact on the game and, despite being part of the senior squad, has been withdrawn early in each of the past two fixtures. Perhaps some outings at U18 level would be beneficial in terms of enabling him to build up his confidence. The 16 year old is an immense talent and would perhaps benefit from having natural wingers supporting him on the flanks, but he must be given time to develop.