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.