What Next For Arsenal’s Academy Standouts?
For a long time now, Arsenal fans have wanted the club to have a youth set-up it could genuinely be proud of. For all our postmortem jokes about the Britsh core disappearing as if Thanos was the villain behind it, our concerns and desires were valid.
As we move into the summer break, the yearly pressure of fans clamouring for us to invest via the market is upon us. Unrealistic targets such as Kai Havertz and Ibrahima Konaté have begun to be hotly debated. More realistic names the likes of Djené Dakonam, Marcos Llorente, and Dennis Praet have also received column inches.
Debates on spending aside, the argument that Arsenal should genuinely be looking to the academy this summer for first-team reinforcements is a real one. With foreign scouts regularly attending our U23 and U18 matches, we run the risk of our current crop of young players missing a chance to do what the famous British core truthfully never could; make a genuine impact on the first-team.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at a handful of our current crop and briefly survey what could be expected come next season.
There has been a lot of talk around Krystian Bielik ever since he joined Arsenal from Polish giants Legia Warszawa in January 2015. A loan spell at Birmingham City followed, but it’s his time at fellow London-based Charlton Athletic that truly has turned heads.
Despite sitting in League One, Charlton do try to play a bit of football “the right way,” and Bielik has delivered in such a system. Capable of building from the back, strong in the tackle, and technically efficient, the Polish youth international could very easily give us an in-house replacement for the long term.
Laurent Koscielny is – quite literally – on his last sinews and last season is certainly the final one of his Arsenal career. Sokratis, despite performing solidly in his inaugural season at the club, is already thirty, and questions remain on the future of Shkodran Mustafi and Calum Chambers.
Bielik, still just twenty-one, is now well-adapted to the country, the club, and has featured in multiple levels of the English game. It is still highly likely that the club will look to bring in a centre-back over the summer, but a cadre that includes a new signing, Sokratis, Holding, Bielik, and Koscielny (assuming Mustafi is sold) is certainly a solid one. If nothing else, he has received high praise while at Charlton and is considered a real talent playing at a level far below his ability.
Verdict: Ready for the first-team in a depth capacity and room to grow further.
The nature of signing young players out of the blue can – and often is – very haphazard. Sometimes you get a scenario (like Mattéo Guendouzi) where you’re surprised despite the under-the-radar nature of the deal. As for Konstantinos Mavropanos, there is far less tangible evidence surrounding him.
It does speak to his ability as a player that, despite being an unheard of young commodity in the grand scheme of things, he came to the club last season and impressed enough to be retained in the first-team. Since then, however, despite his injury, he’s not made good on his situation. Big, strong for his age, confident, and unquestionably possessing a level of potential, Mavro needs the chance for these qualities to flourish and properly develop.
Much like the potential Bielik situation, it is difficult to see where Mavropanos fits in at Arsenal next season, even if Mustafi doesn’t avoid the guillotine. When you draw up the (pre-transfer) list of Arsenal’s centre-back options come pre-season, it features Sokratis, Mustafi, Koscielny, Holding, Chambers, Bielik, and Mavropanos. This, before any transfer business in or out.
The best case scenario for Mavropanos is Mustafi being sold, and Chambers/Bielik being shifted to midfield or – like Mustafi – shown the door, making him fourth-choice without any players in. At worst, if at least one of Chambers or Bielik is retained plus a player in, he drops to sixth-choice. I think the answer with him for next season is clear. It is clear Unai Emery rates him, but the value of pitch-time is hard to ignore.
Verdict: A loan-spell to the Championship, where first-choice minutes would be invaluable.
If many are questioning whether or not Mavropanos can legitimately work his way into the first-team next season, then Zech Medley is not just looking in from the outside, he’s doing it from a few blocks away.
The former Chelsea youth product has played for the U18s and U23s since joining Arsenal in December 2016. It certainly has not gone unnoticed, either. A native of south London, Medley has already appeared for the club when coming on for Rob Holding during a Europa League group stage match against Vorskla Poltava. Yes, Arsenal were bare-bones due to injury concerns, but Medley was included – and appeared – on merit. But cooler heads need to prevail when it comes to his development.
Turning nineteen in July, Medley will be at a point in his development – much like Mavropanos – where consistent minutes in the first-team are necessary. This is standard practice in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and even Spain in certain respects. Most “smaller” leagues as well. If you’re not first-team ready by his age, a loan is required and given the queue ahead of him, it is the only logical choice.
A modern defender, mobile for his size, and tactically flexible given his ability to be deployed at full-back, there is a lot to like about Medley, and Arsenal should certainly make his development a priority over the next two years.
Verdict: Nothing more and nothing less than a loan next season.
