It was a strange season for Arsenal U23s, with Steve Bould’s side avoiding relegation in their final game of the campaign, while over 50 players featured for the second-string in total.
The events of the summer transfer window dictated that it would be a challenging campaign. A host of the more experienced youngsters, such as Daniel Ballard, Matt Smith and Harry Clarke, were sent out on loan, while players who were let go by other clubs were brought in, with Jonathan Dinzeyi and Tim Akinola arriving.
There were further new signings too as Nikolaj Moller, George Lewis and Salah-Eddine joined the club, with Bould having to adapt his team as he looked to get the best out of the club’s youngsters.
It’s fair to say that many of the results didn’t go to plan – Arsenal didn’t win any of their first seven games, won their next five and then won just one of their 12 remaining fixtures.
Results are less important that development at this level but there were still some frustrating signs and some of the youngsters who were in their first season at the club, the likes of Dinzeyi and Akinola in particular, didn’t make a major impact.
There were, though, still some positives to take from the campaign.
The development of Folarin Balogun is certainly a key plus point, with the forward adapting well to playing out on the left wing at times and relishing his responsibilities as captain. The contract saga cast a shadow over much of the campaign, but now that issue has been resolved it is hoped that Balogun will be able to push on further next season at first-team level having improved his linkup play. Overall, Balogun was perhaps the standout performer for the U23s this season even though there were times when he rather snatched at shots.
Miguel Azeez also made significant strides forward. The midfielder’s passing ability has never been in doubt, but he has become more defensively aware in recent months, even though he does still make the occasional error in that regard.
Another player who pushed on well is Kido Taylor-Hart. The winger hadn’t played for the U23s before this season but ended the campaign as one of Arsenal’s standout performers with four goals. It is hoped that he will remain at the club next season.
Midfielder Ben Cottrell also caught the eye before injury cruelly ended his campaign and he also made his first-team debut.
Nikolaj Moller wasn’t always consistent with regards to his performances, but a return of seven goals isn’t bad for his first season in English football.
Catalin Cirjan, however, didn’t quite progress as expected. The midfielder is undoubtedly a fine talent but he found himself in and out of the U23 side and was also often deployed out wide when he is best suited to operating as an attacking midfielder. Given that he will no longer be able to play for the U18s next season, he should be more of a regular in the U23 side going forwards.
Joel Lopez featured prominently for the U23s but still has some significant deficiencies in his game, most notably his positioning. The left-back is certainly in need of a loan spell if he is to eventually compete for a place in the first-team squad.
On a more positive note, it was a welcome sight to see Arthur Okonkwo back involved with the U23s after missing the entirety of the previous campaign with a health problem.
Ryan Alebiosu, meanwhile, started the season well at right-back but faded a little as the campaign wore on.
For all the difficulties of this season there were some notable moments. The 6-0 win away to Blackburn Rovers was Arsenal’s biggest victory at this level since 1999, while Amani Richards became the first schoolboy to play for the U23s or equivalent since Reiss Nelson made his debut in 2015.
It is expected that Arsenal U23s will be significantly stronger next season, with the likes of Omari Hutchinson, Charlie Patino, Brooke Norton-Cuffy and others set to feature more prominently.
There has been much discussion this season regarding Bould’s capabilities as coach, given the disappointing results and the fact that the U23s played in a much more dynamic style when Freddie Ljungberg was in charge.
At present, though, it seems unlikely that Bould will be sacked, with the 58-year-old set to retain his position for next season.
Top appearance makers
Tim Akinola – 22
Ryan Alebiosu, Folarin Balogun, Nikolaj Moller – 18
Ben Cottrell, Jonathan Dinzeyi – 17
Miguel Azeez, Joel Lopez – 15
Kido Taylor-Hart – 13
Folarin Balogun – 9
Nikolaj Moller – 7
Ben Cottrell, Kido Taylor-Hart – 4
Emile Smith Rowe – 3