Do Arsenal’s next generation have what it takes to step up?
In the Premier League era, few clubs have earned as impressive a reputation for bringing through young talent as Arsenal. The Gunners’ Academy has produced the likes of Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi and Ashley Cole, and continues to turn out some of the most gifted and technically accomplished young players in English football.
Of course, being on the books of one of the “Big Six” is no guarantee of progression to the first team, and with Arsenal usually pushing for multiple trophies every season, the opportunities for younger players to show what they can do in the first team are often limited.
One silver lining of participation in the Europa League this season has been the freedom that it has given to Arsène Wenger to use some of the club’s younger stars. The Gunners named a 42-man squad for the competition that featured some of the most exciting talent at the club.
Now that they are in the quarter-finals, the opportunities for the young Arsenal stars may be more limited. Arsenal are amongst the favourites with Stakers.com to lift the trophy in May, and winning the Europa League has now become the likeliest route back into the Champions League next season. The games from here on in – beginning with the last-eight tie against Milan – are likely to require Arsenal to be at full strength.
However, the opportunities given to these Arsenal stars of the future will be invaluable in helping them to develop. Here are five young Arsenal players who have shown the ability to step up to the next level and earn a regular place in the starting line-up.
Maitland-Niles is familiar to many Arsenal fans. The England Under-20 World Cup winner has occasionally featured in the early rounds of domestic cup competitions, but has been an ever-present throughout the Europa League campaign so far, and has also made five Premier League starts this season. A versatile, reliable player, he has mostly been used as a wide midfielder or wingback, though he was employed in the centre of midfield in both legs of the game against Östersunds. He struggled in the latter role in the home-leg defeat, but his solid performances in a wide position will have encouraged Wenger and Arsenal fans.
A speedy and versatile forward, Nketiah is capable of playing as a pure striker or in a deep-lying role, and after joining the Academy at the age of 14, he has developed rapidly to become one of Arsenal’s most promising talents. He impressed in the Arsenal U23s and in the summer pre-season matches, and although he hasn’t yet started a game in the Europa League, he showed flashes of brilliance in all five of his substitute appearances.
Long touted as the most exiting young talent at the club, a first-team breakthrough seems imminent for Nelson, who played in the Emirates Cup. His pace and flair make him a stand-out performer and his tactical maturity has enabled him to play a variety of roles. He is yet to start in the Premier League this season, but has featured throughout the Europa League campaign, where he has operated as right wing-back, right-midfield and right-wing.
Another versatile Academy product, Willock played for the under-18s last season but impressed enough to earn a spot in the Europa League squad. A stylish creative midfielder with a wide range of passing, he can also play a variety of roles and has done well in the current campaign, starting both matches against Red Star Belgrade in a central role, and playing on the right side of midfield against Borisov.
A gifted midfielder, Sheaf joined the Academy in 2014 and played a key role in helping the Arsenal Under-19 team win the Durban International Tournament before establishing himself in the Under-21s last year. A hard-tackling, goal-scoring player, his accurate passing and crossing ability make him an asset to any squad, and he got his first taste of first-team action when he came on as a substitute for the game in Belgrade. He has since gone out on loan to Stevenage but will be an exciting addition to the first-team squad next season.
Arsenal’s reputation for playing progressive, attractive football is well-deserved, and if the evidence of their performances in the Europa League is anything to go, they will be proudly maintained by the next generation of players to pull on the famous red and white shirts.
Could all of these be the future of Arsenal?