One of the more exciting parts of pre-season every year, for me at least, is seeing youth players get a chance to show what they can do against senior sides.
There’s something about an academy prospect stepping up that gives it an edge over your average new player. It’s like making a new signing you didn’t even know was a possibility. Suddenly this player who no one was talking about a couple of weeks earlier is the name on everyone’s lips.
More than that, there’s a sense of pride associated with it. Your club didn’t just buy this guy, they made him. The problem is it’s so rare, however. How many times have we seen a Dan Crowley or Chuba Akpom appear to be the next Wilshere or Thierry Henry when they burst onto the scene, only to stay with the academy until they leave the club years later?
In recent years, we’ve had a couple more successes. Alex Iwobi scored in pre-season against Lyon in the summer of 2015, making 59 first-team appearances since. Hector Bellerín got a chance in 2014 after all of Arsenal’s right-backs got injured at once. In the last three years he’s played 113 senior matches.
But the number of young players who are lucky enough to get the chance and are able to make the jump to playing in the Premier League is very small. In Spain, the big clubs do things differently.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have their own ‘B teams’,where their young talents can play without having to leave or go on loan. FC Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla haven’t been more than two divisions below their parent sides since the 1970s so the standard of competition is much closer to La Liga than Arsenal’s academy is to the Premier League.
Back in England, without this opportunity, players go on loan in the hope one day they’ll be ready. Nathaniel Chalobah spent 12 years at Chelsea, went on six loans and made 10 appearances for the senior side. Now he’s moved to Watford.
Chris Willock joined Arsenal aged 5. He didn’t go on any loans, made two League Cup appearances and has left for Benfica aged 19. Crowley has just left the club for Willem II in the Netherlands.
This summer, there are new exciting players on show. Joe Willock has surprised me the most given I was more aware of Eddie Nketiah, Krystian Bielik and Reiss Nelson’s qualities, but they’ve all impressed me too.
But whether they could break into the first-team is another matter. All four of them play in positions where Arsenal already have plenty of options. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has a bit more of a chance given his versatility, but it’s still hard to see him getting a lenghty run of games like Iwobi or Bellerín did.
Hopefully they’ll all at least get some League Cup minutes and a loan in January. Arsène Wenger has already confirmed Reiss and Ainsley will play some part for the first-team this season.
But to really give these young players a chance, maybe there needs to be a change in the system.