Arsenal U23s take on their Manchester City counterparts at the Etihad Stadium tonight as they look to gain their first victory of the season, but their chances of achieving that aim are hampered by the lack of defensive options available to them.
Against Reading last week coach Steve Gatting called upon a central-defensive partnership of Kristopher Da Graca (who is unconvincing at the best of times) and Ben Sheaf (who is a central-midfielder), while, with Marc Bola out injured, Kostas Pileas was drafted in at left-back. As a consequence Arsenal struggled defensively and eventually lost 2-0.
The worrying aspect for Gatting is that it doesn’t appear that the situation will improve any time soon. There are other options available, with Jordi Osei-Tutu and Tolaji Bola capable of stepping up from the U18s, but it doesn’t appear as if it will be too long until 16-year-olds such as Tobi Omole and Joseph Olowu are pressed into action for the U23s.
Krystian Bielik was a regular at the heart of the defence for Arsenal’s second-string last season, but the Pole is unlikely to feature quite so prominently this time around as he will usually be training with the first-team or, perhaps later in the season, dispatched out on loan.
That could well mean that Sheaf’s transition from midfield to defence becomes rather more than just a temporary solution as the 18-year-old could be required to marshal the back line on other occasions, including against City tonight.
Sheaf is clearly better suited to playing in midfield, but he is efficient at winning the ball back and is calm on the ball. Nobody could have predicted such a scenario, but Arsenal’s lack of defensive options could well lead to a significant, and perhaps permanent change for Sheaf.