Although some of Arsenal’s youngsters are still representing the club at youth tournaments abroad, the domestic season came to an end last week, providing us with an opportunity to reflect on another hugely eventful campaign at youth level.
This season review will be in three parts, with the first instalment focusing on Arsenal’s U21 side.
A disappointing set of results in the previous campaign saw Arsenal demoted to the newly constructed second division of U21 football.
Hopes were initially high that Steve Gatting’s side would be able to immediately gain promotion at the first attempt, but that ultimately didn’t transpire as the young Gunners struggled for consistency despite enjoying some impressive victories.
There were notable wins at home to West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers as well as some commendable victories away to Aston Villa, Brighton & Hove Albion and Bolton Wanderers. Arsenal missed out on promotion by four points, however, as they were made to pay for a fallow period between January and March.
There were still some positives to take from the campaign, though. 13 members of the first-team squad (an unusually high amount) represented the U21s at some point this season, including Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and club captain Mikel Arteta. Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin also featured for the second-string early in the campaign before ending the season as regular starters for the first-team.
In terms of the core U21 group, several players also earned first-team call-ups. Chuba Akpom featured in the Premier League before later going out on loan, whilst Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Gedion Zelalem, Stefan O’Connor, Alex Iwobi, Glen Kamara, Matt Macey and Semi Ajayi all found themselves in and around the senior squad at various points of the season.
O’Connor established himself as a mainstay in the U21s, featuring in all but one of their fixtures, whilst Dan Crowley was also heavily involved, with the England youth international turning in some excellent displays.
The second half of the season, as is usually the case, saw some younger players bedded into the U21 set-up, with George Dobson and Stephy Mavididi both making several starts, whilst Tyrell Robinson and Marc Bola also featured.
A total of 43 players were called up to the U21 squad for their 22 fixtures, perhaps going some way to explain why Arsenal found it difficult to string together a consistent set of results.
With regards to the standout performer, there are several candidates. Crowley, as alluded to, showed some tantalising glimpses of his ability, whilst Akpom hit nine goals, including an impressive hat-trick away to Brighton. In terms of progression, though, the accolade should be bestowed upon Iwobi, a player who started the season as a fringe member of the U21 squad but who ended it as the side’s top scorer with ten goals after adapting seamlessly to playing as a central striker.
Iwobi, whose personal highlight was a hat-trick at Emirates Stadium against Stoke, has improved significantly over the past nine months. He was already a promising player going into the campaign but, at the start of the season, he had yet to score for the U21s. For him to reach double figures is superb, especially given that his first goal didn’t come until late October.
Next season Iwobi, along with the likes of Kamara and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, is set to head out on loan as the development cycle continues. Players such as Dobson, Mavididi, Bola, Johnson, Kaylen Hinds and Chris Willock should establish themselves as important members of the U21 team next campaign.Poll Maker