As I've written previously, I believe that in a few years, we will consider 2015 a pivotal year in Arsenal's academy. As the year ends, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we learned about Arsenal's youth set-up this year.
We were in bad shape before the summer, but there has been improvement.
Arsenal finished fourth in the Second Division of the U21 Barclays Premier League. Arsenal's U18s were 11th out of 12 teams in their division. For a club that supposedly prides itself on developing young talent, even if its recent history does not show much academy success, something had to change. Cue the Summer of 2015. There was a massive investment in 15-17 year old talents from across Europe. Players like JEFF (Reine-Adelaide), Yassin Fortune, Ismael Bennacer, Donyell Malen, Vlad Dragomir, and others have already had an impact. The U21s are currently three points behind the division leaders with three matches in hand. The U18s sit sixth, but have played at least two matches less than all of the other teams in the division. They could easily slide into the top 3 with good performances in those matches in hand. Things seem to be looking up.
The French attacker won our hearts and minds with one spectacular through ball in the Emirates Cup. Since that fateful day, he has cultivated a loyal following. He struggled with a bit of a knock for awhile, but has impressed in the U21 side when healthy. He's also apparently impressed Arsene Wenger in training, as he's been one of the two youngsters, with Alex Iwobi, that has occupied a bench role with the senior team in recent weeks. He will rule us all one day.
Daniel Crowley is way, way down the pecking order.
Last year at this time, if you had asked me, I'd have probably put Daniel Crowley as our second or third best prospect with the potential to be our best with a few tweaks to his game. Fast forward 12 months: is he a top 10 prospect for us? Crowley was sent on loan to Barnsley, a League One side, which was not a great sign. He returned to Arsenal under odd circumstances, with some stating he was recalled. However, Iwobi, JEFF, and Chris Willock have all been included in the first team squad ahead of a healthy Crowley since his return to London.
Those three seem to be ahead of him in the pecking order, as do loanees Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Chuba Akpom, Isaac Hayden, and Gedion Zelalem. Arguably, Jon Toral, who has performed well on loan with Birmingham City, may be rated more highly, though he is older than Crowley. Youngsters Reiss Nelson (note: I spelled this wrong initially and have fired those responsible for the error), Donyell Malen, Ismael Bennacer and Yassin Fortune have impressed and are skyrocketing up the boss' mental list. Crowley is still 18, though, and certainly has a chance to turn things around. Hopefully, the increase in competition can spur his currently sputtering development with the club.
There does not seem to be an immediate answer to our defensive midfield problem in our youth set-up.
Coming into this season, there was some hope that at least one of Isaac Hayden or Krystian Bielik could show that they could challenge Francis Coquelin long-term for the role of defensive midfielder. However, Hayden has played sparingly on loan at Hull City, and Bielik has been largely shunted to the centerback position this season. The latter was touted as a first-teamer upon arrival in January but had that status stripped and has not been given his preferred role in the youth sides. He has struggled quite a bit in his new role. Unsurprisingly, his best performance of the season was in his cameo against Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup at defensive midfield. While Coquelin's emergence taught us that anything is possible, it does not appear Arsenal has an in-house answer for their current defensive midfield malaise.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is our top prospect.
2015 was a huge year for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He was our top performer for the youth sides last season, largely featuring in a box-to-box central midfield role next to Gedion Zelalem. He was also the youth player who made the most first-team squad appearances last season. He was sent on loan to Ipswich Town, a Championship side, where he has shone in his preferred right midfield role at the young age of 18. Maitland-Niles has power and pace (calm yourself, Gary Neville) to go with great skill and technique. Considering the struggles of fellow three-namer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the large amount of playing time Joel Campbell has accumulated simply by having functioning legs, Maitland-Niles will be given an opportunity to make the first-team squad next season. I fully expect that he will take that opportunity.
2015 was a transformative year for the club's academy. Necessary changes were made to spur the club's youth set-up forward. It appears the club is more focused than ever on young talent and sees youth development as its best chance of competing with the financial power of bigger clubs. This past year has shown us that these long-term plans seem to be on track based on the short-term improvements this calendar year.