Last season, Arsenal U21s finished fourth in the Barclays U21 Premier League Division 2 table while Arsenal U18s finished 11th out of 12 teams in the South Division of the Barclays U18 Premier League table. Clearly, Arsenal's youth system was in need of some self evaluation. Based on Arsenal's activity in the transfer window, the conclusion from that analysis was "get better players."
Gone are Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill (starting U21 LB last season), Jack Jebb (U21 reserve midfielder), Josh Vickers (youth GK), Austin Lipman (striker) and Semi Ajayi (CB that trained with the first team some because, yes, we were that desperate) on free transfers. U21 mainstays Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Daniel Crowley, Isaac Hayden, and Chuba Akpom have all been sent out on loan meaning there are a large amount of open spots for other Arsenal prospects, new and old. Let's take a look at some of the old faces that seem to be sticking around this season with the club and some of the new faces (JEFF!) Arsene Wenger and his youth chief, Andries Jonker, have brought in.
THE FAMILIAR FACES
Zelalem had a big year last season. Unfortunately, it had more to do with his off the field decision to play for the United States Men's National Team. On the pitch, Zelalem was steady if unspectacular. Considering the big names that were sent out on loan this summer, Zelalem will be the undisputed main man in the Arsenal U21 side. With no real competition in central midfield, this season will be massive for Zelalem's future at the club. He needs to make the squad his own this season and show that he is deserving of an opportunity to move up into the Arsenal first-team. Based on his performances in the U19 tournament currently going on in South Africa, he may just take that opportunity. Arsenal's deep and experienced squad means less youth players have a chance to feature in the Capital One Cup, but Zelalem is one who certainly has a chance to make a first-team appearance or two this season.
Most Arsenal fans probably had not heard of Iwobi before this preseason, but no doubt they do now. Arguably the second biggest breakout star of Arsenal's preseason (after JEFF!, of course), Iwobi dominated the U18s two seasons ago and became a U21 mainstay at the age of 18. After beginning his Arsenal youth career as a winger, Iwobi impressed at the center forward position. With Akpom out on loan, Iwobi should be the first-choice U21 CF and, like Zelalem, is one of the few Arsenal youth prospects that have a chance to play in the Capital One Cup this season.
If you do not follow the youth team, you will likely remember Mr. Bielik as the "this better not be our only signing!" of the January 2015 transfer window. The Polish defensive midfielder looked very good in his limited U21 action and has trained frequently with the first-team. He can play CB in a pinch, but will look to make an impression on Arsene this season considering there will possibly be an opening for two defensive midfielders next season as Arteta and Flamini reach the end of their Arsenal careers.
This young centerback got perilously close to getting actual playing time for the first-team last season due to initially weak squad depth being decimated by injuries. He did make a late substitute appearance in the Champions League, but, thankfully, no more than that. He's tall, skilled on the ball, and has generally good defensive instincts. Hopefully, the youngster (turns 19 in January) continues his development with less pressure this season.
This La Masia product was significantly hampered due to injury last season. Like O'Connor, he does not turn 19 until January and is an extremely skilled youngster, as one might expect from a Barcelona prospect. While he has played as a defensive midfielder and at fullback, he is primarily a centerback. In order for the U21 side to succeed, he and O'Connor will need to forge a strong pairing.
Willock was last year's surprise inclusion in a preseason action. An adept dribbler, Willock was one of the few bright spots for the U18 side last season. More experienced prospects kept him out of the U21 side, for the most part, last season. It will be interesting to see his spot in the pecking order after Arsene's splurge in attacking youth talent this summer.
Quite possibly the best player in all of Europe, JEFF is already Arsene Wenger's greatest purchase, having paid Lens only 3 million euros for JEFF and his buddy, Yassin Fortune. JEFF will likely be the first-choice LW over Alexis Sanchez this season.
(In reality, JEFF will likely get most of his PT for the U21 side as Arsene carefully watches his development.)
When news of the signings of JEFF and Fortune broke, it was actually Fortune who was first-billed. The Lens youngster was a target of Manchester United. While he may not have had the opportunity to show out for the first-team like JEFF, he clearly has some talent. The Frenchman is an attacker and will likely feature from the wing this season. He's eligible to play for the U18 side, the U19 side (UEFA Youth League), and the U21 side.
This Romanian youngster has, by far, the best name in the Arsenal setup. He appears to be more of an all-action central midfielder and will likely feature primarily for the U18s due to a crowded U21 midfield.
Arsene signed a French youngster LOL!
This attacking midfielder was heavily linked to Manchester City, who have spent the last few years scooping up top young European talent in an attempt to maybe, just maybe, spend less on player purchases in the next few years. Again, numbers are quite tight, so Bennacer should feature primarily for the U18s.
Have Arsenal ever employed the services of a Cypriot? I cannot be bothered to do the research so I'll boldly and ignorantly proclaim that he is the first! The U18 defense was shambolic last season. Pileas, a defender that primarily plays center back, literally cannot be any worse than who we had out there last season.
Arsenal swiped Osei-Tutu from Reading's academy and the young right back should be a regular for the U18s this season.
This talented Dutch striker was taken from Ajax's famed academy and looks to be a very promising prospect. As you can see from this highlight video, the kid has some skills. He's a player Ajax desperately wanted to keep, but Dick Law and Mino Raiola had other ideas in mind. He's young (only 16) so he's likely to at least begin in the U18s. Based on his talent level though, it would not be surprising if he made a handful of U21 appearances.
Projected U21 XI
Tafari Moore, O'Connor, Pleguezuelo, Marc Bola
Bielik, Glen Kamara
JEFF, Zelalem, Fortune