The headlines may have gone elsewhere after the Arsenal u23s’ extraordinary comeback against Leicester City at the weekend, but Tim Akinola underlined his recent progress once again, ahead of the January transfer window.
20-year-old midfielder Tim Akinola joined Arsenal just over a year ago, on a free transfer from Huddersfield. At the time, the u23s were low on numbers in some key areas, and Akinola was one of a few lost-cost additions brought in to effectively fill out the squad.
In his first season, Akinola did no more or less than he was brought in to do. He made 26 appearances as a regular starter, filling a gap in the centre of the team as the likes of James Olayinka and Matt Smith went out on loan, and Ben Cottrell, Jordan McEneff, Catalin Cirjan, and Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand all spent fair periods of the season out injured.
But whilst he was a regular presence in the u23 side in 2020/21, Akinola never really caught the eye. Other than one particularly bad moment picking up a silly red card in an EFL Trophy tie, his issue was mostly that he didn’t stand out in an underperforming team.
There was talk of a possible loan for Akinola over the summer, but it didn’t surprise me when the rumours didn’t lead to anything. In a tricky window financially, most clubs weren’t jumping at the chance to take risks on players who did alright playing for u23 sides that narrowly avoided relegation.
At that stage, my assumption was that Akinola would play out the second year of his two-year contract in similar fashion, before moving on another free transfer.
Instead, Akinola is proving a more-than-useful member of a table-topping u23 side under new head coach Kevin Betsy.
In May, I wrote in my assessment of Akinola’s season that he needed to be surrounded by more creative players this campaign, and that’s certainly happened. The promotion of Charlie Patino and the return of Oulad M’hand from injury gave Akinola a couple of excellent midfield partners, and the three of them played some excellent football for a month or so.
Unfortunately, Patino and Oulad M’hand have both since picked up injuries, so it was all the more impressive that Akinola played a key role in Arsenal’s 3-0 comeback at the weekend.
As the game moved into injury time, Akinola prodded home his first Arsenal goal to get the team going. A minute later, he won the ball back expertly in midfield before turning his man and finding Folarin Balogun, who set up Omari Hutchinson to score. When the u23s went on to equalise in the 97th minute, they had Akinola to thank for making it possible.
In the previous PL2 game against Leeds United, after Oulad M’hand’s injury substitution, Akinola played a key role in two huge late chances. First he set up Mika Biereth, who skied it from a great position, then he found Balogun in behind, who unselfishly squared for Joel Lopez to tap in and kill the contest.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Akinola is starting to have his biggest impact towards the end of games, as he’s made a particular effort to work on his fitness. Football.London report that he has the lowest body fat percentage and highest muscle mass in the u23s, as well as being their fastest player.
All this to say that it’s clear Akinola’s improvement is about more than just changes in tactics and teammates. He’s pushing on as an individual, and Mikel Arteta has taken notice with a few call-ups to first-team training.
Akinola is a tough tackler, but he’s also a strong dribbler, so he provides utility in and out of possession. His passing and awareness is improving too.
Jeorge Bird of Arseblog News reports that Arsenal are now planning to trigger Akinola’s one-year contract extension to 2023, before loaning him in the second half of the campaign. Unlike in the summer, that seems a realistic possibility.
The 20-year-old defensive midfielder doesn’t look like a risk for a lower-league club anymore. He looks like a player who is finally outgrowing youth football, one who should be drawing interest in January, and who could have a positive impact with the right club.