So another season has been and gone, with all the excitement, disappointment and Tottenham schadenfreude that comes with being an Arsenal fan in the Emirates era.
The silver lining to our cloud of under-achievement was the incredible perception changing achievement of Leicester City, which is easier to enjoy when reflecting that Arsenal’s points total this year would barely squeak a team into the top four in most seasons.
The consolation of hearing octogenarians from the East Midlands in tears of joy has been a little undermined by a bang average Manchester United winning the FA Cup, and thus equalling our record, and by the sour taste of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo flashing his bronzed torso after once again taking the glory hunting fifth penalty in a shoot-out following a really poor performance against a surprisingly progressive Atletico Madrid.
Good for Zizou. Slightly vomit inducing for the rest of us.
Anyway…for Arsenal there is one way to look, and that is forward. The arrival of Xhaka is a decent start, and it is no secret that the club are looking to improve their options at centre-half. And of course the three-year hunt for a deadly front-man continues.
Accordingly, in the pre-tournament start of the summer, speculation is both vague and wide-ranging, with seasoned fans wanting to see a lot of smoke before putting too much faith in the existence of fire. Beyond the likelihood that Szczesny will spend another season on loan at Roma, there is little of note in the public domain beyond the tabloid random rumour generator or agents touting for business. And twitter already has more than enough ITK wannabes without me joining that club.
What we can talk about with rather more earnest is the ‘internal solutions’ waiting in the wings.
Today I’ll be looking at the attacking options: Strikers
As with the senior squad, the u21 and u18 teams are probably blessed with more options in creative or wide roles than out and out goalscorers, but there are few names that might be keeping our eyes out for, particularly in pre-season and the League Cup. Or in case our annual injury crisis decides to migrate to the front line.
First up, given his impressive recent form, is the u21s top scorer this year (and partner in crime with Chris Willock), lone front man Stephy Mavadidi.
Although relatively unheralded in terms of wider recognition, his performances and goal record demand attention.
Although he has initially struggled to make an impact at each age group, this is largely the result of being introduced to each at a far younger age than his peers. Introduced as a regular to the u18s as a 15-year-old, an initial barren run ended with 12 goals in 13 appearances before his 16th birthday. The following year saw 15 in 16 at u18 level, but an underwhelming one in 10 at u21 level. Thus year, as a 17-year-old, he netted 11 in 21 at under 21 level, with the second half of the season particularly impressive again.
A strong and unselfish runner with excellent movement into the channels, his style has been compared to Danny Welbeck. His all round game is not as well developed, but his style is more that of a natural goalscorer, as evidenced by the range of finishes demonstrated over the last two seasons. Perhaps unlikely to trouble the first team squad shirt printers next season barring a favourable draw in the League Cup, it is comforting to know that a prototypical Wenger striker is progressing well, particularly in view of Chuba Akpom’s fairly unconvincing loan spell at Hull City.
Speaking of Chuba Akpom, it’s important not to write him off yet.
Though his loan spell was often frustrating and highlighted a lack of consistency, with only seven goals in 41 appearances (about half of which were off the bench), it is telling that Steve Bruce, an experienced manager with a deep squad, under pressure to win promotion, had him involved more often than not. Ultimately, he was never going to be ‘the man’ at Hull, with £10m experienced international Abel Hernandez having the most prolific season of his career to date in team that often played one up front.
Despite the odd outburst and visible expression of frustration, Akpom’s work rate on the pitch or training ground has never been questioned, and his pace and directness were evident in pre-season before his loan and in the few cameos he had off the bench in 2014-15, notably winning two penalties for the first team.
He also showed a true Arsenal striker trait this year, hitting the post about eight times, some of which are shown here…
Looking further down the pecking order there have been impressive initial contributions from Donyell Malen and Eddie Nketiah, with the former having some impact at under 21 level as well as the u18s.
Signed from Ajax in the summer, Malen is a quick, determined and an inventive finisher who seemed almost as much at home at u21 level as a 16-year-old as he was for the u18s.
There are times when he looks fairly raw, but the Dutchman is a livewire player whose natural energy, ability out wide and goalscoring instincts point to much promise. The club recognised as such, and within weeks of the u18 campaign his first full professional deal was confirmed.
Eddie Nketiah on the other hand is a hungry young Londoner with much to prove, and a genuine ‘fox in the box’. Rejected by Chelsea as a 15-year-old, the lifelong Arsenal fan was snapped up within two days by Arsenal, whose enthusiasm is being rewarded.
While not the most fully rounded of the strikers on this list, he might be the most single minded. With 24 goals in 28 games for the u18s (and 28 in all competitions), he is a real poacher, with great acceleration, positioning and an ability to anticipate where the ball will drop quicker than the defenders. As yet, it’s not clear whether this will translate to the next level, but the guy IS goals for the u18s.
Last on the list, but not in terms of potential, is the second part of the deal that brought Jeff Reine-Adelaide to the club, Yassine Fortune.
Another who was signed to a professional deal within months of his scholarship arrival, his goalscoring record of just shy of a goal every other game for the u18s in a season, a little interrupted by injury, is by no means overwhelming.
Apart from the odd brief cameo, he, like Nketiah, didn’t really get a sniff of the u21s in earnest, and as the same age as Malen and Nketiah, he was slightly left in their wake. He certainly has enough raw edges to leave him fairly low down the pecking order as things stand. That said, watching him play makes you see why we were up against Manchester United for his signature from Lens.
It’s an easy thing to say about a young striker from the Parisian suburbs who is equally comfortable on the wing, but he definitely has a bit of Thierry about him. You’ll see what I mean.
Next time: Wingers and Playmakers