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What next for Arsenal’s latest Hale End Graduates?


Arsenal’s famous Hale End academy has been a source of hope throughout the seasons since Arsene Wenger’s departure. Often thrust into the first team fold out of necessity, it is easy to forget that five of the six currently occupying positions in the first team squad are 21 years old, or younger. There is plenty still to come, with the likes of midfielder Miguel Azeez, as well as forwards Tyreece John-Jules and Folarin Balogun all excelling at their respective youth levels, but for the upcoming season manager Mikel Arteta will have to decide what to do with the youth prospects already in the squad. This article will look at how they might feature in the upcoming season, or whether they may benefit more from a season away from the club.

Bukayo Saka

The easiest decision of the four by some distance. Despite only making his league debut at the beginning of 2019 against Fulham, and only truly bursting onto the scene this season, the youngster managed to rack up 26 league appearances for the Gunners, and was named the top young player in the Europa League for his performances in the competition, ahead of new Chelsea signing Kai Havertz. Having recently assumed the number seven shirt, he will be hoping to continue his meteoric rise in time to make the England squad for the postponed 2020 European championships.

Competition for places this season will be even harder to come by for the youngster this season however, with the new acquisition of Willian able to occupy either the midfield role or positions on either wing, three of the four positions that Saka excelled in last season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has also proved to be more than competent at left wing-back, returning brilliant performances in the FA Cup semi-final and final victories against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively.

Nevertheless, with a shortened season but no fewer games, squad depth will become ever more important for the upcoming campaign, and Saka will undoubtedly receive his fair share of game time, both due to his quality and his versatility.

Verdict: Keep

Reiss Nelson

Still just 20, Nelson’s career has somewhat stagnated since his successful loan spell at Hoffenheim in the 2018-19 season. Working under three different managers and having to compete with club-record signing Nicolas Pepe probably had something to do with this. With the summer addition of Willian, who started the 3-0 victory against Fulham on the right-wing and provided three assists in the process, playing time will become even more difficult to come by.

The Europa League campaign offers opportunities for Nelson to prove his worth to Arteta, yet these opportunities may otherwise be few and far between. Once likened to best friend Jadon Sancho, Nelson needs first-team football on a regular basis to begin to realise his vast potential. A loan move to a lower-half premier league side would likely benefit all parties, whilst giving Nelson significant experience in England’s top division.

Verdict: Loan (if a suitable club can be found).

 Joe Willock

Joe Willock racked up an impressive 43 appearances for the Gunners over the 2019-20 season, second only to captain Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang (who made 44). Despite these many appearances, just 20 of those were starts, with the youngster accumulating only half of Aubameyang’s minutes on the pitch. Often, he would be called in an attempt to fix Arsenal’s chronic lack of creativity in midfield areas, yet this could have been somewhat resolved with the signing of Willian. However, his appearances were more indicative of Arsenal’s midfield problems than his own un-droppable performances. In present circumstances, he is one of six options in central midfield, although with the imminent sale of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi seemingly out of favour, it is difficult to see Willock being allowed to leave unless reinforcements are brought in.

However, Arsenal are in the market for a midfielder. Currently strongly linked to both Thomas Partey of Atletico Madrid and Olympique Lyonnais’ Houssem Aouar, were both to be brought in, Willock could see his services touted for loan for the upcoming season. The likelihood of Arteta managing to sign both seems remote, however, which means that Willock is likely to remain a rotational option in Arsenal’s engine room.

Verdict: Keep   

Emile Smith-Rowe

Yet another highly promising 20-year-old, Emile Smith Rowe spent the back end of last season on loan at Huddersfield Town, netting a late winner in the victory against West Bromwich Albion in what effectively sealed the Terrier’s safety in the Championship for another season. Left-footed, he operates largely in the number 8/10 roles but is also able to play on the left-hand-side of the attack. In terms of profile, he fits the creative outlet that Arsenal so desperately require, yet his inexperience at the top level will certainly count against him.

On the other hand, if Mesut Ozil sees out his contract and remains an Arsenal player until summer 2021 as seems likely, he would be a perfect mentor and role model for the youngster, whilst Smith-Rowe would almost certainly see first-team action in the cup and European campaigns.

Verdict: Keep

Eddie Nketiah

Recalled midway through the campaign following a lack of appearances on his loan spell to Leeds United, Nketiah began to impress Mikel Arteta, who started the twenty-one-year-old over the vastly experienced Alexandre Lacazette in several key fixtures. Featuring thirteen times in the Premier League in total, the England under-21 international contributed two goals, but was highly-valued for his pressing and defensive work. With Arsenal lacking a natural replacement for Lacazette if the Frenchman gets injured and with a busy schedule ahead, Nketiah is almost certain to continue his development in North London for the upcoming season.

Verdict: Keep


Arsenal certainly have a brilliant crop of young players on their books, but it is not possible for all four of those mentioned above to receive significant game-time. The midfield shortages that face the Gunners means that both Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe are likely to remain in North London for the upcoming season, whilst Bukayo Saka made such an impression that he will be certain to stay. With Saka, Willian and Nicolas Pepe all ahead of him in the pecking order, however, Reiss Nelson may well seek a loan move away, and a move to a Premier League club would suit both him and Arsenal down to the ground.


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