When Arsenal completed the signing of promising youngster Ben Sheaf from West Ham United a year ago there were some raised eyebrows, with some observers puzzled as to why the Gunners needed to recruit yet another central-midfielder.
Now, however, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles out on loan at Ipswich Town and Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem currently with the first-team squad, a void has opened up for a midfielder in Arsenal’s U21 squad and Sheaf, 17, appears the prime candidate to fill it.
It is wise not to read too much into pre-season, but the preparation fixtures can sometimes provide us with some clues regarding how the team will line up for the forthcoming campaign. Sheaf, for instance, has been heavily involved in Arsenal’s two U21 friendlies so far, with the England youth international featuring in the matches against Bournemouth and Bristol Rovers.
An excellent free-kick taker, Sheaf spent much of last season playing for Arsenal’s U18 team, with the youngster often deployed alongside Harry Donovan in central-midfield. Sheaf’s performance levels fluctuated throughout the campaign, but there were some surefire signs that the club regard him highly as he signed his first professional contract, featured in the UEFA Youth League and FA Youth Cup and also made the bench for the U21s on several occasions.
Sheaf’s aim this season will, inevitably, be to establish himself as a regular for the second-string. It seems unlikely that Crowley and Zelalem will spend the entire campaign in the U21s, with first-team call-ups and potential loan deals set to have an impact on proceedings.
Sheaf, then, will be confident of featuring prominently for the U21s. In the opening two friendlies he has shown some promising signs and seems particularly comfortable when playing alongside a bonafide defensive-midfielder such as Glen Kamara. The difficulty for Sheaf, though, is that there aren’t too many players similar to Kamara in Arsenal’s system at present, which could prove problematic for the team as a whole if the Finland U21 international, as expected, heads out on loan at some point this campaign.
Sheaf’s key attribute is his passing, whilst he has also demonstrated that he is a good reader of the game who is becoming increasingly effective in a defensive sense as well. It was a major step for Sheaf to leave West Ham’s renowned academy, where he had played since the U13 age group, to join Arsenal.
His first year at the club wasn’t exactly plain sailing, with the U18s struggling for consistency throughout the campaign, but Sheaf will hope that his impending promotion to the U21s will provide him with a platform to express his talent.