Defending has often been a major problem for Arsenal at youth level in recent years, but yesterday, as the young Gunners suffered a defeat to their West Bromwich Albion counterparts that condemned them to another season in the second tier of second string football, some of the errors made were scarcely believable.
Right from the very start the young Gunners were rattled by a West Brom side that seemed to be considerably more determined to win the game. Arsenal included some promising talents in their starting line-up, such as Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem and Krystian Bielik.
The latter didn’t disgrace himself with his overall performance, although he did concede a penalty in the second-half from which West Brom made it 3-0 to secure their emphatic victory. Crowley and Zelalem, though, weren’t able to have a major influence on the game, with coach Steve Gatting afterwards remarking that his side struggled to cope with the elements (it was a particularly windy day at West Brom’s training ground) as well as the opposition’s physical approach.
That, however, is no excuse for the overall inept nature of Arsenal’s display and, although Bielik and Glen Kamara failed to offer much protection to the back four, it is the defence themselves who should receive the majority of the criticism for yesterday’s performance.
Stefan O’Connor has played for the first-team in the Champions League and his playing style is admired by Arsene Wenger, but yesterday the centre-back struggled to deal with West Brom’s strike partnership of Adil Nabi and on-trial Newcastle United striker Adam Campbell.
O’Connor’s central-defensive partner George Dobson would perhaps be better utilised in midfield, whilst Julio Pleguezuelo has been used at right-back since recovering from injury, a position that clearly doesn’t suit him nearly as much as the centre of defence.
Add to that Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, whose positioning, or lack thereof, is still a major source of concern, and you can begin to gather an understanding as to just why the young Gunners were so ruthlessly picked apart yesterday afternoon.
There are still three games remaining at U21 level this season, starting with a home game against Brighton & Hove Albion next week, but, with promotion now out of the question and further first-team involvement highly unlikely for any of these players this season, they probably won’t be intense affairs.
It should be said that Arsenal’s starting line-up yesterday contained seven players who are still eligible for U18 football, whilst all of the outfield substitutes also fell into that category. It has long been Arsenal’s policy to play players above their age groups, but that has backfired in terms of results at youth level in recent years.
Winning doesn’t always breed success. None of the players who helped the club to win the Academy League title five years ago are still at Arsenal, whilst only Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere remain from the side that won the FA Youth Cup and league double a year previously.
From this crop there are high hopes for Zelalem, Crowley, Pleguezuelo and Bielik in particular. The worrying thing is, though, that all of those players were brought in from elsewhere prior to signing deals with Arsenal. The likes of Chris Willock, Kaylen Hinds (who has been unlucky with injuries lately), Tyrell Robinson and Reiss Nelson provide hope that another Hale End graduate will be able to follow Wilshere’s path into the first-team, but these are all primarily attack-minded talents, with a severe lack of quality defenders being produced.
The Arsenal youth system can be said to be in yet another transitional phase, but, almost a year on since Andries Jonker started work as the club’s new Academy manager, many of the problems that existed from the previous regime show little sign of relenting any time soon.