The involvement of Thierry Henry with the coaching staff was the headline news from Arsenal U18s’ 2-0 victory over Norwich City this weekend, but there were several other talking points to emerge from the opening day success, with the young Gunners working extremely hard to grind out the three points.
Henry and U16 coach Kwame Ampadu were the creators of the set-piece routine that led to Arsenal taking the lead through schoolboy Reiss Nelson in the 29th minute.
After Harry Donovan was fouled Savvas Mourgos took a short free-kick and played the ball to Marcus Agyei-Tabi, who in turn found Nelson, with the England youth international finishing adroitly for his first goal at this level.
Nelson came close to doubling his tally shortly afterwards only to have his shot saved on this occasion, but, from there on in, it was Norwich who created the majority of the chances, with Arsenal indebted to goalkeeper and captain Hugo Keto for keeping the opposition at bay.
Keto, now in his second season at the club, attracted some criticism for his displays in the recent U19 tournament in Durban, but he was in inspired form at London Colney and was forced into an excellent reaction stop after Norwich broke through the Arsenal midfield all too easily.
Forward Benny Ashley-Seal, who spent time with Arsenal as a schoolboy, was Norwich’s principal attacking threat, and he had the ball in the net at one stage only to see his effort ruled out for offside.
Keto again had to be alert to keep out a free-kick before substitute Edward Nketiah forced a corner at the other end in a rare Arsenal attack.
Nketiah would eventually score Arsenal’s second, but not before Norwich had another goal chalked off for offside. Nketiah didn’t worry about that, though, as he later tucked home the re-bound after Aaron Eyoma’s initial attempt was parried.
It must be noted that the move for Arsenal’s second goal was initiated by Kristopher Da Graca, who, whilst still not being entirely convincing defensively, did at least look more assured on the ball than he did during his maiden season at the club.
It is very early days for this Arsenal youth side, and we will gain a greater measure of their level when they take on Chelsea in their next fixture, but there were some positive signs for coach Frans De Kat to reflect on, with Keto’s performance the standout feature.
Arsenal were without several of the foreign youngsters they signed in the summer, with Kostas Pileas, Vlad Dragomir, Ismael Bennacer and Donyell Malen all still awaiting FIFA approval before they can play for the club competitively.
The fact that some of the most promising first-years, such as Nketiah, Josh Da Silva and Nathan Tella, were only on the bench, was indicative of the squad depth that De Kat has at his disposal, something that certainly wasn’t the case for much of last season when the young Gunners, as has been well documented, finished bottom of the lowest division in the academy league.
They will hope to avoid such a fate this time around, but it is worth remembering that they made a flying start to last season before collapsing dramatically.
Henry is part of a new-look coaching set-up for the U18s, but as far as the playing staff is concerned, many of the individuals on show already possess considerable experience of this level of football, which is something which should bode well for the campaign ahead.
Arsenal: Keto; Osei-Tutu, Da Graca, T. Bola, Chatzitheodoridis; Agyei-Tabi, Donovan; Eyoma, Mourgos, Nelson; Fortune. Subs: Da Silva, Tella, Nketiah. Not used: Huddart, Gilmour.