As Arsenal U21s commenced their season with an impressive 3-1 victory over Manchester United last weekend, much of the focus, understandably, was on the attacking talent on show.
It was notable, however, that there was also a strong defensive foundation to the team, with centre-backs Zach Awe and Zane Monlouis (pictured) performing to a high standard.
There are quite a lot of similarities between Awe and Monlouis. They have both been highly regarded for some time, they both have impressive technical qualities and they have both endured frustration with injuries. Furthermore, there have been occasions previously when they have made significant errors but these are becoming less frequent.
Technically this is the first season in which both players are bonafide members of the U21 squad given that they are no longer eligible for the U18s. However, both players have been playing at this level for some time, with Awe having made ten appearances, while Monlouis has featured on 23 occasions.
There are other players to consider, such as Taylor Foran, who has developed well and featured as a substitute against Manchester United, while Henry Jeffcott has also progressed to professional terms.
It will be intriguing to see whether coach Mehmet Ali elects to rotate his centre-backs throughout the season or sticks with a regular pairing.
Awe and Monlouis complement each other well as they are both tall and are impressive readers of the game.
Monlouis missed the end of the previous campaign through injury and his game time was managed carefully throughout pre-season, while he was also taken off against United.
Awe has already been on the bench for the first-team in the Premier League and has featured in friendlies, so he appears to be closer to the senior squad at present, but Monlouis will also hope to be called up at some stage in the near future.
A loan move is possible for both players in the second half of the season but it appears that they will start the campaign in the U21s and the pair of 18 year olds will be determined to build upon a sterling start.
Arsenal 3 (Edwards 41, Marquinhos 46, Azeez 50) Manchester United 1 (Wellens 14)
By Jeorge Bird @ LV Bet Stadium Meadow Park
It remains to be seen what Arsenal’s plan is for Marquinhos, but on this evidence he will not be playing for the U21s for long.
The 19-year-old, who signed from São Paulo this summer, was the star of the show as Arsenal U21s commenced their Premier League 2 campaign with a 3-1 victory at home to Manchester United today.
Deployed on the right flank, Marquinhos produced an excellent display during which he scored his first goal for the club and also provided a breathtaking assist for Miguel Azeez with an outside of the boot pass.
In front of the watching Mikel Arteta, there were further positives to take from proceedings for Arsenal, with Takehiro Tomiyasu completing 45 minutes on his return from injury while Khayon Edwards was also on the scoresheet.
Arsenal named a strong side for Mehmet Ali’s first competitive game in charge, with Tomiyasu, Matt Smith and James Olayinka all featuring as overage players.
There were a host of absentees including Salah-Eddine and Kido Taylor-Hart, but it was still an impressive Arsenal lineup.
Hubert Graczyk, who travelled with the first-team to Selhurst Park last night, started in goal.
Subs: Sweet (for Tomiyasu, 46), Foran (for Monlouis, 76), Butler-Oyedeji (for Sagoe Jr, 77), Bandeira (for M. Smith, 88). Not used: Hillson.
Graczyk was called into action early on as he made a save to deny Omari Forson.
Arsenal then responded with an effort of their own as Charles Sagoe Jr’s attempt was deflected wide following impressive build-up play which involved Tomiyasu.
It was United, who took the lead, though, with Charlie Wellens sending a superb free-kick beyond the reach of Graczyk.
Arsenal sought to respond, with Tomiyasu finding Sagoe Jr, who shot wide. Matt Smith then sent an effort off target before Marquinhos had a powerful effort saved.
After much attacking intent, Arsenal managed to equalise just before half time with Edwards steering the ball into the back of the net after Marquinhos’ effort was saved.
James Sweet replaced Tomiyasu at half time in a pre-planned change, with the defender making his Premier League 2 debut.
Tomiyasu didn’t have much to do defensively but looked assured overall as he had a useful runout.
Arsenal flew out of the traps at the start of the second half as they took the game to United, with Marquinhos to the fore.
Early in the second period the Brazilian put Arsenal ahead as he scored with a composed finish after his initial effort had hit Edwards.
Marquinhos then played in Olayinka, whose shot was saved.
Then came another moment of magic from Marquinhos as he found Azeez with a pass with the outside of his boot. The midfielder finished well but the assist was simply incredible.
Arsenal were now in front and in control, with centre-backs Zane Monlouis and Zach Awe, who possess plenty of experience at this level, providing the foundation for an impressive display.
Graczyk had to make a save but Arsenal continued to threaten, with Edwards shooting wide after capitalising on some slack defending.
