Positives and negatives to take from Barcelona defeat

David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

Now that the dust has settled on a memorable encounter at the Mini Estadi, reflections can begin to be made on Arsenal’s inaugural UEFA Youth League campaign.

Like last year’s Semi-Final defeat to Chelsea in the NextGen Series, Arsenal were eliminated by high calibre opposition following a high-scoring fixture. Even after going down to ten men against Barcelona yesterday following the dismissal of goalkeeper Deyan Iliev, the young Gunners still possessed the character to equalise through Chuba Akpom before being undone by two late goals in quick succession from Barcelona.

The majority of Arsenal’s attacking players- Akpom, Serge Gnabry and Jon Toral in particular- battled well and demonstrated glimpses of their ability despite not being provided with much time or space to do so by the opposition. It was in defence that Arsenal’s main problems existed, with Stefan O’Connor still decidedly rusty following his return from injury and left-back Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill continuing the disappointing run of form that also saw him bamboozled on several occasions by Everton in the FA Youth Cup recently.

Julio Pleguezuelo, back in Barcelona, was assured on the ball, but was a little naive in terms of his positional sense, which added to the feeling of vulnerability in Arsenal’s defence. Goalkeeper Deyan Iliev possesses good reflexes, but still seems somewhat rash in his decision making, and it seemed rather harsh on Josh Vickers, who has done so well on loan at Canvey Island this season, that Iliev started every singe game in Arsenal’s run in this competition, with the Macedonian keeping just one clean sheet in the process.

Kristoffer Olsson, despite his penalty miss, used the ball wisely when he received it but was not a dominant figure. The lack of a defensive-midfielder, in the absence of both Isaac Hayden and Glen Kamara, was painfully evident, and it made Kamara’s rather unnecessary challenge against Shakhtar seem all the more ridiculous.

In the absence of those two, the decision to deploy Gedion Zelalem as the deepest-lying midfielder was, in hindsight, not the wisest choice. The 17 year old is renowned for his technical ability and vision, rather than his qualities in a defensive sense. Zelalem, as so often at youth level this season, struggled to make a major impact on the game, despite assumptions that he would be at home in a match in which so much free-flowing football was played.

It is not time to panic yet. Zelalem is still in his first full season at the club and has already made his senior debut, but, of the 17 appearances he has made below first-team level this season, only a select few have been memorable for the right reasons. Since the turn of the year Zelalem has been deployed in a deeper position to the one he operated in previously, and he does not appear to be at home there. Perhaps a move back into the number 10 position will aid his development.

Another first-year, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, gave a good impression of himself early on before fading. The winger has made tremendous strides this season, training with the first-team on at least two occasions, and not appearing fazed when coming up against illustrious opponents.

They may have exited two cup competitions in just four days, with yesterday’s defeat following the U21 Premier League Cup loss to Reading, but there is still much to play for this season for Arsenal’s youngsters. The U21s travel to White Hart Lane a week on Friday, whilst the U18s are still in with a chance of silverware in the FA Youth Cup.

All is not lost, even if it may feel like it for the youngsters at the moment.



  1. definitely more positives in this campaign than negatives. Although I liked Jenade and was surprised he went I do think BOO can be a better player and am not worried about his current form. Along with Taf, the full backs have made tremendous strides this year.
    The Barca performance was infinitely better than the Reading exit and at this level although success is a habit you want the youngsters to learn the development of the players and not the team is priority

  2. Good work as normal ,Jeorge. (And apologies for the length of the following post. Word of honor it’s the last time I’ll get carried away this season.)

    Gutted by the result, hurt as much as many a first team defeat but, despite the obvious errors and causes for regret in the game, there are tons of positives to take and lots of reasons to be cheerful.

    Firstly, there is every reason to be proud of the team for playing their part in a fantastic game of football. It was not completely free of the cynicism and cheating which blights football- the Barca left-back for instance was prone to histrionics in a clear attempt to get opponents in trouble, and the signs are that all that is taught to the players over there as part of the game- but boy was it an improvement of what you will see almost any time you watch football now.

    Also, in two spells we were distinctly on top, and in the game overall we were at most only a smidgeon behind in terms of skill levels. Considering it was Barca and considering just how talented their players showed themselves to be when we were not on top, that’s extremely encouraging.

    Even the joint worst news of the game, our dm weakness, has a flipside- our two specialists there were not playing! If they were and we still had those problems, that would be most downheartening, especially for anyone like me hoping one of those two players can actually make it to the first team and help solve our longstanding problems in that position.

    I don’t like singling anyone out for criticism but it is fair to say that the left back looks like he needs lots of work defensively; though, in fairness, he has excellent quality when in possession. The other stand-out for the wrong reasons, Zelalem, looked to me like he might be on course for a superb game in those first twenty minutes, but seems to need to find a way to adapt and refind his game should things start to go badly in a match, something I believe Olsson demonstrated he can do yesterday.

    He was one of the two biggest positives for me , him and Akpom looked to be of a similar quality to Gnabry and ,considering the fact we know Gnabry can cut it at a high level of proffesional football, that says it all. And this despite Olsson missing a pen, being at fault for the crucial third, and being uncomfortable at times in his role. As for nearly all the others there were enough glimpses of quality to suggest they,too, might one day make it.

    Finally, the chief regret- what a shame that the team didn’t seem to grasp that the thing to do after effectively coming back from the dead was to concentrate all their efforts on defence. It opens up a question mark about the coaching, but could easily be the result of inexperience and the lack of their natural defensive leader. Whatever it was, it was a shame. I’d be amazed if the club don’t spend a lot of time coaching our widemen on how to defend when in positions like Iwobi’s for the third- it’s an essential part of the game and an area we clearly need to improve on. To not be set in that position to react quickly to your opponent is truly a schoolboy error, and there’s no comfort in the fact our seniors are guilty of it too on occasion

    The talent is there, and at this point everyone should be looking forward to seeing if the new youth regime can make things even better. Make no mistake, this tournament is yet another reason why the senior teams qualification for champ league is important to the club.

  3. There is a problem with moving zelalem up the pitch: Crowley. We can only develop one in that position from the same age group, and they made their choice to play Crowley there, which was rewarded by some sublime performances. Looking at it in the long term, if we expect both to become first team players, it makes no sense to develop them in the same position. Crowley practically made himself unmovable from the 10 role with his performances in that position, so how do we get the best out of both of them? well, zelalem does seem to have the skillset to play in central midfield, we just need someone like kamara next to him to do the defensive work.

    1. Great point (I’d been lazily half-thinking ‘oh, Crowley’s good enough to play anywhere. We’ll fit him in’).

      What all that means, eventually, for Wilshere- who for me can only fulfill his true potential in a forward midfield role, and who has already been hurt a little in his career by being deployed further back- I don’t know. (Maddening that he’s out while Ozil is, denying him a good run further forward.)

      The amount of midfield talent within the club is incredible, what happens and who misses out once we nail down one quality dm (and for some games I’d like two!) will be interesting

  4. Fact is Zelalem performances have been poor but bcos of the hype no ones saying anything. On form it’s clear Crowley is the much better prospect and will be overlooked to allow Zelalem to progress. Fact

    1. “Fact”? Sorry. Didnt the 17 yr old Zelalem just get signed to a new three year contract, by the people who determine the facts here.

      The club would obviously be happy to see both progress – and they can. Comparison here and at this age would be as silly as declaring “Ramsey vs Wlshere” and seeking to pick a “winner” from among the two. Or at age 17 declaring that Iniesta was going to be great, so therefore Xavi surely must be “overlooked to allow Xavi to progress. Fact”.

      Would have expected better of Arsenal fans…

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