In most cases you would save the best until last, but the final instalment of this season’s Arsenal Youth review, which focuses on the U18s, won’t make for happy reading.
For the past few seasons Arsenal have struggled for results at this level, often as a consequence of deploying extremely young and inexperienced sides, but this year some of the performances were woefully abject, to the extent that the young Gunners ended up finishing bottom of the Third Tier, meaning that they had the worst league placing out of all the sides in the U18 Premier League.
The FA Youth Cup campaign wasn’t much better, either, with Frans De Kat’s team avoiding a shock exit at the hands of non-league Royston Town only to crash out at home to Crewe Alexandra in the Fifth Round.
Firstly, it is worth looking at the positives, however scarce they may be in nature. Going into the season, the vast majority of the 2013 scholars (with the exception of Renny Smith and Elliot Wright) were already a major part of the U21 squad. This meant that the likes of Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Stefan O’Connor, Julio Pleguezuelo (when fit) and Tafari Moore primarily featured for the second-string rather than for the U18s.
In addition, many of the first-years progressed into the U21 team as the campaign wore on, with Stephy Mavididi, George Dobson, Kaylen Hinds, Marc Bola and Tyrell Robinson all making the step up. This meant that, particularly in the second half of the season, Arsenal’s U18 squad was composed of a smattering of first-year scholars and several promising schoolboys, some of whom were U15 players.
All that said, the season started so well for the players and De Kat, who was brought in by the new Academy Manager Andries Jonker. A 4-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion was encouraging, but the fact that it was followed by a 5-1 thrashing of Chelsea’s esteemed academy suggested that the U18s may have finally turned a corner in terms of results.
The good feeling didn’t last very long, however, as, after a victory over Norwich City in September, De Kat’s team failed to chalk up another league success until February, when they dispatched of Leicester City.
Not every aspect of their play made for grim reading. Mavididi started the season in imperious form and ended up scoring 15 goals in 16 league games, whilst Chris Willock, Hinds and Robinson also impressed in the early months of the season.
The hugely disappointing results meant that the youngsters ended the campaign in Play-off Tier Three, where they picked up just four points from seven fixtures, which is a rather paltry return considering that they were facing other sides who had struggled throughout the season.
That sequence included a 6-0 defeat away to Newcastle United and the now infamous 5-1 loss at Fulham on the last day of the season, which confirmed Arsenal’s place at the bottom of the table.
The main problem was that many of the first-years who were left in the U18s failed to perform on a consistent basis. Jonatas Centeno was allowed to leave as he failed to make much of an impression, whilst midfielders Harry Donovan and Savvas Mourgos showed some glimpses of their talent but couldn’t replicate it on a weekly basis. Left-back Ilias Chatzitheodoridis, another Greek recruit, also struggled and centre-back Kristopher Da Graca looked out of his depth at times.
The hope for next season will be that the new scholars, having already gained considerable experience of U18 football, will be able to hit the ground running, but again it is difficult to envisage Arsenal’s U18 side suddenly returning to the days when they used to swat aside the opposition on the way to challenge for the league title.
Development, of course, takes precedence over results at youth level, but the most concerning aspect of this season was that many players, particularly those brought in from elsewhere, didn’t appear to be up to standard and those that did progress were quickly promoted to the U21s, leaving the U18s in an even more dire situation.
It is hoped that any players brought in from abroad this summer will be of a higher quality than some of the youngsters who have arrived at the club in recent seasons. In terms of homegrown talent, the likes of Marcus Tabi, Josh Da Silva and Edward Nketiah should be frequently involved with the U18s from the offset, whilst England youth international Reiss Nelson will also be a major player for De Kat’s side in 2015/16.