As was the case in the inaugural version of the competition the previous season, Arsenal saw their UEFA Youth League campaign come to an abrupt end in Spain. However, this year it was Atletico Madrid who inflicted the damage as opposed to Barcelona and Arsenal’s exit came at the Last 16 stage rather than the Quarter Finals.
In the end it was a rather disappointing exit for Arsenal, who conceded a goal in the first minute against Atletico and were subsequently unable to recover. However, some of the performances and results that preceded that defeat were hugely impressive and provided some hope for the future.
This season’s Youth League team was a rather exciting one, particularly in an attacking sense, as it contained the likes of Alex Iwobi (the oldest player in the squad), Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem, Chris Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kaylen Hinds and Stephy Mavididi.
Hopes of a successful run in the competition were boosted by an excellent start to the group stages, with Frans De Kat’s side emerging victorious away to Borussia Dortmund courtesy of a brace from Hinds.
Hinds was on the scoresheet again in the next fixture, a 5-1 demolition of Galatasaray that was memorable particularly for a stunning goal by Zelalem, his first for the club. Crowley also impressed in that game, with Willock and Iwobi joining him on the scoresheet.
Then, suddenly, things began to take a turn for the worse. Despite a superb hat-trick from Crowley, Arsenal lost 4-3 away to Anderlecht in their next group game, with De Kat’s side guilty of some desperate defending. They weren’t helped, either, by the absence of goalkeeper Ryan Huddart, who was with the first-team, meaning that inexperienced schoolboy Brad House had to play.
Anderlecht proceeded to beat Arsenal again in the reverse fixture at Meadow Park, with the Belgian side prevailing with a 2-1 victory despite Crowley’s goal.
A strike from Mavididi, though, put Arsenal back on track with a 1-0 victory over Dortmund in their next game before an inexperienced side containing several first-years rounded off the group stages with a win away to Galatasaray.
Then came that aberration in Spain, but the fact that the first-team have again qualified for the Champions League means that the young Gunners will have another chance to test themselves against Europe’s elite next season.
What’s more, the majority of this season’s squad will still be eligible to feature in the competition, with the notable exception of Iwobi. The prospect of more difficult opponents for the first-team (owing to changes in the structure of the group stage draw) could see the youngsters face a stronger side at an earlier stage.
Krystian Bielik will be eligible to feature in this competition next season, whilst the new scholars will also seek to be involved in some capacity. Arsenal will be looking to progress further, though, than they have done in each of the last two campaigns.
Regardless of results, the UEFA Youth League can be seen to have had a positive impact on the development of the players involved as testing themselves against opponents with different styles of play will surely be beneficial for their future progress. The process of travelling abroad and staying in hotels prior to matches also prepares the youngsters for first-team life.
The hope is that next season Arsenal’s U19s will be able to use their experience gained in this season’s tournament and progress onto bigger and better things.