EDITOR'S NOTE: As you probably noticed, this is the first post for a brand new writer here at The Short Fuse. We've brought on FBJ0 to cover Arsenal's men's youth and reserve setups, which is a popular topic of discussion that, to this point, hasn't gotten a ton of coverage here. That's about to change! Please welcome him to the blog, and if you like, check out his Twitter here.
I can hardly believe it. The season starts tomorrow! No, I’m not misreading the calendar. Tomorrow, Arsenal U21 goes on the road to open the season at Reading U21 (2pm EST, Arsenal Player).
Arsenal fans have been trained for the past decade or so to take solace in our player development, so let's take a moment to look at the talent in our youth ranks to see if any stand to be this year's Gnabry by breaking through into the first team.
What to say about this fella. Far and away the most hyped of our prospects. He somewhat struggled last year for the youth squads when playing in the Ramsey/box-to-box midfield role. Maybe struggled is the wrong term - he didn’t look awful. He was, however, invisible for large stretches of matches, and rarely played those beautiful balls which caught the eye of every Arsenal fan silly enough to watch those Asian pre-season matches. He's very solid, yet unspectacular deeper on the pitch, at least at this phase of his development. He rarely makes the wrong pass and recycles possession well. I’m not sure if him playing in the B2B role is an indication of where Arsene sees him long-term, or if it was done to round out his overall play by playing him out of position, as AW has done so frequently throughout the years.
I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this kid. Clearly, he’s the most prized prospect in our setup. No way he goes out on loan and even with our suddenly deep side, I’d be surprised if he didn’t feature in the COC. I will be interested to see if he stays in the B2B role or if Wenger moves him over to another position. It's not out of the question that he gets some minutes in the Arteta/deep-lying playmaker role. With the No. 10 position filled by Ozil, Sanchez, et al., his intelligence, poise, and passing ability could be put to more immediate use in an area of greater need.
A La Masia product and part of the (first) Cesc transfer saga, Bellerin is an attack-minded right back who has won our hearts this preseason. I’ve liked him for awhile now, but I’m still concerned he lacks the strength to be a contributor at RB for our first team squad right now. As he’s showed these past few weeks, he’s miles more technically proficient than Jenkinson (one of the reasons Jenks is with Big Sam this season). He offers us something we have not had in a while (ever?) at the right back position with his ability to get involved in intricate attacking play. Theo says he’s broken the club sprint record, though while watching him play, I never thought he had that level of elite speed.
He deserves COC playing time and looks poised to take it. It remains to be seen if Bellerin will be Debuchy’s primary deputy (he hasn’t been officially promoted to the first team yet and Wenger hasn’t exactly been consistent on where he sees Chambers playing this season or long-term), but it seems like he’s got a great shot of breaking through and seeing significant first-team action this year.
He isn’t exactly a youth player anymore and average Arsenal fans have had a good chance to evaluate him at the first-team level. I don’t rate him, but considering we only have 2 centerbacks right now with any top-flight experience at that position, he might stick on with the first-team this season.
Martinez is a solid goalkeeping prospect and is officially our no. 3 goalkeeper as of last week. He also, apparently, no longer wants to be referred to as "Damian." He's a talented youngster, but I would be terrified if he got significant playing time this season. Like Viviano last season, it seems unlikely he gets any first-team action.
Hayden is an exciting defensive midfield prospect with good size and a good frame. A youngster at 19, he has been a standout performer at all levels of the youth team. He's a good tackler and reads the game fairly well. He’s shown in preseason action that he is comfortable playing at CB as well. He's not as technically skilled as some of the others on this list, but has improved a lot in that area. He looked solid in his first team debut in the League Cup and made the first team bench a few other times.
Improved health for the rest of the squad (hopefully) means he won't be quite as close to the first team, but he definitely looks like he could break through in the next couple of years, especially with Flamini being out of contract in May. There’s an outside shot he could be called into action at DM or CB this season if injuries ravage a fairly thin back line. With our large squad overall, that might be the only way he gets first-team action this year.
Like Bellerin, Toral is a La Masia product, and he's a classy player. He's a very technically skilled attacking midfielder who plays centrally and on the right quite frequently. He’s 19 and out of contract in the summer. He contributed 7 goals and 7 assists for our youth teams last season. Considering his position, he might not ever break through at Arsenal, but I could see him flourishing in La Liga. It will be interesting to see if we give him a new contract. I think he deserves a little more of a look, due to injuries somewhat stifling his development. He’s at that point in his career where he needs to show his ability at the senior level, so a loan would do him good.
Olsson played last season in the Arteta/DLP role for our youth side. He needs to work on the physical side of his game if he wants to break through. Intelligent and very technically skilled, it's not out of the question he could stick on but this is an extremely important season for him. Another loan candidate, he needs to show Arsene he has what it takes to play for the first-team.
Just outside of Capital One Cup contention this season are Dan Crowley and Chuba Akpom. Chuba has been impressing in cameos for two straight preseasons. He didn’t do too much on loan last year, but came back and tore it up for our youth teams. I like him a lot. There's no need to rush his development. He would benefit from another loan spell, but could stick on at Arsenal for the U21s.
Crowley looks like Iniesta when playing against youth squads. That's a massive comparison to make for a youngster, but his style of play is clearly modeled off the Spaniard. He stepped up into the U21 team last season and was extremely impressive. He has had a few injuries in his career but if he bulks up and stays healthy, he should definitely be in COC contention come next season. Even if you don't watch the youth team normally, you should make it a point to see this kid play. He might be the best prospect in our set-up (he and Zelalem are the top two), and he's certainly the most exciting.
Two others right below those two are Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. These two wingers terrorized the flanks for the U-19 team last season (which was far more fun to watch than the U-21). Both are ready for the move up to the U-21s full time and could get their chance if some of the older prospects move on or get sent out on loan. As is the case for many Arsenal players, they can excel at different positions on the pitch. Iwobi has played as a central striker on occasion and Maitland-Niles has featured as a central midfielder frequently.
You may notice that thus far, I've mentioned two defenders. That's because our Youth Team's defense was and is awful. We have a severe lack of talent on the back line in our Academy. Julio Pleguezuelo is a technically skilled CB we pipped from La Masia (can you see the trend?), but he's still at least two seasons away from being able to physically compete at the Premier League level. Semi Ajayi, an older prospect who was previously at Charlton, was signed last September, basically out of desperation. He was very inconsistent in the youth team matches I watched last season, but is a physical specimen. He will need to show more this season to merit a first team look.
Our academy has become stagnant over the past few seasons, but that’s been sorted out by the hiring of Andries Jonker, a former Louis van Gaal lieutenant. We’ve redoubled our efforts to make our academy one of the best in England. Despite our newfound financial prowess, it is important that we have a strong base of talent coming through our ranks, particularly for home-grown player requirements.
(As a small personal note, thanks to Thomas for allowing me to join TSF. I look forward to #bantering with you all about the youth team this season.)