In the absence of any actual news about Vardy or Henrikh Mkhitaryan it seems a good time to follow on from last week, where I covered the youth set-ups striking options in detail.
This time I’m going to talk about attacking midfielders and wingers.
As the previous feature outlined, the club currently has its most promising selection of strikers in the youth set up in some time. But that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the different age group teams, and Arsene Wenger is clearly excited when looking to the future.
Even at his most optimistic in the past, the manager has never expressed such positive opinions about the talent in the youth set up in his nearly two decades at the club. But it makes sense. Apart from the 2009 FA Youth Cup winning team that has given us two first team players (and five or six others making good top or second tier careers elsewhere), most of our youth and u21 teams have either been dominated by one or two standouts, or have had a distinct absence of any that look like plausible future first teamers. But this is no longer the case.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly for Arsenal, no part of the team is better stocked that at number 10 and out wide. Three of the stand-outs will need no introduction to anyone familiar with the youth set up, and were name checked by Arsene in the above interview. Others that people might have questions about have been omitted due to a lack of either decision making (Wellington Silva) or the dynamism needed in that role for Arsenal (Jon Toral –who will be covered elsewhere), or are being honed for other roles (Ainsley Maitland-Niles).
As I wrote before, the u21s have made it back to the top tier, and in both that group and even from the u18s, there are a few names in attacking midfield roles that hope to be knocking on the door next season, using the emergence of Alex Iwobi as inspiration.
The Nigerian Londoner largely flew under the radar until 18 months ago, seldom mentioned by neutral observers. A combination of physical development and increased tactical awareness saw him go from bit part player to dominant figure at u21 level, and then adjust brilliantly to the first team after an initial disappointing performance in the Capital One Cup at Sheffield Wednesday.
Probably the most obvious direct comparison would be the rapid development of young winger Chris Willock. Like Iwobi, he was earmarked as a potential star at an early age by Arsene Wenger, but as was evidenced by his cameos on last summer’s pre-season tour, until recently lacked the physicality and end product to be anything but a talented peripheral figure.
For a long time, despite praise from Le Boss, he didn’t seem convincing because he was really inefficient in the final third. Promising technique was undermined by poor decisions, poor movement and poor finishing.
Over the last few months, however, it’s all started to come together. Still worryingly slight, and lacking the stamina to really last 90 minutes, he is nevertheless stronger, quicker and much more efficient than before. Credit is due to the coaching staff and his own desire to improve, as his impact in the final third has improved immeasurably. His elastic dribbling ability and ice-skater’s balance remains undiminished, but he’s now using his pace to impact the game off the ball as much as on it, and crucially is now hitting the target with a much larger percentage of his shots. He has also developed into an usually two-footed player for a domestically trained prospect.
Towards the business end of the season, in the FA Youth Cup semi final and with promotion on the line, he was scoring or creating goals more often than not, and perhaps most impressively, put in man of the match performances every time the team played at Emirates Stadium. Although still a little lacking physically, he is performing at a similar level to that of Iwobi 12 months ago, and accordingly, Wenger’s approval has reached the Arsenal matchday programme.
“Chris is a very gifted player with natural strength and natural talent. He has what you do not find very easily. He can have a go at people, can get past people in one on ones. We forget sometimes that the basis of team sport is to first be strong one against one and Chris has that quality.”
Crucially it’s not just his talent that has caught the eye, as was the case with Iwobi.
“I believe that he has the needed character when he has his back to the wall to always respond in a very strong way. That’s a very important quality, to be able to play under pressure.”
If there was any lingering doubt about his currently perceived future at the club, the manager makes his opinion clear.
“…there is a lot of competition for places because there are players like Walcott, Alexis and Welbeck in front of him at the moment. (But) if I had to play him then I would have no fear in doing so. Next season I think he will be a player who will get to feature in the team.”
Despite all this praise, he may not be jewel in the youth set-up crown, either currently or long-term. In the attacking third there are a few others who catch the eye.
With Dan Crowley’s impending second loan spell pretty much confirmed, and him dropping into a deeper role, a la Cazorla, all other wide or number 10 players will see their opportunities increased, particularly with the senior squad’s 25 man limit skewed primarily towards central midfielders at the moment.
Rather nearer than most to the first team we have Jeff Reine-Adelaide, whose reputation upon arrival, cameos in the Emirates Cup and physical stature got a lot of people very excited. Thus the legend of ‘The Jeff’ was born.
Realistically, though, we all need to calm down a touch.
That’s not to say we don’t have a wonderful talent with amazing physical potential on our hands. In terms of tools, the guy is absolute money for his age, and the way he took it to Wolfsburg and Lyon suggests he has the temperament to cope on the bigger stage. In terms of an all-round package he is the best I’ve seen since Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, but with better work-rate, conditioning and apparently attitude than that double-barrelled disappointment.
He is capable of taking a game over, and has moments of wonderfully composed brilliance, but…
And that’s the problem. At this point in his career, the ‘buts’ are too significant to expect too much too soon in terms of first team impact.
