One of the most satisfying parts of youth football is when youngsters improve considerably in particular aspects of their game, and two members of the U23 squad have progressed extremely well in the early stages of the season.
Tim Akinola was one of a host of surprise signings made by Arsenal at youth level in the summer of 2020, with the midfielder having previously been let go by Huddersfield Town.
During his first season at the club Akinola featured prominently for the U23s, but, although there were some occasional flashes of brilliance, he struggled for consistently as he frequently made rash challenges and also appeared to be a level below some of his team-mates technically.
Arsenal made Akinola available for loan ahead of the summer transfer window, but, although a temporary move didn’t materialise, it was perhaps more beneficial for the 20-year-old’s development that he remained with the Gunners and he has produced some very impressive performances for the U23s this season.
Tigerish in the tackle, one challenge that Akinola produced in the recent U23s victory against Brighton & Hove Albion at Emirates Stadium was of a particularly high standard, and his progress has been such that the prospect of him gracing the same pitch for the first-team in the future now doesn’t appear to be as unrealistic as it seemed previously.
Joel Lopez, meanwhile, has been at Arsenal for rather longer, with the left-back having joined from Barcelona in 2018.
Lopez’s attacking attributes have never been in question, with the Spaniard relishing bursting down the flank prior to delivering excellent crosses.
However, there have long been question marks regarding Lopez’s defensive attributes and specifically his positioning.
Lopez was named on the bench for the first-team in the Europa League last season but hadn’t developed to the extent that he was able to provide serious cover for Kieran Tierney, which led to the club signing Nuno Tavares.
In the ensuing period Lopez has demonstrated that it would be churlish to write off his chances of succeeding at Arsenal in the long term as he has performed to a high standard for the U23s.
Being used as a wing-back certainly helps Lopez as it affords him more defensive protection, with Mazeed Ogungbo, who is usually deployed as the left-sided centre-back, often stepping in to provide assistance in certain situations.
It has been notable, though, that Lopez, 19, has become more resilient defensively and he no longer gets caught upfield with regularity.
The next step for both Akinola and Lopez will probably be a loan move, potentially in January. Both players can be very pleased with the way in which they have started the season as they look to show that they have a chance of eventually making the breakthrough.