The problems facing Arsenal U23s and how they can be addressed

It is often said that at youth level development takes precedence over results, and that is certainly the case.

Winning games, however, can surely be beneficial for the progress of a player – the likes of Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are all part of the first-team squad having helped the U23s win the title in 2018.

The current U23 squad have endured a very difficult commencement to the campaign, as demonstrated by the fact that they are bottom of Premier League 2 Division One having taken just one point out of a possible twelve.

The importance of remaining in the top tier cannot be stressed enough as doing so enables players to test themselves against high-profile opponents and some of the best youngsters in the country.

Here’s a look at some of the problems the U23s have faced and an assessment of how matters could improve.

Goalkeepers

Arsenal have five goalkeepers in their U23 squad, which is rather unnecessary. Karl Hein appears to be first choice, but Arthur Okonkwo, who is back available after a year out, perhaps deserves a chance to prove his worth. If the goalkeepers are frequently rotated it could prove difficult for them to build up a rapport with the defenders in front of them.

Defenders

Daniel Oyegoke is talented but struggled against Chelsea. Perhaps Ryan Alebiosu should be the first-choice right-back for the time being.

With the likes of Zech Medley, Daniel Ballard and Mark McGuinness all out on loan, Arsenal are rather short of options at centre-back beyond Harry Clarke and Jonathan Dinzeyi.

Based on the evidence of the defeat to Chelsea, it could take some time for Clarke and Dinzeyi to build up an understanding. The likes of Zach Awe, Mazeed Ogungbo and Alex Kirk could step up from the U18s but this is an area of some concern for Steve Bould’s side.

This was set to be a major season for Joel Lopez to show his credentials, but the left-back hasn’t featured at all due to injury, while Tolaji Bola should really have been moved on by now. Ben Cottrell has been used as a left wing-back in training and in the Chelsea game, so it will be intriguing to see if he is persisted with there.

Midfielders

Tim Akinola was a surprise arrival but he is still adjusting to his new surroundings and the early signs concerning him aren’t exactly encouraging.

James Olayinka has also stayed rather than heading out on loan and has improved physically but can still be rather frustrating to watch at times.

Miguel Azeez and Catalin Cirjan, two of the biggest talents in the academy, have both been promoted to the U23s, but have had bit-part roles so far, and need to be used more in order to improve the creativity of the side.

Salah-Eddine should also be a useful asset when he returns from injury. Jordan McEneff is another option but is at the stage now where he really needs to push on and demonstrate what he is capable of.

Attackers

The lack of a natural right winger was all too clear in the early stages of the season and Arsenal acted accordingly to address that issue by bringing in Joel Ideho from Ajax.

While Ideho may require time to adapt, he certainly seems to be a very talented player.

On the other flank George Lewis hit the ground running by scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in pre-season before following that up with a strike against Ipswich Town in the EFL Trophy. He hasn’t scored since, however, and has a lot of work to do if he to succeed at the club.

Up front Folarin Balogun’s ability is unquestionable, but he does seem somewhat distracted by the continued uncertainty regarding his future.

It is a major boost, then, that Arsenal have signed Nikolaj Moller, with the Swedish striker set to provide some much-needed competition for Balogun.

Overall, it is clear that this is a much-changed Arsenal U23 side, with the mass exodus of players on loan not helping matters. In addition, the new arrivals will certainly take more time to settle in, and the Balogun situation isn’t doing anybody any favours.

Questions have been asked about the capabilities of coach Steve Bould, but, despite recent results, it appears unlikely that he will lose his job any time soon.

Bould needs to get his side playing more cohesive, dynamic football, and the likes of Cirjan and Azeez can help greatly in that regard. The signing of Ideho, too, could be something of a gamechanger in terms of making Arsenal’s attack more balanced.

There is also a longstanding concern about Arsenal’s substitutions at youth level, which sometimes seem pre-planned and are carried out regardless of the situation in the game, while they are often made far too late to have any sort of impact.

The following team could prove to be rather useful, but it remains to be seen whether Bould would select such a lineup.

Okonkwo

Alebiosu-Dinzeyi-Clarke-Cottrell

Olayinka-Azeez

Ideho-Salah Eddine-Lewis

Balogun

Subs: Hein, Lopez, Cirjan, Akinola, Moller

4 comments

  1. Jeorge
    Always good to read your insights, as I only see snippets of the action. keep up the good work.
    Re Balogun his stats are increadible obviously. Should he be nearer the 1st team squad?
    Re Bould, you probably have seen I am critical. I just do not see the required ability and glexibility to be a coach. Cant help but think that just as previously with AW, Bould is not generating the consistency of strategy.
    Re Azeez, surely we souls be building around him, to his strengths

      1. I think Balogun should have been involved in the pre-season friendlies and first-team training sessions, but it is a positive that he’s been involved with them a bit recently.

        On Wed, Oct 7, 2020 at 2:38 PM Jeorge Bird's Arsenal Youth wrote:

        >

  2. Great summary, Jorge.

    I fully agree on the keepers. 5 is insane. Iliev has nothing to do with the U23 side, and 2 keepers should be more than enough to provide competition and allocate the minutes between themselves. Hein and Okonkwo should be the obvious choices there.

    Regarding the defenders it is positive that Clarke and Dinzeyi will have the opportunity and minutes to develop and to prove themselves, but maybe a third could have come in handy to provide cover for fatigue, injury, suspension as well as to test the 3-4-3 formation to ease the transition into the first team. However the first team is full of defenders – many of them are injured – so I expect that a CB from ‘above’ should come to join a game or two to gain match fitness or to reintroduce to regular play, so I don’t think that should be a problem area for Bould.

    You are right, that Alebiosu should be the first choice right back and Lopez should be the obvious LB. I hope Cotrtell is just a backup plan. However there is a bottleneck in the 4-2-3-1 formation, as Bould can only squeeze 2 MFs there. I personally think Olayinka is overused, as we have no creativity at the moment. Azeez, Cirjan and Cottrel are abundant with key passes, but the Akinola-Olayinka partnership severely limits the chances created.

    Indeed we have limited selection up front, but these guys are really good. I’m not sure they had a lot less time to adjust than other PL2 teams where the players similarly go through the
    – promote to the first team
    – sell the player
    – send out on loan
    – keep at U23 level
    – release
    decision cycle after each season. Maybe we should be patient for a few more weeks, but a Ideho-Salah-Lewis-Balogun attacking 4 you properly recommended (supported by a creative CM or two) should score 3 goals easily each game.

    The only disagreement we have is about Bould. There must be a position for him at the club where his long-standing history and loyalty should suffice, but he doesn’t really have a footballing brain. I don’t want to blame the decline of the first team’s defending capabilities in the late Wenger years, but he surely isn’t the defense master/guru Dinzeyi implied in his joining interview.

    Winning the PL2 league is indeed not everything, but without proper coaching – and winning some games – the development of these talented youngsters are in jeopardy. I don’t think we should sacrifice them on the altar of avoiding the conflict with Steve.

    We have a skeleton crew in U23 (bar goalkeepers and central midfielders) but a really talented and capable one. If injuries avoid the team Arsenal youngsters should qualify from the EFL cup and win the majority of their outstanding games. And while I agree on “youth level development takes precedence over results” the lack of winning is not equivalent of youth development.

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