It has been a near-perfect pre-season for Arsenal U21s so far. Many members of the second-string squad have been heavily involved with the first-team’s preparations for the new campaign, whilst the second-string themselves have recorded comfortable victories over Bournemouth and Harrow Borough.
The intensity levels will step up a gear tonight, though, with Steve Gatting’s side travelling to the familiar surroundings of Meadow Park to take on Boreham Wood. This time last Summer the young Gunners were enduring a comparatively torturous pre-season, suffering a 3-0 defeat to tonight’s opponents before later being annihilated by Luton Town.
Such is the quickness of change at this level, however, none of the defenders who started for Arsenal in this traditional fixture last year (Leander Siemann, Zach Fagan, Tom Dallison and Arinse Uade) are still at the club. A victory here would keep things ticking along nicely ahead of the new season, with further warm-ups to follow against Forest Green Rovers and Colchester United in the next couple of weeks.
Yesterday the fixtures for the new U21 Premier League season were released, with Arsenal playing in Division 2 as a consequence of their disappointing results last season. Their list of opponents- Reading, Derby County, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bolton Wanderers and Wolverhampton Wanderers- is not as illustrious as in previous campaigns, but they will have the opportunity to play at some high-profile stadia, including Emirates Stadium, St James’ Park, Villa Park and The Riverside, amongst others.
The composition of the U21 squad for the new season is still to be completely determined. Damian Martinez, Isaac Hayden, Ignasi Miquel, Matt Macey, Hector Bellerin and Chuba Akpom are all still with the first-team, whilst Benik Afobe could depart either permanently or on loan before the closure of the transfer window.
Kristoffer Olsson and Jon Toral, who were left out of the first-team’s trip to Austria, should be back with the U21 squad tonight, but the most notable inclusion is that of Chris Willock, with the 16 year old returning to the scene where he made his first-team debut just 13 days ago.
Since then, it has become clear that Willock is likely to follow in the footsteps of Akpom by being promoted to the U21 team during the first year of his scholarship. The youngster will have to learn to deal with some of the more robust challenges from less skilful opponents, but in most other aspects of his game he is already well-suited to second-string football.
Deyan Iliev, who was linked with a move to Mechelen earlier this Summer, returns in goal, whilst Julio Pleguezuelo is missing through injury and is likely to be replaced by Stefan O’Connor.
Possible Arsenal team
subs: Vickers, Smith, Wright, Kamara, Jebb, Lipman, Iwobi.