Nathan Butler-Oyedeji and Taylor Foran then entered the fray in place of Monlouis and Sagoe Jr.
United grew in confidence a little, with Isak Hansen-Aaroen threatening.
However, Arsenal’s attacking threat still remained as Butler-Oyedeji and Marquinhos both had efforts saved.
Mauro Bandeira came on for Matt Smith late on, with U21 team now permitted to make more than three substitutions.
Graczyk saved from a free-kick in the closing stages and then the final whistle blew to confirm Arsenal’s victory.
This was an encouraging display and we got a glimpse of how Ali wants his team to play, with lots of build-up play and the full-backs drifting into midfield.
A deeper role at the base of the midfield brought the best out of Azeez, who played some excellent passes.
The majority of the post-match talk, though, will be about Marquinhos, who still has some developing to do but showed that he possesses much in the way of quality.
Last season a managerial change had the desired effect for Arsenal U21s, with Steve Bould departing and Kevin Betsy taking charge, which led to the young Gunners finishing in third place.
Betsy’s decision to manage Crawley Town forced academy manager Per Mertesacker into making another appointment this summer, with assistant boss Mehmet Ali stepping up to coach the U21s.
The new U21 season gets underway tomorrow with an eagerly-anticipated clash at home to Manchester United and it will be interesting to see how Arsenal fare at this level this campaign.
Transfer window so far
Players in: None
Players out: Jonathan Dinzeyi (released), Joel Lopez (released), Jordan McEneff (released), Jordi Osei-Tutu (VfL Bochum), Daniel Ballard (Sunderland), Zak Swanson (Portsmouth), Omari Hutchinson (Chelsea).
Loaned out: Harry Clarke (Stoke City), Omar Rekik (Sparta Rotterdam), Tyreece John-Jules (Ipswich Town), Mika Biereth (RKC Waalwijk), Nikolaj Moller (Den Bosch), Ovie Ejeheri (Chelmsford City), Alex Kirk (Ayr United), Marcelo Flores (Real Oviedo), Ryan Alebiosu (Kilmarnock), Mazeed Ogungbo (Crawley Town), Charlie Patino (Blackpool).
There haven’t been any signings for the U21s, which isn’t entirely surprising given that the squad was already rather large.
However, there have been some significant departures, and Arsenal will have to cope without the flair of Omari Hutchinson following his move to Chelsea, while they have also been deprived of the services of Charlie Patino and Marcelo Flores due to loan moves.
The league has changed this season from being for U23s to U21s. Teams are permitted to name five overage players per game, with Matt Smith, James Olayinka and George Lewis all classed as overage.
What still needs to happen?
With less than a month remaining of the transfer window, there is still work to do in terms of sorting out the futures of some of the older players in the academy.
Possible permanent departures: Matt Smith, James Olayinka
Possible loan moves: Tim Akinola, Miguel Azeez, Ben Cottrell, Jack Henry-Francis, James Hillson, George Lewis, Brooke Norton-Cuffy, Salah-Eddine, Kido Taylor-Hart.
What will the team look like? * = overage players
Goalkeepers: Graczyk, Hillson, T. Smith
It seems likely that Hubert Graczyk will be the first-choice goalkeeper, although James Hillson and Tom Smith are also in need of playing time. Karl Hein has been promoted to the first-team squad but could still play some games at this level when he is fully fit.
Reuell Walters’ injury is a source of frustration, but James Sweet is ready to step up at right-back if Brooke Norton-Cuffy goes on loan. There are plenty of options at centre-back, while left-back Lino Sousa has already shown that he can cope at this level.
Akinola, Azeez, Cirjan, Cottrell, Henry-Francis, Bandeira, Olayinka*, Salah-Eddine, M. Smith*, Ibrahim
It is clear that Arsenal have way too many midfielders at their disposal at this level. Matt Smith and James Olayinka need to move on permanently while others such as Miguel Azeez and Salah-Eddine require loan spells. It could be a big season for Catalin Cirjan, who is available again after a lengthy injury lay-off.
Khayon Edwards is an excellent option up front but Arsenal will be hoping that Billy Vigar can avoid further injuries as there isn’t much depth beyond that.
Wingers Nathan Butler-Oyedeji and Joel Ideho found it difficult to hold down a starting berth last season but will look to be more heavily involved this campaign, although Amario Cozier-Duberry and Charles Sagoe Jr, who can also play in midfield, are pushing for minutes.
Which scholars could step up?