“No player has thrived under Freddie Ljungberg’s stewardship of the U23s quite as much as Willock, a consistent goal threat from midfield, but there were justifiable questions as to whether a player who routinely overpowers opponents in the youth leagues could translate his skills to the top tier.
He could not have done any more to answer them with a dynamic, exciting performance that saw him go close with a dangerous curling shot and continually ask questions of the Burnley defence with his dynamic running.”
That was Football London’s James Benge heaping praise on Arsenal academy product Joe Willock after our 3-1 win at Burnley on the final day. With the increasing worry amongst the fans regarding how the club should replace Aaron Ramsey, Willock could be the solution all along.
Goals from midfield are one of the teams biggest weaknesses. So too is the lack of a player who is consistent and effective at picking the ball up and driving the team forward. Willock can provide both of those in a ready-made and locally produced option. He’s already scored multiple goals for the club, including an FA Cup brace against Blackpool. His full promotion would go a long way to allow us the financial power to navigate other first-team concerns as well. His time could be – and should be – now.
Verdict: Ready for the first-team with reliable minutes.
Arguably the most highly-touted and eagerly anticipated academy product of the lot, Reiss Nelson is at a crucial point in his career.
Unfortunately for Nelson, an important loan spell to TSG Hoffenheim has not gone as well as many had hoped. Injury struggles, issues with adapting to another country and being far from his family, and negative-points in his game all contributed.
This is not to say that Nelson is not a talented young player. On the contrary, he received the plaudits that he should have. However, it does stand to reason that it indicates he is still too raw to be a consistent performer in the first-team.
It remains unclear if Unai Emery will continue operating our wide players as inside forwards rather than traditional wingers, but a plus-point on Nelson is that he can suit both roles. He’s technically gifted, very positive and direct when on the ball, and has goals in his game. All of these traits were on display in Sinsheim during the seasons loan-spell.
But the harsh reality is that, for a variety of factors, he failed to regain his place under Nagelsmann once he lost it. Another loan – this time in England – could suit him incredibly well, but there still could be a decent role for him in the first team in the very immediate future.
Verdict: If not sent out on loan (ideal), given run-outs in the domestic cups and “lesser” matches via rotation could suit.
Fresh off his first senior Arsenal goal this past weekend against Burnley, many are beginning to wonder what track Eddie Nketiah is actually on.
We have had promising centre forwards at the club before. Both Benik Afobe and Chuba Akpom came through the academy ranks and showed potential, but neither were able to genuinely break into the team sufficiently enough. Both have since moved on to varying degrees of success, and the concern is Nketiah could easily go one way or the other.
Rumours of club leadership wanting to give bumper wages to both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could dispell any notion that either will be sold this summer. You know, apart from logic.
Even if those rumours are unfounded, the notion that Nketiah will ever get in the team ahead of either player, baring an injury crisis or the need of heavy rotation, is a slim one. He does have something to offer the team now, and his appearances in the latter stage of the season are proof positive of it, but the same was said of Afobe and Akpom.
Another season of little time on the pitch will do more harm than good. While some have postulated a return to Arsenal for Olivier Giroud for a season for the express reason of letting Nketiah go out on loan, it remains unlikely that will occur. His loan move to FC Augsburg was blocked by Emery for a reason, so let’s hope that ends up being justified.
Verdict: A loan would certainly help him, but he does offer us something. Either/or.
In the ninetieth minute of RB Leipzig’s 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich, Emile Smith-Rowe made just his second appearance since his loan to Saxony was initiated. The first? One minute of pitch-time at home to VfL Wolfsburg.
It has been a period marred in injury. Upon arrival in Leipzig, a niggling groin injury kept him out of training for a period of a few weeks and failed to make a match-day squad over two months after the deal was agreed until his Wolfsburg outing. Though retained in the squad for the trip to Borussia Mönchengladbach, an abductor problem would sideline him for another three weeks before the Bayern fixture.
For RBL to express interest in his loan speaks to his ability as a young player. His goals for Arsenal in the Europa League against Vorskla Poltava and Qarabag Agdam provide additional reinforcement of that opinion. Moreover, his deployment in three different areas when featuring for the club shows that he may have more than one path into the first-team in time.
He is talented; of that, there is no doubt. But we now find ourselves in a similar position to where we landed with Serge Gnabry. Smith-Rowe needs match-time; a lot of it. And he is likely not going to get it at the Emirates next season. His technical ability, ability to make driving runs, and consistent strike on the ball in terms of both shooting and passing ability make him an attractive loan option for many clubs this summer; RBL included.
Verdict: If an extended loan cannot be arranged with RBL, then another suitable loan destination must be sounded out for him.