Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you will be aware that Jack Wilshere has gone out on loan to AFC Bournemouth. There are a number of articles to be done on the significance of the move, and there are likely some insider details that come out over the next few days, but one aspect that has not been discussed in great detail is how the loaning out of Wilshere (and selling of Serge Gnabry) affected Arsenal’s younger players.
Losing Wilshere and Gnabry does hurt, in the sense that both moves were unexpected, and while they were perhaps not expected to contribute greatly, there are minutes here and there that potentially need to be replaced (disclaimer: if we got down to our 5th and 6th choice wide players and central midfielders and required them for a long time, we were probably in big trouble already). This has ramifications further down the squad, namely on Chuba Akpom, Gedion Zelalem, Chris Willock and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, but also on players in the U-23 and U-18 set-up.
The first two could’ve been expected to have gone out on loan. Akpom got a big look in during pre-season, but hasn’t been on the bench for any of Arsenal’s league games, and has now seen Lucas Perez join. Akpom is primarily a centre forward, but can also play as a wide forward from the left, and may have to do so to have chance of getting into the team, as that as where Serge Gnabry would’ve played. If you squint hard, you could see it work: Gnabry’s biggest asset where the diagonal runs he could make from the left, and if Akpom works to add that to his game, there could be space for him in the team, especially as Arsenal’s options for the left, outside of Alexis and Alex Iwobi, aren’t exceptional.
Gedion Zelalem was linked with a move to League One Bolton, which probably would’ve spelled the end of his Arsenal chances—if he is moving on loan, he should be moving to a top tier side. But Zelalem has stuck around, and given that he’s been remodeled as a deep-lying playmaker—a #8 or a #6 if you will—he could take some of the minutes Wilshere may have got, especially in the League Cup. Zelalem didn’t get much playing time during pre-season, but he’s been training with the first team, and his footballing talent is obvious. Questions remain about his physicality, but he’s a natural for the position as opposed to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
JEFF also benefits from Gnabry and Wilshere leaving; he’s played from the left and as a #10 in his brief first team appearances, and has done the same for the youth team, while also playing as an Abou Diaby style tall, gifted, athletic #8. He’s the brightest prospect in the academy, and while some of it is cult-related, he is also really good. He’ll play in the League Cup and maybe get on the bench, and the same can be said for winger Chris Willock, who has progressed to being on the verge of the first team. Willock, like JEFF and Akpom, is probably too good for the U-23s, but maybe not good enough to be starting every week for a Premier League team. However, with a core of the first team around him, he could probably shine, and that’s where hopefully some of Gnabry and Wilshere’s potential minutes end up.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the biggest question mark here. Going into last season, he was probably our brightest prospect. At the age of 17, he made his Arsenal debut in the Champions League and followed it up with a Premier League appearance shortly thereafter. At the age of 18, he spent the year on loan in the Championship with Ipswich Town where he excelled the first half of the season. However, he was relegated to the bench in the latter part of the season and played right back in the last U23 match. It’s unclear whether that move was based on necessity or a sincere attempt to convert the player into an attacking fullback. By far the most physically ready of Arsenal’s current crop of prospects, I suspect we will know where he stands in Wenger’s eyes rather quickly, as the EFL Cup opener is only a couple of weeks away.
While it remains to be seen if any of the above-named players benefit from staying at Arsenal, as opposed to a loan move, their retention clearly negatively impacts younger Arsenal prospects. Donyell Malen, Ismael Bennacer (recently called up to Algeria’s national team), and Reiss Nelson were mainstays in the U21, now U23, side last season at the ages of 16/17, 17/18, and 15/16, respectively. With the reintroduction of three older players into the U23 side, those three will lose a significant number of minutes at that level, and will instead have to focus on U18 action. These players are all three extremely bright talents that need to push onto higher levels of football, not revert back to levels they have already surpassed. It also impacts players that are a tier below that level, such as Yassin Fortune and Vlad Dragomir, who will not be allowed to push on into the U23s after impressive U18 campaigns last season.
Arsenal seem to have kept Akpom, Zelalem, Willock, et al. in order to give them the opportunity to break through like Alex Iwobi last season. If one of them does break out, then perhaps the gambit was worth it. But if the EFL Cup campaign is cut short and Arsenal slightly improves its injury record, these players will be stuck in U23 action stifling the development of younger prospects in need of opportunities.