When Arsenal announced their 24-man travelling party heading to Baku for the Europa League final on Saturday, there were a few names that would’ve been more familiar to followers of the u23s.
Deyan Iliev, Xavier Amaechi, Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah have all made more appearances for the Arsenal youth teams than the senior side this season, but all five have joined up with the first team squad in Baku.
The Europa League final allows an expanded 23-man squad (as opposed to the usual 18), but let’s have a look at why these particular players have received a call-up.
- Position: Goalkeeper
- Age: 24
- Academy appearances (2018/19): 21
- Academy clean sheets: 6
In Iliev’s case, the reasoning behind his selection is pretty clear. The Gunners need a third-choice goalkeeper in case anything happens to Petr Cech or Bernd Leno in the next few days, and Iliev is the only one at the club over the age of 18. Most likely he won’t make the final 23-man squad, but you never know when injury will strike.
- Position: Striker
- Age: 19
- Academy appearances (2018/19): 11
- Academy goals: 10
- Academy assists: 4
Nketiah has had another good season with the Arsenal u23s, even receiving a nomination for PL2 Player of the Season. His appearances have been split between the u23s and the first team, where he recently scored his first Premier League goal. He also made a couple of Europa League starts earlier in the season, in the group stage.
Most Arsenal fans will know about Nketiah by now, but for anyone who doesn’t, he’s a small but fast striker who possesses intelligent movement and confident finishing.
- Position: Central Midfielder
- Age: 19
- Academy appearances (2018/19): 14
- Academy goals: 9
- Academy assists: 2
Willock is another player who has seen his academy minutes limited by call ups to the first team, but he hasn’t managed to get onto the pitch for the senior side as often as he would’ve liked. In 334 minutes under Unai Emery, the midfielder has scored three goals, which is typical of his goalscoring form for the u23s this season.
Willock is a hard-working box-to-box midfielder who spends as much time breaking up opposition attacks as he does finishing off Arsenal’s. He had a good game in his rare recent start against Burnley and definitely deserves more chances in first-team football. In the absence of Aaron Ramsey, Willock is the logical academy replacement.
- Position: Winger
- Age: 17
- Academy appearances (2018/19): 30
- Academy goals: 14
- Academy assists: 10
Probably the Arsenal u23s’ Player of the Season, it’s no surprise to see Saka called up for this match despite the fact he’s still just 17 years old. The winger has been excellent at whatever level he’s played at, from the u18s to the first team, and the goals and assists have been flowing all year.
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan unable to travel, Saka and fellow winger Amaechi were the obvious choices to step up.
- Position: Winger
- Age: 18
- Academy appearances (2018/19): 18
- Academy goals: 5
- Academy assists: 5
An injury in the first half of the season prevented Amaechi from getting any first-team opportunities, but he returned to the u23s impressively after the turn of the year. The winger is the natural academy replacement for Mkhitaryan in the squad, as he’s one of very few at Arsenal who can comfortably play on the right.
Although he didn’t manage quite as many goals and assists in the final couple of months of the campaign, Amaechi still consistently looked positive and drove the team forward with his individual dribbling ability. He was a key part of the u23 side’s unbeaten run in 2019.