With the season drawing to a close we’ll soon be flooded with rumours. What do Arsenal need? Who will Arsenal sign?
We know that Arsène Wenger has undying faith in talented young players. This season alone has seen opportunities and a new contract for Chuba Akpom, as well as a sharp rise to prominence for Héctor Bellerín that few could have predicted.
With that in mind, are there young players we could expect to break into the first team squad next season?
It is hard to see any members of the current youth setup making the step up, and certainly not as early as next year. Emiliano Martinez enjoyed three clean sheets in six first team appearances (Premier League and Champions League) this season, and is currently on loan at Championship side Rotherham.
Ryan Huddart, not yet first choice for the u21 team, was just 17 when he was on the bench for the away victory over Anderlecht but is yet to make his debut for the club.
As long as David Ospina and Wojciech Szczęsny are at the club it’s tough to see any young goalkeepers getting a look in.
Recently being a defender has offered some youth players their shot in the first team. The likes of Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris enjoyed a handful of first team opportunities while still at the club. Francis Coquelin and Héctor Bellerín have both used chances at fullback to force their way into Arsène Wenger’s thoughts.
Isaac Hayden, captain of the u21 side, has had a terrible year with injuries. A loan spell likely beckons next season and the club have been trying to convert him into a midfielder, but his best chance of regular football any time soon may well be at the back if senior players are unavailable. Stefan O’Connor and Julio Pleguezuelo both feature regularly for the u21 Premier League and UEFA Youth League but can be accident prone and aren’t totally accomplished on the ball – they’re still a long way from first team quality.
Arsenal’s next midfield stars?
Two names immediately spring to mind.
Gedion Zelalem and Daniel Crowley are probably the two most talented players outside of the first team squad.
The summer of 2013 saw Zelalem, now 18, looked superb during the pre-season tour in Asia. In January 2014 he made his debut in the FA Cup win against Coventry City, but opportunities have since been hard to come by. An incredibly intelligent player, he will get his chance.
“I honestly think Gedion has the talent to become a great player,” said Wenger in July 2014.
“Today it is too early for him to play for us but I would say in one year we will know more about him.”
With the summer of 2015 now approaching, Zelalem will be hoping to be much closer to the Arsenal first team.
While Zelalem was in Asia, Crowley was joining up with the youth team for the first time having signed from the Aston Villa academy. Crowley is technically superb. His dribbling style is similar to that of Jack Wilshere, but he seems to offer even more of a cutting threat in the final third. The UEFA Youth League this season saw Crowley score five and assist five more in eight appearances.
Smaller and younger than Zelalem, Crowley’s size and quick feet may mean his opportunity will come in a wider role.
Other notable midfielders
I’ve already mentioned the two obvious midfielders but they aren’t alone in impressing in the youth ranks and it would be unfair not to talk about some others.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles – now in the news for less than positive reasons – has been converted from a powerful winger to an athletic defensive midfielder. Arsenal may well need him to add to his first team cameos in 2014/15 against Galatasaray, Newcastle, and Hull.
Krystian Bielik was the defensive midfielder everyone asked Arsène Wenger to sign in January. The highly-rated Pole has had some outings at centre-half in recent u21 fixtures. Maybe that’s due to a lack of depth at the back (we are Arsenal, after all) but it shows he has enough defensive prowess to be trusted there. Bielik is composed on the ball and seems to have all the attributes to become a very good midfielder. Six first-team appearances for Legia Warsaw this season underlined his strength, able to play at a professional level at the age of 16 is no mean feat. Now 17, Bielik may have to wait a little longer to have that same privilege in London.
Lastly, Jon Toral has had his contract extended after a good spell at Brentford this season. Another player whose development has been stifled by injury, Toral seems to be bouncing back. Whether or not he can force his way into Wenger’s thoughts is another matter entirely and remains to be seen.
Serge Gnabry. Would it count as a breakthrough? Gnabry made 14 first team appearances last season and was impressive. A bulky winger who can play centrally, Gnabry is technically and physically ready to play Premier League football. Injuries have kept him out almost all season but he has recently made his debut for the Germany u21 team and will be hoping to go to the European Championships in the summer. Gnabry is still just 19 and will turn 20 in the summer. Whether it’s at Arsenal or on loan he has to be playing regular top-flight football.
Impressive cameos in the winter saw Chuba Akpom sign a new deal. Since then he has gone out on loan to the Championship but has failed to net, or particularly impressive, in his six appearances for Nottingham Forest. Brilliant at youth level with his pace and strength, Akpom has struggled to translate that goalscoring form to the professional game. 25 games and 934 minutes in the men’s game but he is yet to score his first goal. Another loan spell beckons and Chuba Akpom has a lot to prove.
It is always difficult to tell whether or not a player has the ability, athleticism, willingness, and intelligence to make the huge step to the very top.
Even if he does he may be waiting on luck – avoiding injuries and hoping for an opening in the first team squad. And then, like Héctor Bellerín.has this year, you have to take your chance.
Those opportunities will be limited, especially as the current Arsenal squad has more depth than ever.
Serge Gnabry is already on the outskirts of it. Gedion Zelalem, Dan Crowley, and Krystian Bielik are the most likely to join him one day but they may not get the opportunity just yet.
The truth is the u21 and u18 sides look bereft of top talent right now, barring a few players. Maybe someone will surprise us.