Right now he is often too passive on the pitch, drifting in and out of proceedings, often invisible bar moments of excellence. This is partly a function of the fact that it’s really not clear what his best position is. At present he doesn’t quite have the goal-hunger of a striker, the directness of a top wide-man or the consistent creativity of a number 10. He’s still more than good enough as a footballer to be effective at this level at any these roles from time to time, but it’s hard to see which is the best fit. Perhaps, for a while at least, the embarrassment of riches that the u21s have in attacking areas could see him drop deeper, and there is definitely something about the debut season Diaby about him which is probably worth investigating further.
While this may sound a bit underwhelming, this all has to be viewed in the context of Reine-Adelaide being a young man with a extraordinarily high potential ceiling, and as such, he will see some game time pre-season and probably in the League Cup (which he would have done this year, injury permitting).
U18s are harder to really get a good look at, but attacking wide man Reiss Nelson has been a complete revelation this season, and has been easier than most to get a handle on as he has spent half of it playing for the U21s.
In terms of technique, awareness and physicality he is already a few steps ahead of his peers, as evidenced by being England’s top scorer at the European U17 Championships out in Azerbaijan after 6 out of 6 in qualifying, despite being primarily used on the flanks.
Some of his appearances in the u21s have been cameos, particularly as the season wore on and others returned from loan spells and injury, but he has caught the eye when starting, particularly in Danny Welbeck’s comeback game, where he scored once and set up two more from right wing.
Still only 16, his ability to adapt to playing against opponents that are older and more physically developed than he is (sometimes by four or five years) has caught the eye, displaying the intelligence, vision and technique to impact at u21 level despite that obvious handicap. When outmatched by bigger, stronger and quicker opponents, he altered his game to rely more on good movement, a great first touch and snappy passing. He has also shown a real capacity for altering his approach during games depending on the strengths and weaknesses of direct opponents.
As the season has gone on his maturing awareness has been echoed by an increasing physical maturity, having grown three inches over the course of the season. He has the frame to become a much more powerful player without losing his speed, and many feel he may be the brightest prospect to come out of Hale End since Jack. He even has an outside chance of getting some time in the league cup before his 17th birthday, thus joining a very select club.
With Reiss Nelson, his ability to play a game at a more professional level than his peers stands out. Despite largely flying under the radar, Kaylen Hinds has a similar quality – both are mature performers, maybe partly for their physical attributes as much as technical.
Still only 18, the West Londoner gives the impression of being around for a long time because his debut for the u18s was nearly three years ago, and was hailed as a major talent throughout the England age groups. However, serious injury in the 2014/15 season curtailed his progress, and it is only really in the second half of this season that he has started to come back to his best.
Nominally he is a striker, but he seems most comfortable in a mobile role between striker, number 10 and out wide, and his flexibility is a valuable quality. Unfortunately, like many who can fill different roles with equal competence, he sometimes falls between multiple stools, and is often used as a supporting player or impact substitute.
Despite being slightly marginalised at times in favour of some of the youth set ups golden boys, he is quick, skilful, a precise passer and fairly two-footed, and has looked more impactful in a deeper role, both linking play, but confident in finishing chances when they arrive.
What makes him remain an exciting prospect despite being surpassed by others on this list is the fact that things seem to happen around him. While not always the most efficient compared to some of his team-mates, he never disappears or drifts in games, and just has the ability to make things happen. Should he take the step forward that Iwobi or Willock have done over the last year or so, he could yet make his debut over the coming season, a thought further echoed by in increased invitations to first team training sessions in March and April.
In all the hype about Willock, The Jeff and even Reiss Nelson, it’s easy to forget who the youngster with by far the greatest immediate first team credentials at this point is.
After 18 months ruined by serious injury followed by Pulis purgatory, it’s easy to forget how much of an impact Serge Gnabry made in his first few appearances for the first team in 2013/14.
Looking over his first few games for Arsenal and prior form for club and country at youth levels, the refusal of the West Brom hierarchy to give him any real game time seems mystifying, but perhaps he hadn’t fully physically recovered from his knee operation. Or perhaps the Welsh manager’s brief flirtation with exciting football started and ended at Crystal Palace. Even the Birmingham Mail was left confused.
Since then, after some initial rustiness following the cancellation of his loan spell, the 20-year-old German youth international slowly re-found his form at u21 level, playing on both flanks, behind the front man, and as a loan striker, and was frequently direct and productive.
Tactically very sound with great movement, acceleration and shooting ability, he is always a goal threat, and has the pleasing ability to strike the ball almost with the same velocity as Podolski. When he gets it on target (which is not infrequently), the keeper is usually a helpless observer. He already has the potential to be an impact player at first team level, but needs to regain some of the confidence he had as an 18 year old, where he was more proactive and risk taking in his approach.
The big question for him is: What next? He has reached the stage where he is sometimes so dominant at u21 level that he can cruise through games and play off the cuff and still make decisive contributions. There is basically no point him playing at this level anymore, because stagnating in a league where he is stronger, quicker, smarter and more skilled than the vast majority of opponents will only encourage the bad habits that crept into his game to consolidate and solidify.
A positive pre-season could see him integrate into the first team squad. He is technically capable, and is returning to the point of being physically ready, but his prospects will depend on the state of the first team squad and his ability to grasp opportunities with both hands when they are presented.
Failing that, another loan spell will be in order, but if the club want it to be successful, he needs to be allowed to flourish under a manager that prizes game-breaking ability more than the capacity to ineffectually run 10km or more in every match.
Next time: Central Midfield