Pre-season is always a time for youngsters to impress, but for Arsenal’s young centre-backs this Summer is a particularly important one, with a place in the first-team squad for new campaign likely to be available for the outstanding candidate.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are well established as the club’s first-choice central-defensive partnership, whilst Thomas Vermaelen’s future is still the subject of considerable debate. Arsene Wenger indicated yesterday that he would buy a replacement should Vermaelen depart, but, in any case, there is still likely to be a chance for a youngster to be elevated to the position of fourth choice centre-back.
With Mertesacker, Koscielny and Vermaelen all granted extended time off following their World Cup exertions, four youngsters filled the centre-back positions for yesterday’s friendly against Boreham Wood- Semi Ajayi, Isaac Hayden, Julio Pleguezuelo and Ignasi Miquel. It wouldn’t be wise to draw too many conclusions based on this fixture given that they only played 45 minutes each and weren’t posed too many problems by the opposing attack, but Hayden was certainly impressive as he frequently cut out the danger when called upon.
There is an argument that Hayden is more comfortable as a defensive-midfielder, where he can use his much-improved passing ability to greater effect, but his versatility may prove to be an added string to his bow when Wenger considers promoting the youngster into his squad. The 19 year old can occasionally be a little rash in the challenge, but he is hugely impressive in most other aspects of his game.
Ajayi, in contrast, looks as if he still has some developing to do before he can be called upon at the top level. The Nigerian youth international is physically imposing but appears vulnerable when faced with skilful attackers and his positioning also requires some work.
Miquel is the most experienced of the quartet, having already featured for the Arsenal first-team in all four major competitions as well as spending last season on loan at Leicester City. The Spaniard is yet to be informed about his long-term future at the club, though, and will be aware that this Summer may well be his last chance to make the breakthrough.
Pleguezuelo, meanwhile, at just 17, has much time on his side and, although he may not possess the same physicality as Ajayi and Miquel, is very good on the ball and is excellent at reading the game.
Choosing between Hayden, Miquel and Pleguezuelo for a place in the squad would certainly not be an easy task, but Hayden’s ability to also play in midfield if required could well be the tipping point.