Andries Jonker has done much to improve the Arsenal’s academy set-up this season, but, as the club’s youngsters crashed out of the UEFA Youth League in disappointing fashion against Anderlecht last night the Dutchman must have been left wondering whether the young Gunners will ever reign supreme on the European stage.
Despite being able to call upon a myriad of creative talents- Dan Crowley, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chris Willock from the outset, Reiss Nelson and Donyell Malen from the bench- Arsenal failed to cause many problems for the Anderlecht defence and didn’t deserve to progress from the single-legged tie.
This wasn’t heroic failure, it was just failure, with Anderlecht outmuscling and outclassing Arsenal in several departments. There is something of a silver lining, however, as the majority of these players still have a chance to lift a trophy this season in the form of the FA Youth Cup.
Anderlecht, who beat Arsenal twice in the group stages last season, have an excellent youth set-up, with Youri Tielemans one of their star recent graduates. Arsenal have lots of talents of their own, but they struggled to play as a cohesive unit last night in a display that was far inferior to what they produced earlier in the competition.
There have been some success stories this season, with Alex Iwobi becoming heavily involved in the first-team squad. Even last night there was a positive to take from proceedings, with goalkeeper Hugo Keto helping to keep the score down by producing some impressive saves.
There were, though, also a significant amount of negatives to reflect upon. Jeff Reine-Adelaide is one of Arsenal’s finest talents but the Frenchman didn’t make a substantial impact on his first appearance in this competition.
The main problem, however, as is so often the case with Arsenal at youth level, was in defence. It is clear to all and sundry, except the youth coaching staff, that Krystian Bielik is not a centre-back. The Pole has been routinely punished for several errors of judgement whilst playing in that position this season and it would certainly be to the prospect’s benefit if he was restored to his favoured defensive-midfield position.
Julio Pleguezuelo’s form has also wavered of late, but the Spaniard is still a major talent.
Those that are eligible for the Youth Cup will have to regroup quickly, with Arsenal taking on Coventry City in the prestigious competition on Monday night. After what transpired against Anderlecht, Arsenal’s youngsters will be fully aware that much improvement is needed.