Just over a year ago, the Arsenal Under 23s were crowned Premier League 2 champions. Numerous players had very successful individual seasons and it wouldn’t have been a bold claim to say that many of them would have been in with a shout of securing some first team minutes throughout the 2018/19 season. However, with the exception of one or two Europa League group stage games, this was not the case. Despite the quality that we had available to us, very few youth team players were given chances to prove themselves throughout Unai Emery’s first season in London. However, this summer our funds are more limited, and the appointments of Freddie Ljungberg and Edu Gaspar as assistant manager and technical director respectively, that may change this season. It would appear that more of an emphasis has been put on making use of the talent that we have at our disposal, and I’m completely in favour of this. Throughout this article, I will examine some key youth players to keep an eye on, the roles of Freddie/Edu and the importance of recruiting long-term signings, rather than short-term stop gaps.
Key Academy Graduates Who Have Been Promoted To The First Team.
1. Reiss Nelson. The English winger is probably the most highly anticipated youngster ahead of next season. He was voted PL2 player of the season during his last campaign in England, before spending the 2018/19 campaign on loan in Germany. Although injuries/team selection limited his playing time for Hoffenheim, he was very impressive whenever he featured. He plays on the wing, can beat a man with ease and has an eye for goal too. He could prove to be a very useful player as we don’t have a single natural winger at the club, in my opinion. Mkhitaryan, Özil, Aubameyang and Iwobi are all naturally suited to a central role, for me. As a result, we are over-reliant on our fullbacks/wingbacks to provide outlets. This is problematic as it makes our attack predictable and our defense vulnerable. Having a natural wideman in our ranks would keep our opponents guessing and allow us to mix us our attacks. It would also provide more opportunities for the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I’m not saying that Nelson should be starting every week, but he should certainly be given opportunities in the early stage of the Europa League, both domestic cups and domestic games when the schedule becomes cluttered. If he seizes those opportunities, then who knows. Ideally, I’d like us to sign a winger and have Reiss as our second choice in that respect. He’s definitely one to watch.
2. Joe Willock. With Aaron Ramsey departing to Italy, we are somewhat short in midfield. To say that Willock is on the level of the Welshman would be laughable, but I’d like to see him given a chance personally. We have other major areas to address in our squad (centre back, winger and left back), and I believe that these areas need to be addressed more urgently. Rather than signing two mediocre players who may fix the issues in central midfield and out wide for a season or two, I would prefer us to focus on one position, invest properly in an attempt to solve the issue entirely, and use Willock in the meantime. There is no guarantee that he’ll succeed, but he deserves a chance. He’s been very impressive at youth level, both for club and country, and was one of the only players who could leave Baku with his head held high. He’s far from the finished article, but I’d much rather see him given opportunities than someone like Elneny, who is already ageing, taking up a sizable wage and not up to scratch. Joe is a talented dribbler, a gifted playmaker with a surprisingly effective eye for goal. Hopefully this season can act as his breakout year.
3. Emile Smith Rowe. After an impressive pre-season in 2018, Smith Rowe was given some minutes for the first team during last season. They were only against average outfits, but he gave a good account of himself overall. He found the net on three occasions and constantly looked like a threat. Given our record with injuries, his versatility could prove to be very useful this campaign. He can play behind a striker as a traditional number ten or on the flanks. He has a good turn of pace, an eye for a pass an is a gifted ball carrier. As mentioned with Willock, we are missing one creative midfielder compared to last season, but I’d prefer to see us fill the gap with one of our own whilst addressing more pressing concerns immediately. It would appear that our financial situation will prevent us from being able to solve all of the squad issues with which we are faced, so we’ll have to prioritize the most serious. For me, a creative midfielder isn’t one of them. A mix of Willock/Smith Rowe playing the rotational games would be fine with me, and I believe that Emile’s displays last season demonstrate that he clearly has potential to be a top player. However, he won’t achieve this by sitting on the bench all season, he needs to be getting as many minutes as possible as his age. Hopefully he’ll be able to seize the opportunity.
The Importance Of Freddie Ljungberg And Edu Gaspar.
After seven years, Steve Bould’s job as assistant manager has come to an end. He has been replaced with former-Invincible Freddie Ljungberg, who has spent the past year as the manager of the Under 23 side. Freddie is a great ambassador for the club who has always been a respectable figure off the field. It’s great to see him rewarded with a key role, and I believe it is a significant one from the club’s perspective too. As mentioned above, opportunities for youth team graduates were limited last season. There wasn’t an evident link between the U23s and the first team. Emery could get glimpses of the players from training, as well as the highlights of youth games, but that doesn’t always tell the full story. This season, the presence of Ljungberg will be a helping hand for Unai regarding the youth talent at our disposal. The former Swedish international will be able to give Emery a detailed breakdown on each of the players that he has spent the last 12 months coaching. Their strengths, their weaknesses. Their mentality, their fitness levels. Everything. From the perspective of the club, this insight will be important, as our financial shortages may force us to use players within our own ranks. Alternatively, youth team players will truly feel like they have a chance to make it all the way to the first team now. They will be aware that their former coach is among the staff and will be able to help them to integrate into a squad containing world renowned superstars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Özil. For me, this appointment can only be seen as positive.
Meanwhile, the past month has also seen the appointment of Edu Gaspar as our technical director. His job will focus on the academy, scouting and recruitment. Although the weight of his influence in those regards remains to be seen, I’m pleased with the acquisition. It is a step in the right direction. Again, it would appear like we’re placing a larger emphasis on transitioning players from the academy to the first team. Edu is joining from the Brazilian national team after their Copa América success, and will provide useful avenues into the South American game, as seen already with the signing of eighteen year old Gabriel Martinelli. Hopefully his appointment is a success for all involved.
Recruiting Long-Term Signings.
So far this summer, we’ve signed 18-year old Gabriel Martinelli. It would also appear that a deal for Saint-Étienne defender William Saliba is also close to completion, and the likes of Celtic’s Kieran Tierney, Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace and Barcelona youngster Malcom have also been heavily linked. Whilst none of these players are performing at a world class standard right now, I like the calibre of player that we appear to be targeting. Young players with the potential to improve and the ability to last us 5+ years. Last summer we signed Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund. Although his first season in London was a success, he didn’t fix our issue at centreback. It’s just a year on, yet we’re apparently close to completing a deal for Saliba, whilst David Ornstein of the BBC has claimed that we’re still in the market for another centre half. Despite Sokratis performing well, the club are fully aware that he won’t last us for the foreseeable future. He was a short-term fix. The same cannot be said for those names that I have mentioned above. Saliba is 18, Tierney has recently turned 22, Zaha is 26 and Malcom is 22. These are players with the vast majority of their careers lying ahead of them, possibly with the exception of Zaha. While many believed that Sokratis’ best years were behind him, it would be fair to say that the best of William Saliba and Kieran Tierney will be seven in years to come. I have to say, I’m delighted that the club’s hierarchy have seemingly become aware of this and addressed it accordingly. It remains to be seen whether we will complete a deal for any of the players mentioned, but hopefully we can go on to have a successful window and season to boot.