Arsenal have announced that Deyan Iliev has signed a new contract with the club, despite the young goalkeeper having struggled with injury for the majority of the campaign.
Iliev, who has been capped by Macedonia at U21 level, featured for Arsenal U21s against West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium in August but wasn’t in action again until last month, when he marked his return from a serious injury by playing in the victory over Newcastle United.
The 20-year-old joined Arsenal from FK Belasica in 2012 and went on to feature regularly on the European stage for the youth teams during his first two seasons at the club. A goalkeeper who possesses excellent reflexes but is still somewhat rash in his decision making, Iliev’s Arsenal career appeared to be reaching its conclusion last summer when he was strongly linked with a move to Belgian side Mechelen, but he stayed in North London and now looks set to continue his development at Arsenal with his contract situation having been sorted.
Arsenal’s decision to retain Iliev will cause some questions to be asked about the goalkeeping hierarchy at the club.
It appears that it will be difficult for Iliev to break into the first-team squad given that the club’s three main goalkeepers, David Ospina, Wojciech Szczesny and Emiliano Martinez, are all still relatively young in goalkeeping terms.
An opportunity could emerge, however, for Iliev to establish himself as the club’s first-choice custodian at U21 level before the end of the campaign.
There are ten second-string games remaining this season and Iliev will be confident of featuring in the majority of them, although he will face competition from Matt Macey, who has returned from an ill-fated loan spell with Accrington Stanley.
Josh Vickers has fared rather better at Concord Rangers this season, but the Hale End product won’t be too confident regarding his long-term prospects at the club following the news of Iliev’s new contract.
There will be further competition for places in goal at U21 level next season, with Ryan Huddart set to step up on a permanent basis from the U18s, whilst Hugo Keto should continue to feature regularly for the younger age group.
Stephy Mavididi started the season in tremendous style as he scored ten goals in first six games of the campaign for the U18s.
He endured a fallow spell thereafter, but there have been signs in recent weeks that the first-year scholar, who looks likely to be rewarded with a professional contract in the summer, has returned to something approaching his best form.
One of the few standout performers in what was a dismal FA Youth Cup campaign for Frans De Kat’s side, Mavididi was also on the scoresheet in the UEFA Youth League and yesterday he returned to the U18 league stage, scoring twice in a 5-3 victory over Leicester City.
Wins at that level have been rather scarce for Arsenal this season, but it is no coincidence that Mavididi has been on the scoresheet during four of the five league victories that the U18s have enjoyed this season.
Arsenal’s faith in the youngster has long been apparent, as evidenced by the fact that he made his U18 debut two seasons ago, whilst he was still technically an U15 player.
Mavididi possessed a considerable amount of raw potential then but is a much more complete player now. He has strength and an impeccable sense of timing in the penalty area, not to mention a useful ability to help link-up play from deeper positions.
Still eligible for the U18s next season, Mavididi will hope instead to push into the U21 team on a regular basis. He has already featured at that level but could be set for heavier involvement next campaign if Chuba Akpom, as expected, goes out on loan.
Yesterday’s performance was one of the most impressive displays that the U18s have produced this season. Granted, the barrier isn’t very high in that regard, with De Kat’s team having endured a miserable campaign in terms of results, but some of the build-up play and off the ball movement was excellent.
There were still, inevitably, a few errors defensively, but from an attacking point of view the performance went to plan. Gedion Zelalem, restored to his preferred advanced midfield position, got on the scoresheet and also produced some sublime moments of skill, whilst Chris Willock was heavily involved on the left flank.
Aaron Eyoma, stationed on the right of midfield, has also developed well this season, with the winger scoring with a well-executed finish yesterday.
De Kat expressed his satisfaction at the victory despite Arsenal’s disappointing start to the game, with the result leaving you wondering whether the U18s would have produced better performances, thus improving the confidence of the players involved, if they had fielded stronger sides throughout the campaign.
Many of the players on show yesterday will return to U21 action next week for the trip to face Derby County.
U18 Premier League
Leicester City 3 Arsenal 5 (Mavididi (2), O’Connor, Eyoma, Zelalem)
Krystian Bielik featured as a strong Arsenal U18s side ended their first set of fixtures with a 5-3 victory over Leicester City.
With no U21 fixture this week, coach Frans De Kat was able to call upon several members of his Youth Cup squad, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Gedion Zelalem and Stephy Mavididi amongst those involved.
Subs: Philips, Robinson, Sheaf, Mourgos.
Arsenal, as is their wont, fell behind early on, but they soon levelled through Mavididi before taking the lead through Stefan O’Connor, who trained with the first-team yesterday.
