Arsenal U21s analysis- No case for the defence as youngsters suffer disappointing defeat Stefan O'Connor has represented the Arsenal first-team but struggled yesterday.
Stefan O’Connor has represented the Arsenal first-team but struggled yesterday.

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.



  1. Didn’t see the U21 game, but as a Albion fan, most of our team was made up from our U18 side, so it’s hard to believe we had a ‘physical approach’. Having watched them a few times this season, they hardly look physical, having played some great football.

  2. Re: Jeorge Bird …”the centre-back struggled to deal with West Brom’s strike partnership”… So Stefan O’Connor’s got to deal with two strikers does he? Why are you pointing the finger at him. From what I’ve seen he is the quality player and hale end product who has had to cover and clean up the best he can for the rest of the mediocrity, and he has done that without Tafari Moore another quality defender and hale end product.

    1. It wasn’t just him, the whole defence played badly as I said in the article. He’s got some talent but has also made quite a lot of misjudgements, although of course players aren’t always going to be perfect at this level.

      On Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 10:15 PM, Jeorge Bird's Arsenal Youth wrote:


      1. I was at the game and none of the goals were o’connor fault 1st goal corner scored not o’connor man second goal 4 West Bromwich players against 2 , third goal a was a bad day at the office for the team not just the defence. As I have said before Chelsea in the youth cup had 11 defenders not 4 we need to look at whole game and not just defences. also arsene knowledge when it comes to young player’s is second to none look at the league table. O’connor has played with 5 different centreback this season has played over 30 games he must be doing something right That you never mention jeorge bird. How can we win games when we don’t score goals yet you praise these player’s each week.

  3. reports that maitland-niles mum assaulted a couple of members of staff, including dick law at a recent U21 game and has been banned from future games or coming to london colney. I hope this does not hinder the lads progress at the club

  4. I agree the attackers needed to do more in this game as well, but the defence at U21 level has been a major concern recently- nine goals conceded in the last three games shows that. The focus isn’t purely on O’Connor, it is on all of the back four who played in that game as I mentioned in the article. O’Connor didn’t make any mistakes that led directly to goals being conceded, but he was still beaten too easily on some occasions. I want young players to succeed at Arsenal as much as possible.

    1. Games are won in midfield not at the back or upfront which goes back to my point about 11 defender. Until you stop blaming certain individual for errors that stem from someone in an more advanced position getting it also appears you have your favourites and then can do no wrong, you need look at the whole picture starting from the managers down and stop blaming individual.

      1. I’m not blaming individuals, I was blaming the defence as a whole, but I accept your point about the whole team having to defend. In the article I was also critical of Zelalem and Crowley’s performances in that match.

        On Thu, Apr 30, 2015 at 9:34 AM, Jeorge Bird's Arsenal Youth wrote:


    1. I must say , bro has made some good points . Jeorge it seems you have lost your sense of balance..Lately all you have done is blame the defence forgetting that the Arsenal way is to defend as a team and attack as a team.
      I’ve been at recent games that we’ve lost because of some really basic goal keeping errors ,and some players overplaying and losing possession cheaply in key areas putting pressure on the DM’s and defenders,

      Jeorge , your reports have to get back to reflecting what we are seeing. If you continue to
      have the approach that some players can do no wrong, and some players can only do wrong
      your blog will lose all credibility and it will look like you’ve got an agenda..

      c’mon jeorge , sort it out

  5. I doubt you were at the game. Your blogs are always very similar to those on the clubs official site and you seem to wait for the Player highlights to get some views on the games.

    You criticise Dobson in part of your report, but he was probably Arsenal’s only positive. However, O’Connor did have a poor game, he can be too casual at times, but is a footballing centre half and will improve.

    The 21’s look like they’re already on holiday in my opinion.

  6. Jeorge – keep up the good work. I enjoy your stuff, even though many on here seem to want to criticise you for having an opinion.

    Need we forget that football and what we write about football is an opinion. This is Jeorge’s opinion and has been doing this for 9+ years now. If you don’t agree that is fine, but you don’t have to read it. Why not ask Jeorge constructive questions rather than “you are wrong in your opinion”

    As for the defence, Jeorge does say “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.” This would indicate to me that the defence were poor as a group but got little protection in front.
    Similar to the first team last season and the early part of this season, where they were not getting the protection they deserve and then making silly mistakes. Seems like the defending is not a priority for anyone in the club. Maybe this is an area that needs to be looked at.

  7. The goalie seemed to make a massive error for the first goal, a weak enough shot went in at his near post, macey looked to be totally wrong footed as if he had anticipated that it was going to be crossed. the third goal was a penalty given away by a clumsy challenge by Bielik,

    also our attack was awful, Gatting said we had one shot worthy of the name. Surely we should be expecting Iwobi-Crowley-Zelalem to impact the game more,
    the game earlier in the week many blamed the defense for the defeat too, but most of the goals were long range efforts. It too easy to say we let in 3 or 4 so it must be the defense at fault.
    From what I’ve seen of the youth teams this season, a disappointing aspect has been the lack of effort and work rate from the midfield and attack to close down and track back, even more galling has been seeing some defenders, once an opponent gets by them, just give up and jog back after them. they seem to lack that real desire to defend.

    We really have missed T Moore, he was looking like an outstanding defender.

    What must be remembered is that as nice as getting results are at youth level, the only thing that really matters is that some of the lads actually progress to the first team, if any of them become first team stars will any of us care that they did not come close to winning anything at youth level. I would also like to point out that many times we play young lads (especially midfielders) out of position on the instruction of Arsene Wenger, who wants players to get a better understanding of the game and to become more rounded players, Zelelam and Matiland-Niles are two prime examples of this. AW also likes our strikers/forwards to be adaptable too and so they too get moved around attacking positions.

    One of the youth teams that produced a lot of top quality players for Arsenal’s first team was the 1983-84 team and if I’m not mistaken it won nothing at youth level. Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle, Martin Hayes, Niall Quinn and Gus Caesar were in that squad. As I said earlier, none of us will care about how bad this seasons youth team have done if some of them go on to win us the BPL etc in the future

  8. From what I’ve seen, O’Connor is nowhere near the quality expected from an Arsenal player, even an U21 team. Zelalem got a high praise from Wenger but hasn’t dominated any of the games since. Yes, he has a nice final ball, but his overall game, and his phisycal attributes don’t offer hope that he’ll ever be good enough for Arsenal. Mind you, the PL is extremely more physical and quicker. Crowley starred in a league winning Aston Villa side before he came to Arsenal. He now looks like he gets too much freedom. That could be due to the fact that he’s clearly the biggest talent of the bunch, and doesnt get bored to be at his 100% form week in week out. Pleguezelo doesn’t seem to play that well at right back, like he did at centre back where his height might be a problem. Da Graca is poor for the U18, just like Chatzitheodoridis and Mourgos, so I think I would agree with Jeorge and say the defensive players at our Academy are below the required standard. That said, I wouldn’t say I’m completely spot on and all my hopes go to them proving me wrong, but for the moment, progress is lacking.

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