Arsenal’s final youth fixture last season was against Fulham as the club’s U18 side suffered a humiliating defeat that confirmed their status as the lowest-placed team in the academy league. Tomorrow night the new academy season will get underway, with the two sides meeting again at U21 level in what is sure to be an intriguing fixture at Emirates Stadium.
Much has changed in the ensuing period. Several long-serving youngsters have departed and are now attempting to carve out careers elsewhere, whilst Academy Manager Andries Jonker has overseen a considerable recruitment drive in his attempt to improve the club’s youth-set up, with no fewer than eight players arriving at the club, the majority of them from abroad.
There have been alterations to the coaching staff too, with goalkeeping coach Tony Roberts moving to Swansea City and Jason Brown, the former Blackburn Rovers shot-stopper, being appointed as his replacement. Jordan Reece and Ivan Mutandi have also joined the youth coaching set-up as a physio and fitness coach respectively.
With regards to players, Arsenal have sent several of their most promising talents out on loan already, with the likes of Chuba Akpom, Isaac Hayden, Dan Crowley, Jon Toral and Ainsley Maitland-Niles all spending time elsewhere. These, and any other loan moves that occur, will inevitably open up space for younger players to feature in the U21s this campaign.
Here we assess Arsenal’s prospective squads in each of the four youth competitions they will be competing in this season:
Despite enjoying some impressive results last season, Arsenal U21s were unable to earn promotion back to the top tier and, as such, remain firmly ensconced in the second division of second-string football.
Such a predicament certainly isn’t ideal for development or entertainment value, but there is hope that this season the young Gunners will be able to perform more consistently, with several members of the current squad already possessing considerable experience of U21 football.
Gedion Zelalem and Krystian Bielik, for example, will be eager to prove that their recent demotions from the first-team squad will only be a temporary measure, whilst the central-defensive pairing of Stefan O’Connor and Julio Pleguezuelo have featured prominently at this level in the past.
It will interesting to see how right-back Tafari Moore develops after he spent much of last season on the sidelines, but the most intriguing element of Arsenal’s U21 side this season relates to the club’s attacking set-up. In the likes of Alex Iwobi,Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Kaylen Hinds, Chris Willock, Tyrell Robinson, Stephy Mavididi and Yassin Fortune, Arsenal possess a multitude of players who are quick, skilful and capable of inflicting considerable damage upon the opposition.
Iwobi, Fortune and Reine-Adelaide will probably form the first-choice front three to begin with, but all of the aforementioned players should receive an opportunity to shine throughout the campaign and the Gunners will have hope that they will be able to find the net frequently despite Akpom’s loan departure.
It could also be a substantial season for midfielder Ben Sheaf, who shone in the recent U19 success in South Africa. Sheaf, who joined from West Ham’s academy last season, will hope to be heavily involved for Steve Gatting’s team. Recent signing Ismael Bennacer is another player worth keeping an eye on.
The U21s start their campaign against Fulham tomorrow before facing Derby County and West Ham United in further home fixtures.
First-choice U21 XI
Iwobi-C. Willock-Reine Adelaide
Arsenal have progressed through the group stages in the UEFA Youth League in each of the last two seasons, but have fallen in the knockout stages against Spanish opposition on both occasions.
They were impressive in the group stages last season, but this year they will be hopeful of progressing even further, especially off the back of the U19s’ aforementioned success in South Africa.
Arsenal will be able to call upon some of their most talented youngsters in the Youth League, with many of the players set to feature heavily in the U21s also available in this competition.
This season, players are eligible to play in the competition if they were born on or after January 1st 1997. That means that of Arsenal’s young professionals, only Deyan Iliev, Alex Iwobi, Glen Kamara, Matt Macey and Wellington aren’t allowed to play.
The majority of the players in this age group have played together for many years and, as such, are familiar with the nuances of eachother’s games. The success in Durban will also have fostered a sense of belief that the young Gunners are capable of challenging Europe’s elite.
First-choice U19 XI
Hinds-C. Willock-Reine Adelaide
FA Youth Cup
Arsenal’s failure to win the FA Youth Cup since 2009 has been a source of frustration, with last season’s campaign a particularly gruelling one as the young Gunners were defeated by Crewe Alexandra.
This time around the likes of Zelalem, O’Connor and Moore are no longer eligible, but there are still plenty of talents for coach Frans De Kat to call upon, such as newly-arrived defender Kostas Pileas.
First-choice Youth Cup XI
Hinds-C. Willock-Reine Adelaide
The U18 Premier League is perhaps where the greatest focus will be with regards to Arsenal’s youngsters this season. After finishing bottom last campaign, the young Gunners will be hoping to at least achieve something approaching consistency this time around.
It is likely to be a very young side once again in the league, but many of the new scholars already possess experience of this level of football, whilst there are high hopes for summer acquisitions Vlad Dragomir and Donyell Malen.
As is always the case, several schoolboys will feature for the U18s as the campaign drags on, whilst one of them, midfielder Reiss Nelson, is already training full-time at London Colney.
Possible U18 side
Agyei Tabi-Da Silva-Mourgos