One of the most interesting aspects of the season is when members of the U18 squad step up to the U21s. Defenders Tino Quamina and Michal Rosiak have already been involved in pre-season, while Elian Quesada-Thorn, Mathaeus Roberts and Kaleel Green have previously been called up. Henry Timi Davies already has a professional contract but is mainly involved with the U18s for now.
There are some talented first-years who could be called upon at some stage, and it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that schoolboy Ethan Nwaneri could get selected as the season drags on.
Academy midfielder Matt Smith was involved in first-team training today ahead of tomorrow night’s season opener away to Crystal Palace.
Smith’s long-term future at Arsenal is uncertain given that he is 21 years old and would now have to be included in the senior lists to be eligible to play in the Premier League and the Europa League this season.
It is still possible that Smith could leave permanently or on loan before the transfer window closes, but for now he is training with the senior squad.
Smith featured for the first-team against Ipswich Town in pre-season, providing an assist for Folarin Balogun. He also travelled with the squad to Germany but was an unused substitute against Nuremberg.
Goalkeeper Hubert Graczyk was also involved in the session.
It’s possible Graczyk could travel with the squad to Selhurst Park as the third choice goalkeeper although this has yet to be confirmed.
Arsenal have officially promoted goalkeeper Karl Hein to the first-team squad and have given him the number 31 shirt.
The shot-stopper, who is a senior Estonia international, has developed well since joining Arsenal from Nomme United four years ago.
In the second half of last season Hein excelled on loan at Reading before an injury halted his progress.
The 20-year-old has yet to make his competitive first-team debut for Arsenal but he has been named on the bench on numerous occasions and has featured in friendlies.
It is anticipated that Hein will be Arsenal’s third-choice goalkeeper this season behind Aaron Ramsdale and Matt Turner, although that is dependent on whether Alex Runarsson leaves the club. Arthur Okonkwo recently joined Crewe Alexandra on loan while Bernd Leno has signed for Fulham permanently.
Hein hasn’t featured for Arsenal during pre-season because of injury but it is anticipated that he will be ready to return to action soon.
During his time at Arsenal Hein has played 26 times for the U23s/U21s and he previously featured for the U18s on eight occasions.
Arsenal midfielder Charlie Patino is set to join Championship side Blackpool on loan.
Undoubtedly one of Arsenal’s most talented youngsters, Patino has made two competitive appearances for the Gunners at first-team level.
Patino scored on his debut against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup last season and also featured against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
Signed from Luton Town as a schoolboy, Patino progressed to scholarship terms in 2020 and subsequently signed a professional contract.
The youngster has frequently trained with the first-team but it has been decided that regular playing time on loan is the best option for him this season.
Patino has played 22 times for Arsenal at U23/U21 levels and has also featured for the U18s on 25 occasions.
An England U19 international, he is also eligible to play for Spain.
Arsenal have already loaned out a host of players from the academy this summer, with Ryan Alebiosu, Mika Biereth, Harry Clarke, Ovie Ejeheri, Marcelo Flores, Tyreece John-Jules, Alex Kirk, Nikolaj Moller and Omar Rekik having all headed out on temporary transfer.
Arsenal U21s commence their new Premier League 2 campaign on Saturday against Manchester United at Meadow Park, but their preparations for the fixture haven’t exactly been ideal with regards to their attacking options.
Khayon Edwards, who is expected to be the main striker at this level this season, suffered an injury in the pre-season friendly against Boreham Wood, with Billy Vigar having done likewise against Bromley.
Therefore, Mehmet Ali’s side could be without a natural striker when they take on United.
If Edwards and Vigar are both unavailable then it seems likely that Nathan Butler-Oyedeji could be deployed up front on Saturday. The 19-year-old possesses some experience of playing up front but the suspicion remains that he is more effective as a winger.
Kido Taylor-Hart played up front against St Albans City last night but again he is more of a creative player than a forward, and Arsenal could certainly do with his qualities out wide.
George Lewis is perhaps another option as a striker but Joel Ideho could well be the best choice.
Ideho scored a spectacular goal from 40 yards out against St Albans and has the technique to drift past defenders.
Charles Sagoe Jr also possesses some experience of playing as a striker.
With regards to U18s attackers, Henry Timi Davies is just back from injury, while Kaleel Green is an option but he may continue to play for the younger age group for now.
Therefore it appears that Ali could turn to Butler-Oyedeji up front against United.
It is hoped though that Edwards and Vigar won’t be out for too long as Butler-Oyedeji is needed out wide.