Hale End FC has made its presence known at Arsenal this season. Across the campaign, academy graduates made 159 appearances between them for the first team. The club’s worst league season in decades gave the youth an opportunity to shine at the expense of more experienced players. Out of all of those youngsters, it was Bukayo Saka that firmly secured his place in the first team with Ainsley Maitland-Niles making a strong case too.
For the 2020/21 campaign, there will undoubtedly be more opportunities for young players. Arsenal’s long-term rebuild cannot take place in one transfer window and Mikel Arteta will need the youngsters to provide squad depth throughout the season. Players like Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah & Reiss Nelson will all have their fates decided this pre-season.
What would you do concerning these four youngsters?
Emile Smith-Rowe: Keep
With Mesut Ozil halfway out the door, 2020/21 could be the season that Emile Smith-Rowe breaks into the Arsenal starting XI. Known as the ‘Croydon KDB,’ Smith-Rowe has the potential to have a Saka-like season under Arteta. His close control, driving runs and eye for a pass will place him firmly in the Spaniard’s first-team plans.
In January, the 19-year-old was sent on loan to Championship side Huddersfield, in which he made 19 appearances. In those 1181 minutes of playing time, Smith-Rowe completed 28 take-ons, created 28 chances and directly contributed to 4 goals. Arsenal were the 5th least creative team in the league last season, Mikel Arteta needs creative players and he should look no further than the Hale End graduate.
Joe Willock: Sell
This season, Joe Willock made 44 appearances for Arsenal. In terms of playing time, that equates to 1829 minutes. Although many have been substitute cameos, no one can say the 20-year-old hasn’t been given opportunities. Used in a variety of positions, Willock has shown his versatility but not excelled in any of them.
At his best, Willock is a powerful ball carrier that can run into the final third and cause havoc due to his physicality, however, the youngster has repeatedly shown that decision making isn’t his strongest suit. That’s why Arteta prefers to use him as an energy injection in the last 15 minutes of games, rather than a regular fixture from the start. To play at a top-level team, quickness of thought is what separates the best from the rest, unfortunately, Willock hasn’t shown any signs of developing that trait, yet.
Eddie Nketiah: Loan
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the 21-year-old striker. After spending most of his time on the bench at Leeds, Nketiah was recalled back to Arsenal to surprisingly compete with Alexandre Lacazette. His energy and exuberance have earnt him many minutes recently as Arteta seemingly values work rate over talent.
He undoubtedly can’t be knocked for his effort but there are doubts over the youngster’s technical ability and hold up play. Due to Arsenal’s lack of a playmaker, the team’s attacking play heavily relies on the forward being able to hold up the ball, Nketiah has struggled at that and was dispossessed 15 times in 13 apps for the Gunners.
For all his faults, there’s still a player in Eddie Nketiah. The 21-year-old’s fox in the box like movement would make him a constant threat for a team that can sustain possession. Once Arteta has implemented his philosophy and recruited the personnel he desires, Arsenal will be able to control games for 90 minutes thus allowing their forwards to focus on final third runs, where Nketiah excels. For now, he needs another season on loan where he can fine-tune on his all-round game.
Reiss Nelson: Loan
This may be far-fetched, but I still have hope that Reiss Nelson could one day mirror the trajectory of Jadon Sancho. The Hale End graduate has all the attributes to do so but it all hinges on how much he wants it. The 20-year-old has only shown his talent in glimpses this season, scoring 3 goals and providing 1 assist in 22 apps.
On top of that, he averaged 2 dribbles a game, something that Mikel Arteta has encouraged him to do more of. In a season where Nicolas Pepe struggled to initially acclimatise, many thought Nelson could have made the RW spot his own, however, his performances didn’t warrant that.
Reiss Nelson has the potential to go all the way to the top but may not be ready to show that right now. The demands at a high-profile club like Arsenal won’t provide the youngster with the patience and game time he needs to develop, regardless of how much the manager believes in him. A season-long loan at a bottom half Premier League team would do wonders for his long-term development and confidence.