2016 has been a memorable year for Arsenal’s youth teams.
Plenty of youngsters have developed significantly over the past twelve months and in this article, we highlight who the best performers have been on a consistent basis this year.
In reverse order starting with number three:
The Polish youngster might not have broken into the first-team as quickly as some supporters would’ve expected when his arrival in north London was announced last year, but he has improved significantly over time. His English is developing meaning he can communicate with team-mates on the pitch more effectively, and his overall defensive game is improving too.
He is an imposing figure on the pitch when faced with opposition forwards and one that deserves plenty of plaudits for his consistent performances at youth level in 2016. In the latter months of the year, he has blossomed alongside Ben Sheaf in an unlikely centre-back pairing which has worked wonders for Steve Gatting’s side.
There is always still room for improvement and the u23 captain has a tendency to make a few erratic decisions at times, which he’ll be hoping to cut out of his game completely as he gradually makes the transition to senior football in England: mistakes are usually punished at higher levels and if not for a few well-timed recovery challenges, Bielik could’ve been at fault for a few goals conceded this year.
Week-by-week he has been quietly working hard and it’s no surprise Arsenal’s coaching staff are eager to see how he fares on-loan elsewhere, which could ultimately test whether he’s ready for the first-team proper or needs more minutes before he can become a permanent fixture in the senior side.
#2 Stephy Mavididi
It seems harsh that given his hard graft in the u18s, Edward Nketiah doesn’t feature on this list. Instead I’ve opted to give it to a teenager who is a year older and has shown his maturity in-front of goal whilst accommodating team-mates by getting them involved in promising attacks near the final third.
Stephy has proven his importance to the u23 and UEFA Youth League squads in equal measure this year. A measured performance playing as the number ten allowed other forwards opportunities during a commanding 3-0 win over Ludogorets in October.
At home against PSG in November, his prolific nature was evident for all to see when he buried two goalscoring chances of varying difficulty against the eventual group A winners.
For the u23s, he has netted important goals against both Chelsea and Tottenham to secure victories, whilst being a standout performer during their 3-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool three weeks ago.
That only covers the span of the 2016/17 campaign thus far, which is important to note as Mavididi has continued to score goals and create clear-cut chances with regularity throughout the year. We can only hope for more of the same in 2017 where a possible loan spell isn’t too far away, and the Derby-born youngster will be aiming to emulate the goalscoring form of Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham should he leave north London on a temporary basis.
#1 Reiss Nelson
The talented winger celebrated his 17th birthday in style by signing a professional contract earlier this month and as I wrote previously, it’s just what he deserves for a year where he has excelled.
Whenever the result isn’t going in Arsenal’s favour, his head doesn’t drop. Instead it fuels the fire inside him – time to be more adventurous, take more risks, with the possibility of a reward at the end of it.
Part of the reason why he’s flourishing at youth level is because he relishes the challenge. I watched him at Stamford Bridge and despite the occasion, he took players on with seeming ease. Blistering acceleration coupled with impressive balance and agility means he’s a nuisance to shrug off the ball for opposition defences, not least once he gets going. As the year has continued, he’s also begun to get more involved in terms of his overall goal contribution.
Goals and assists are flowing now, something that was always going to be a question mark when looking at someone of his ability. Defensively he has begun to take more responsibility out of possession, helping team-mates and it’s clear that he is developing at a rapid rate.
Rash challenges and late tackles are committed on a constant basis by defenders when they come up against Nelson and after his controversial dismissal during the FA Youth Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers this past month, it’s clear that he needs to curb his emotions – easier said than done, but the u18s ultimately lost without their chief creator and what promised to be an interesting cup campaign has ended in huge disappointment at the third round stage.
He’s only just turned 17 and has already asserted his credentials as a mainstay in the u23 side, which just highlights how good he is. I for one cannot wait to see what 2017 has in store for him.
There are a number of honourable mentions, including full-back duo Marc Bola and Chiori Johnson. Both teenagers have continued to improve defensively whilst showing attacking tendencies, passes into the final third and getting into those promising attack positions themselves can act as an extra outlet when the Young Guns pin opposition back in their own half.
Their significance to the u23s cannot be understated, and it’s likely that both will be rewarded with loan spells away from the club at some stage next season in order to compete for regular minutes at senior level.
Hugo Keto and Matt Macey have also impressed in goal when called upon. The latter signed a contract extension in March this year and could be set for another loan spell, having been at Accrington Stanley during the second half of the 2014/15 campaign.
Keto is four years his junior and benefiting from regular minutes at youth level to ensure he remains match sharp. His agility and shot-stopping ability, especially from any range, makes the Finland youth international an exciting prospect for the future.
Ben Sheaf and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are both surprise exclusions in this top three, something which has nothing to do with the way both have performed this year. They’ve both shown their versatility at times to play in positions they’re not comfortable in, and it’s worked a treat in terms of helping them develop more tactical awareness in match situations. Sheaf excelled during our 2-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in late September, and the 18-year-old operated as a central defender.
When given the opportunity to play in his preferred position further forward as a defensive-minded or central midfielder, Sheaf’s ability shines through – but it’s a welcome sight to see that he is willing to play in a multitude of positions so he can ultimately keep developing and inch closer to a first-team debut.
Maitland-Niles has impressed wherever he’s played, whether that be at right-back for the first-team against Nottingham Forest, or a central midfield role. The 19-year-old continues to mature with age and despite previous concerns regarding his mother, has pushed his foot firmly in the door should another first-team opportunity arise though injuries.