Andries Jonker was already aware that he would be faced with some considerable challenges upon assuming the position of the club’s new Head of Youth Development this Summer, but a concerning sequence of results for the U21 team this season has increased the pressure on the Dutchman.
A run of just two victories in 12 matches since Christmas has condemned the Arsenal U21s to the second-tier of the U21 Premier League next season, meaning that they will miss out on facing elite clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Instead, their likely list of opponents for 2014/15 is rather less glamorous, with Bolton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion, Reading, Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers all, as it stands, poised to join the young Gunners in the second division.
There is an argument that being placed in the second tier could actually be beneficial to the youngsters as it may finally lead to results improving a little, but, when you are not facing the best teams on a regular basis, it is hardly ideal for development. That is a problem that will have to be dealt with, and it is hoped that Arsenal will be restored to the top division as soon as possible.
Development always takes precedence over results at youth level, but this season in particular, serious questions have been raised about whether the alarming run of results at both U21 and U18 levels are having a negative effect on the players. The U18s, for example, have lost 13 of their 29 games this season.
Arsenal did enjoy lengthy, if ultimately unsuccessful runs in the FA Youth Cup, the UEFA Youth League and the U21 Premier League Cup this season, but the number of positive performances this campaign have been far outweighed by the negative ones. There are numerous mitigating factors, including players sent out on loan, a lack of options at times following the mass cull last Summer and, most worryingly, problems regarding coaching.
It seemed somewhat astounding that Jonker elected to retain the services of both Steve Gatting and Carl Laraman for next season when both coaches have not exactly given the best account of themselves this campaign.
The core problem, however, is that Arsenal haven’t produced a homegrown academy graduate since Jack Wilshere, with many players struggling to even reach the fringes of the first-team. Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem, the talented young Germans, are part of the senior squad, but Arsenal are not producing top level players with any sort of regularity at present.
It is true that only one or two players maximum will make the grade from each age group, but drastic changes are required. The quality of players emerging from Hale End is steadily improving, with the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Tafari Moore and Alex Iwobi all inspiring confidence, but the overall situation regarding the academy remains rather negative.
It is Jonker’s responsibility to address these problems. It certainly won’t be a simple task.