It was reported last week that Arsenal have promoted four youth team players to the first team squad. Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Cohen Bramell will all be training with the big boys from now and hoping to earn a place in the match day squad.

Arsenal have a track record of success with youth that can stand up to scrutiny against any club but it has been far too long since we have had a clutch of good players come through who cemented a first team place and delivered. We hear about youth who are ‘the next big thing’ every now and again only for nothing much of note to materialise. Hector Bellerin has been a spectacular success and I’m a big fan of Alex Iwobi, but these are the only recent graduates to grab their chances with both hands.

In not too distant past there were high hopes for the all-conquering youth team of Bendtner, Lansbury, Coquelin, Bartley, Wilshere, Frimpong and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. Those hopes soon fell flat with only really Wilshere proving himself to have real first team quality. Coquelin is a solid squad player but the rest either quickly fell by the way-side or hung around longer than anybody would like. Yes, I’m talking about you Nicholas Bendtner (last heard of attempting to procreate with a taxi somewhere in Denmark).

Youth Development at the Heart of Our Success

Arsenals most successful teams have always had players who came through our youth system. The 2004 ‘Invincibles’ had Ashley Cole as the leagues outstanding leftback overlapping with Pires so effectively, tearing opposition apart. The underrated Ray Parlour coming towards the end of his career deputised well for Viera and Gilberto whenever needed. An ageing Martin Keown offered solid back-up from the bench whenever required. He was never found wanting, despite being 37 years old, and managed to make Ruud van Nistelrooy literally soil himself at Old Trafford. All three were players who had come through Arsenals youth ranks.

The 2002 vintage had Ashley Cole, ‘Captain Fantastic’ Tony Adams in his last season, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour as regular first team players who had all come through the youth system at different times.

The 1998 team, Wengers first double winners, had Adams and Keown at the heart of defence. Parlour was a revelation tucked in on the right of midfield. A young Stephen Hughes made 15 first team appearances including 7 starts in the league that year.
George Grahams ‘Almost Invincibles’ 1991 side only last one game all season (at Stamford Bridge). An underrated side in my view that played brilliant football. The side contained youth graduates David O’Leary, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Davis, Paul Merson and Kevin Campbell as regulars. David Hillier was a capable squad player and made 9 starts.

The team of 1989 that broke Liverpool’s stranglehold over the old first division contained the aforementioned youth graduates Adams, O’Leary, Rocastle, Thomas, Davis, Merson, Campbell and Hillier. The side also had Martin Hayes providing attacking midfield threat from the bench.

I realise I might be labouring the point here but every league winning Arsenal team had players who came through the youth ranks and played significant roles. Whether that’s a young player recently making the grade or a veteran 14 years later it doesn’t matter. If you look through any of the names above there is a common thread of real quality but more than that these are players who got the club, connected with the fans, and gave absolutely everything for the cause.

Arsene Wenger throughout most of his Arsenal career has been a champion of youth. Anelka, Cole, Fabregas, Wilshere (fitness permitting) are testament to that. I get the feeling Wenger had his fingers burned a little by the failure of some of the 2007-2010 vintage to kick-on and deliver. There were high hopes for the likes of Denilson, Bendtner, Djourou, Senderos, Song, Clichy and they were given more than enough chances to deliver but just couldn’t do so on a consistent basis.

Youth Knocking Loudly at the Door

Arsenal have a crop of hungry, level-headed youngsters with huge promise from front to back who look ready to make the step up. Let’s take a look.

Reiss Nelson

All Gooners will be well aware of Reiss Nelson after his pre-season exploits. London born Nelson is a fearless right sided attacker well suited to wing-back or further forward. Reiss looks very comfortable in the first team already and Mesut Ozil was reportedly shocked to find out his teammate was only 17 years old. Inventive, tactically astute, has the tricks to commit and beat his man, and a very good finisher.

Eddie Nketiah

Eddie Nketiah looks like the most natural finisher to come through the youth ranks at Arsenal in a very long time. The 18-year-old is quick, has intelligent movement, is able to score from all angles and from distance. If there is one weakness (and I mean only one) it’s heading but every time he has stepped up an age group whether at Arsenal or for England the goals keep coming. One word, lethal.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

Maitland-Niles already has first team starts under his belt from last season in the League Cup and FA Cup. He has played wide right midfield, right wing-back and even centre-back in pre-season. Central midfield appears to be is his best position and he performed very well in there away to Southampton in the FA Cup. Ainsley has a good range of passing, a good touch and recycles the ball quickly. He has good strength and very good recovery speed. The 19-year-old is a natural athlete with a good all-round game. Ainsley also has a mum not to be messed with, who allegedly twated Dick Law in a meeting at London Colney.

Joe Willock

Joe is the younger brother of the highly regarded winger Chris Willock who left the club for Benfica this summer. The 18-year-old Joe is a central midfielder, possesses a good passing range, is a mobile and powerful runner with tricks in his locker to beat his man. He has equipped himself well in preseason games and didn’t look out of place in the first team.

Krystian Beilik

With Gabriel Paulista gone and Calum Chambers deemed surplus to requirements a path to the first team has opened up a little. The 19-year-old, Krystian Beilik, should be an obvious beneficiary. He arrived from Leigia Warsaw for £2.4m in 2015 having just turned 17 as a midfielder but was soon redeployed as a ball playing centre back where he has flourished. He impressed on loan at Birmingham City last season and at 6ft 2in he has the stature and physical presence to dominate. He looks ready, is strong, mobile, calm, reads the game well and has good technique.

Cohen Bramell

The Cohen Bramell fairy-tale is well documented. Plucked from non-league Hednesford Town in the January transfer window at the age of 20 and thrust into the big-time at Arsenal. He looks a little raw at times but the main ingredients of a good left wing-back are there. Cohen’s biggest asset is his pace which must be up there with Bellerin and Walcott.

In Arsene We Trust

These are the young prospects at Arsenal closer to the team than others. If the boss expects these guys to play a significant role in 2-3 years then they need to start getting some first team minutes this year. The domestic cups and the Europa League, coupled with shifting some of the deadwood out of a bloated squad should offer enough playing opportunity to test these young prospects.

So as ever it’s “In Arsene we trust”…...but is Arsene ready put his faith in this group? They appear to have the talent, and hunger to succeed. Time will tell.