Second-half goals from Mavididi, Aaron Eyoma and Zelalem extended Arsenal’s advantage and, although Leicester pulled two goals back, the young Gunners managed to hold on for just their fifth league victory of the season.
De Kat’s team, as a consequence of their deeply concerning form that saw them go without a league win from late September to February, will still finish in the bottom four of their section, meaning that they will end the season by playing in the lower play-off group.
Today’s victory was hugely welcome, however, with Bielik starting to settle into the side and Mavididi continuing his impressive campaign in front of goal.
Signed scholarship: 2009. Arsenal apps: 2. Subsequent career: Besiktas.
Creative midfielder Ozyakup is one of a very select band of Arsenal academy products to have established themselves at a very high level having had limited first-team opportunities in North London.
Plucked from AZ Alkmaar’s academy as a schoolboy, Ozyakup was a fringe member of the Arsenal side that won the FA Youth Cup in 2009 before playing a considerably more prominent part as the youngsters retained the Premier Academy League title the following season.
After establishing himself in the Reserves, Ozyakup was eventually rewarded with some first-team opportunities as he featured twice for the Gunners in the League Cup, providing an assist for Yossi Benayoun against Shrewsbury Town. He was also named on the bench for games against Manchester United and AC Milan.
The midfielder opted to leave Arsenal in 2012 and has since thrived for Besiktas. Tending to operate in a deep-lying position, he has endeared himself to the club’s supporters with some excellent passes. Ozyakup is also now a full Turkish international despite having represented the Netherlands at youth level.
Signed scholarship: 2007. Arsenal apps: 10. Subsequent career: Colchester United, Yeovil Town.
A defensive-midfielder who is a product of the club’s Hale End academy, there was a time, albeit only for a brief period, when it seemed as if Eastmond was set for a long-term career at Arsenal.
Having played a major part in the 2009 FA Youth Cup success at right-back, Eastmond was drafted into the first-team set-up the following season, particularly impressing in the League Cup victory over Liverpool.
Injuries to others saw him afforded call-ups in the Premier League, including a start away to Bolton Wanderers. The following season Eastmond featured in the Champions League, but he scored an own goal against Shakhtar Donetsk and struggled for first-team opportunities thereafter.
After loan spells at Millwall, Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester United, he joined the latter side on a permanent basis in 2013. Following a bright start, he found opportunities limited this season with his contract eventually being terminated by mutual consent. Eastmond recently joined fellow League One side Yeovil Town.
Signed scholarship: 2002. Arsenal apps: 3. Subsequent career: Falkirk, Hibernian, Greenock Morton, St. Mirren, Bury, St. Johnstone, Shamrock Rovers.
A midfielder of Irish descent who featured three times for the Arsenal first-team in the League Cup, Cregg has had a somewhat nomadic career since then.
He initially moved to Falkirk, for whom he made over 100 league appearances, before leaving in 2009. After a season with Hibernian he featured as a trialist for Greenock Morton in a Scottish First Division match, but eventually decided to join their rivals St. Mirren instead.
Now 29, Cregg has subsequently represented Bury and St. Johnstone and is currently back in his homeland with Shamrock Rovers.
Signed scholarship: 1998. Arsenal apps: 0. Subsequent career: West Ham United, Boston United, Bristol City (loan), Bristol City, Yeovil Town (loan), Exeter City, Rotherham United, Cheltenham Town (loan), Oldham Athletic, Exeter City (loan).
Another midfielder to have featured for several different clubs throughout his career, midfielder Noble was part of the Arsenal team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2000.
He was let go in 2003 and briefly featured for West Ham United before dropping down the divisions by joining Boston United. He later featured for Bristol City, notably scoring from 30 yards out in the Championship play-off Semi-Final against Crystal Palace.
Since then, though, he has struggled to settle at any club and currently plays for Exeter City on loan from Oldham Athletic.
Signed scholarship: 1999. Arsenal apps: 2. Subsequent career: Fulham, Ipswich Town (loan), St. Pauli, 1860 Munich.
A regular for Arsenal’s youth sides in the 1999/2000 season, German right-back Volz featured just twice for the Gunners’ first-team, but went on to make his name during a five year spell with Fulham.
Volz became a fan favourite at Craven Cottage due to his character and his community work. He is perhaps best known for scoring the 15,000th Premier League goal whilst playing against Chelsea in 2006.
After a short spell on loan at Ipswich Town Volz returned to Germany, initially representing St. Pauli before joining his current club 1860 Munich.
U18 Premier League
Arsenal 1 (Da Silva) Norwich City 3
Krystian Bielik made his Arsenal debut, but the inclusion of the Polish youngster wasn’t enough to prevent Arsenal U18s from slipping to yet another defeat as they were beaten 3-1 by Norwich City at London Colney this morning.
