Positional changes aplenty- assessing Arsenal’s new look U23 side

After a challenging start to the season that encompassed some dismal results, Arsenal U23s appear to have turned a corner and have performed with a significantly greater amount of cohesion during their last two fixtures.

Perhaps that improvement is partly down to the coaching staff’s decision to try out certain players in different positions. It is commonplace for youngsters to frequently alter their role on the pitch as they progress through the ranks, and these four young Gunners have experienced such changes recently.

Ben Sheaf- Central-midfield to centre-back

Sheaf is used to playing in different positions having previously been used at right-back and on the right-wing, but nobody could have foreseen the 18-year-old excelling at centre-back this season.

The former West Ham United player had never played at the heart of the defence prior to this campaign but, despite some initial teething problems, he has settled in very well and was excellent in the goalless draw with Southampton as he made some fine interceptions and clearances.

What started out as a temporary experiment when Krystian Bielik was with the first-team has now turned into something more long-lasting, and Sheaf appears to offer Arsenal U23s much greater defensive security than Kristopher Da Graca, despite the latter being a natural centre-back.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles- right-wing to defensive-midfield

A comparatively subtle change, but a significant one nonetheless, Maitland-Niles has been anchoring the midfield for Arsenal U23s of late.

The prospect, who spent last season on loan at Ipswich Town, has been used in numerous positions for Arsenal and featured for the first-team at right-back against Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup.

In the 2014/15 campaign Maitland-Niles thrived as a central-midfielder for the Arsenal second-string and he is now playing in a slightly deeper position. Although not a natural defender, he is still capable of breaking up play, while his midfield partner Gedion Zelalem occasionally drops deeper to allow Maitland-Niles to push forwards.

Ismael Bennacer- defensive midfield to right-wing



Bennacer delivered some impressive performances at the base of the midfield in his first season at Arsenal as the Algeria international showcased his ability to make a significant contribution both defensively and going forwards.

The youngster started the season slowly, however, and frequently found himself overrun in midfield, which prompted the coaching staff to move him out to the right-wing.

Of all the recent positional changes, this one seems the least successful so far as Bennacer doesn’t possess the pace and crossing ability required of wingers. He is, however, capable of linking play extremely well and can drift inside to good effect.

Stephy Mavididi- striker to number ten

A powerful, hard-working player, Mavididi has made a significant impact for Arsenal at youth level in recent years and has been a regular on the scoresheet.

Perhaps in a bid to improve the starlet’s link-up play, Mavididi has often played as a number ten this season and he has performed well, playing some slick passes, whilst still getting into dangerous attacking areas himself.




  1. Thank you Jeorge, always love your article!
    Do you think Sheaf would permanently move into centre-back? Is the midfield too crowded that Sheaf may not be the first 11 and maybe it’s good to move backwards? Or would it be a waste of his talent? Any chance you would know what the player might consider himself?
    Sorry for too many questions😜

      1. Thanks for your reply, Jeorge! Sheaf may get the nod at youth level as a centre-back but we’ve got like 5 proper centre-backs at first-team, as Atid said below it doesn’t look like a easier path either.

  2. Not to mention, Marc bola, centre back/left back and obviously Bielik defensive midfield/centre back.

    I can see da graca leaving this January, rumours that psg are ready to make an offer? And his contract is up in the summer. It also seems that Arsenal are on the lookout for more young defenders already, which suggests the likes of oconnor, Moore and Pleguzuelo could be on borrowed time, rather like kamara, Huddart and even Crowley none seem to be making an impression out on loan. Obviously there is a long way to go this season, so still time for them all to get some game time.

    Can’t help thinking that Debuchy and Sanogo will be replaced in January by the returning Mertesacker and welbeck, whilst players like the ox and gibbs might also want some loan time elsewhere. When mertesacker returns, that will also push the likes of holding and may be Gabriel down the pecking order. I can’t see us needing 5 centre backs. So may be Mertesacker or Gabriel might be sold?

  3. Atid, i don’t think Wenger will allow Mert to leave due to his policy of keeping the dressing room healthy through senior players. Having allowed Rosicsky, Aterta & Flamini to leave the last season. Mert, Cech, Kos & probably Carzola has taken over this role & none them are leaving until 2017/18 except otherwise that is Wenger not renewing his contract, of which he will do.
    Atid was your view on Mainland-Nyles as a fullback? Debauchy will leave & leaving Jenks as the only option to Bellerin. For him not to go out on loan looks like another Iwobi breaking into the first team. What do think, Atid?

    1. I am not sure who will leave, but it’s difficult keeping 4 centre backs happy let alone 5. If holding is happy to play u23 and may be EFL/fa cup then there might not be a need. But with Mertesacker attracting interest from Germany and being out of contract in the summer there is every chance a bid of £3-5m might tempt the club.

      As for maitland-niles the good thing he has going for him is his age, he is obviously an ambitious and talented player. He has played in at least 6 positions that I can remember and he already has some good championship performances under his belt. That versatility can sometimes prove to be more of a hinderance than a benefit, however, I think he can certainly make the progression to the first team squad and then it’s up to him to seize that opportunity when it arises, a la iwobi.

      With maitland-niles, zelalem and willock progressing nicely, the Ox, Jenkinson and one or two others could soon be nervously looking over their shoulders

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