In the aftermath of Arsenal U18s’ confidence-sapping 6-0 defeat to Newcastle United at the weekend several questions were asked about the club’s youth department, the most pertinent of which was how could such a scoreline be allowed to happen?
From the moment that Arsenal submitted a team sheet that contained Aaron Eyoma (who has impressed as a winger this season) at right-back, the inexperienced Toby Omole at centre-back and a defensive-midfield partnership of two attack minded players in Marcus Tabi and Joshua Da Silva, the Gunners’ prospects of taking something from this game looked rather bleak.
After the game coach Frans De Kat didn’t appear too disheartened with the outcome as he stressed that several players had been left out ahead of the two U21 fixtures this week. He also said that the players that were involved will learn much from this encounter, but that is a phrase we have heard before and, in many cases, it has proven to be a hollow one.
Before proceeding to dissect some catastrophic defending, it is worth pointing out that there were at least some positives to take from a dismal encounter.
Winger Reiss Nelson, one of several schoolboys to make his first start at this level, provided some flashes of brilliance, whilst, on the opposite flank, Joe Willock came close to scoring on a rare appearance for the U18s.
There were debuts, too, for U15 players Rob Howard and Emile Smith-Rowe, with the latter showing some good touches late on, but, from a defensive point of view, this was a very disappointing game indeed.
Newcastle took the lead through Jamie Holmes after Eyoma, who is evidently not a right-back, was unable to cut out a cross. Eyoma has played in that position previously, but, with Tafari Moore and Chiori Johnson out injured and Jonatas Centeno having recently left the club, Arsenal are currently without a natural player on the right side of defence.
For a little while it seemed that Arsenal, despite fielding a very young team, would be able to compete with Newcastle, and they came perilously close to scoring on two occasions.
Firstly Nelson cleverly exchanged passes with Edward Nketiah before shooting into the side-netting upon receiving the ball back.
Willock then struck the post as Arsenal enjoyed a rare spell of possession, but normal service was soon resumed as Newcastle proceeded to double their advantage.
Luke Charman was the scorer after the Arsenal defence failed to deal with two crosses in quick succession. The midfield, unsurprisingly given that Tabi and Da Silva aren’t players with natural defensive instincts, was completely overran and that proved to be the case again for the third goal as Newcastle scored a third just moments after Arsenal restarted the game from kick-off.
This goal, however, stemmed from Arsenal’s own ineptitude, with Kristopher Da Graca struggling to control Omole’s overhit pass. Holmes punished him by seizing possession and finishing confidently to make it 3-0.
There was more misery to come for the young Gunners before the interval, with Holmes completing his hat-trick after his effort struck the crossbar and, after much delay, was eventually deemed to have crossed the line. Again Arsenal were at fault defensively, with full-backs Eyoma and Ilias Chatzitheodoridis woefully out of position.
Matters didn’t get any better after the break. Omole was enduring a miserable day, with the youngster almost scoring an own goal after conceding a free-kick in a dangerous area. Ryan Huddart made a good initial save, but he couldn’t prevent the rebound from falling to Jamie Cobain, who made it 5-0.
At the other end Nelson struck the crossbar from a free-kick, but it wasn’t long before Arsenal’s misery was compounded when Kyle Cameron got a decisive touch from a set-piece to put Newcastle six goals to the good.
Seven of the players who started the game for Arsenal were schoolboys, whilst Da Graca and Chatzitheodoridis’ defensive problems were hardly a secret going into the match.
This isn’t the first occasion that the U18s have suffered a mauling in recent times and it appears that it won’t be the last. The lack of quality defenders coming through the club’s Hale End system is a real concern, although some solace can be taken from the fact that the likes of Nelson, Willock, Charlie Gilmour, Tabi and Da Silva (when played in their correct positions) are good prospects for the future.
In recent years, however, there have been far too many inept defenders deployed by Arsenal at youth level. The likes of Zach Fagan and Arinse Uade clearly weren’t up to standard and are now playing non-league football, whilst Omole, on this evidence, looks like he has much work to do if he is to stand any chance of making the grade at the club.
With players such as Stefan O’Connor, Julio Pleguezuelo, Krystian Bielik, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem, Stephy Mavididi and George Dobson having all pushed into the U21s, the U18 side was always going to struggle in the second half of the season, whilst on Saturday the likes of Marc Bola, Tyrell Robinson, Harry Donovan, Ben Sheaf, Savvas Mourgos and Chris Willock were all left out, presumably preserved for the U21s, with Moore, Johnson and Kaylen Hinds were all out injured.
There are two U18 games remaining this season, at home to Southampton and away to Fulham, but it would take quite a turnaround now for Arsenal to avoid finishing bottom of the third tier- the lowest academy league section. Five years ago, spearheaded by Benik Afobe, the U18s won the Academy League title for the second season in succession.
Many changes have taken place since then, most notably the arrival of Andries Jonker as the club’s Academy Manager, but, whilst some intriguing attacking talents are being produced, the same can’t be said of defenders (with the exception of Isaac Hayden).
Playing and losing nearly every week is hardly beneficial for the development of the youngsters involved and their best hope can be to progress to the U21s as quickly as possible and leave the U18s behind. Many of those involved against Newcastle (the likes of Nelson, Joe Willock and Gilmour) will be key players for the U18s next season, but suffering results such as this one is hardly going to do much good for their confidence.