Bielik, a high-profile arrival from Legia Warsaw last month, has had to be patient whilst FIFA ratified his transfer, but he was included from the offset against Norwich along with several members of Arsenal’s FA Youth Cup side.
Ryan Huddart, Renny Smith, Aaron Eyoma, Chris Willock and Tyrell Robinson, who all started in the defeat to Crewe Alexandra last Monday, were involved today but Arsenal still found themselves two goals down at the interval.
A well-taken goal from schoolboy Josh Da Silva, his second of the season at this level, gave Arsenal hope of staging a comeback, but they failed to find the net again and their misery was compounded when Norwich, the only side in this section to have endured a worse campaign than the Gunners, scored another goal late on.
Arsenal’s final game of this section comes away to Leicester City on Wednesday.
O. Moore-Smith-T. Bola-Chatzitheodoridis
It is almost exactly four years since Arsenal’s interest in signing Jon Toral from Barcelona was first reported.
Since then the youngster has spent much of the ensuing period recovering from a succession of injuries, but, now 20, he appears to be enjoying his football again, as evidenced by his impressive hat-trick for his loan side Brentford against Blackpool last night.
Toral has had to be patient for opportunities this season and has primarily been used as a substitute for Brentford. His performance last night showed what he is capable of producing when involved from the offset, however, and could see him receive further starts for the Championship side over the next few weeks.
What will happen to Toral next season is still a matter of some debate. His Arsenal contract expires at the end of June but, based on his development this campaign and his obvious potential, it seems likely that the club will offer him an extension, possibly for one or two seasons.
The midfielder, who has already represented the first-team in friendlies, could make his competitive debut in the Capital One Cup next season with a loan spell, possibly at a struggling Premier League side, another possibility.
Toral is keen to emulate his compatriot and close friend Hector Bellerin by progressing to the Arsenal first-team squad, but, whilst an opening for Bellerin was created by the departure of Bacary Sagna, circumstance is unlikely to be quite so kind to Toral.
Arsenal possess several first-team players capable of operating in Toral’s preferred central-midfield positions, whilst Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem will both be hopeful of edging closer to senior action next season.
Toral undoubtedly possesses much ability but, at present, it is difficult to envisage him not suffering the same fate as Kristoffer Olsson, who left Arsenal permanently last month in search of greater first-team opportunities elsewhere.
U18 Premier League
Tottenham Hotspur 4 Arsenal 1 (Mourgos)
Arsenal U18s continued their wretched season with a 4-1 defeat away to arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur this morning.
Coach Frans De Kat was without the entire starting line-up from Monday’s FA Youth Cup loss to Crewe Alexandra, whilst Tafari Moore, Julio Pleguezuelo, Kaylen Hinds, Chiori Johnson and Jonatas Centeno were all missing through injury.
Nonetheless, it was another hugely disappointing outcome for Arsenal, who slipped to their tenth defeat in 20 league games so far this season. The youngsters have won just five league games this campaign, with this latest aberration seeing their goal difference fall to -9.
De Kat named a similar side to the one that lost out to West Bromwich Albion last weekend, with the only change seeing Marc Bola, who impressed as a substitute against Crewe, come into the side in place of Owen Moore.
Wright-Da Graca-M. Bola-Chatzitheodoridis
subs: Huddart, O. Moore, Gilmour, Nelson.
Shayon Harrison was the hat-trick hero for the hosts as he got the better of Hugo Keto on three occasions before the fifty minute mark.
The opening goal came when the dangerous Ismail Azzaoui was fouled in the area by Keto, with Harrison confidently converting the subsequent spot-kick.
Harrison doubled his tally, and that of his club, just eleven minutes later when he latched onto Joe Muscatt’s throw and finished adroitly.
The damage could have been far greater before the break had Zenon Stylianides not shot over and Keto not redeemed himself somewhat with a good save from Luke Amos.
It was 3-0 shortly after the interval, however, after Harrison completed his hat-trick with a fine finish following yet more good work from Azzaoui.
Arsenal were provided with a glimmer of hope of mounting a comeback when Savvas Mourgos scored his second goal in as many games after he weaved his way past several defenders before finding the net.
Tottenham would make it 4-1, though, after Harry Donovan was adjudged to have fouled Ryan Loft in the area. Loft took the penalty himself and dispatched it past Keto to confirm the victory.
Arsenal’s remaining two fixtures in this section are at home to Norwich City and away to Leicester. De Kat may well be able to call upon a slightly stronger line-up for those games but, as long as the bad results continue, questions will continue to be asked regarding the capabilities of the club’s youth set-up.