Arsenal are a club heavily associated with young talent, whether it be from their own academy, or from buying younger players from elsewhere, the club are notorious for raising the game and maturing youngsters in the hope to become first teamers.
Worthy footsteps to follow
Take the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin and the most recent youth graduate, Alex Iwobi.
All of these players had their careers kick started by Arsenal as youth prospects, making it into the first team and in the cases of Fabregas and Henry, even captaining the club. With an academy suffused with talent, Arsenal fans will be sure to look out for who could be the next ‘big thing’ at the club.
Iwobi's inspirational rise
The Arsenal U21s team was Alex Iwobi’s stomping ground as he waited to pass through the barrier and into the first team. The young winger is now a first team regular, making 12 Premier League appearances for Arsenal last season, along with two Champions League appearances and notably his start on the biggest stage in the footballing world – The Nou Camp.
After seeing the journey of Iwobi, his former youth squad teammates will be inspired by the Nigerian’s footsteps, as they look to close in on the gap between youth football and the first team of Arsenal Football Club.
Like Alex, many young players get their chance to shine in pre-season. The Emirates Cup had Iwobi’s name lit up in lights, as he scored against Lyon, however, Iwobi was not the star of the show as far as the youth team performances went.
Arsenal completed the signing of 18-year-old French sensation, Jeff Reine Adelaide last summer. The young Frenchman moved to North London aged 17, as he moved from RC Lens on a permanent deal after catching the eye of Arsene Wenger.
Reine-Adelaide was the player on the lips of the Arsenal fans following their second day win over Wolfsburg in the Emirates Cup.
Wolfsburg, who fielded a team featuring the likes of Andre Schurrle and Kevin De Bruyne, were hard to decompose in the game, but one moment of magic from the then 17-year-old Reine Adelaide made the difference.
It wasn’t just the youngsters’ assist for the only goal, but his overall game was remarkably impressive. His confidence, composure on the ball and especially his quick feet and skill work was impressive, as he notably out-skilled De Bruyne, one of the best wide players that the world has to offer.
Speaking after the match, Wenger dubbed Reine-Adelaide as ‘something special’. He made a brief cameo appearance against Hull City and Sunderland in the FA Cup, but didn’t manage to gain his first Premier League appearance for the Gunners.
It would be unsurprising to see Jeff sniffing around the first team next year, as his game continues to mature and grow with the U21s team – we must not forget that this young star is only 18 years of age.
Another player to look out for is Krystian Bielik. The Polish defensive midfielder was brought to Arsenal in 2015, when he too caught the eye of the Arsenal scouts.
Bielik has featured many times for the U21s team, and at the age of 18, has featured in the Capital One Cup for the senior team. He has been described as a versatile player by his U21s coach, Steve Gatting.
Bielik has played in both a central defence role and most commonly as a defensive midfielder for the Gunners, although standing at 6ft2 inches tall and possessing a rigid frame, Bielik has been notably applauded for his slick footwork and skill in possession. Of course his defensive attributes are also celebrated, his composure, strength, aerial ability and instinctive attack minded distribution, are hugely recognisable strong points of the midfielder’s game.
He has taken the armband for his team a few times during the season, developing his leadership skills also –taking to the role of a certain Patrick Vieira it seems.
Going back to attack, is a player that Arsenal fans will be quite familiar with, German youth international, Serge Gnabry.
His rise to the first team in the 2013/14 campaign, however, injury setbacks and the form of others in the meantime meant he lost his worthy place in and amongst the first team.
Gnabry’s pace, power and attacking awareness gave him the green light to show the club what he could do. Winning man of the match against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup back in 2013, Gnabry claimed an assist and was simply explosive in the wide areas of the pitch, as the German put in a real shift in both defence and attack.
His injury towards the end of the season, paired with the inability to remain in the first team, for reasons out of the extremely talented players’ hands, his spot in the first team was lost and subsequently hasn’t returned.
Last season he went on loan to West Bromwich Albion, a loan deal that can firmly be erased from the 20-year-old’s memory as he failed to gain the backing of Tony Pulis. However, Gnabry is still only 20 years of age, and since returning to full fitness, has been running the show in attack for the U21s team.
It will be interesting to see if Gnabry is to stay in North London next season, or whether he will go on loan elsewhere. Whatever the conclusion, it’s time for the youngster to finally shine once more, as we are all aware of his phenomenal capabilities.
Finally, staying in the wide areas, is the exciting talent of Chris Willock. The London-born attacker’s talent was surfaced particularly last season, when he went on a tremendous run of form for the U18s in the UEFA Youth League.
The explosive player is commonly noticed out wide, making direct runs into the box, scoring and assisting for his team. His superb footwork and skilful streak boosts his overall game; in which he has hugely developed since crossing paths with Arsenal.
The 18-year-old wide man also featured in the U21s league campaign, being crowned man of the match in their decisive play-off game against Aston Villa, in which the Gunners were promoted. Willock snatched two assists from the game, stunning the opposing full-backs with his innate trickery and feel for the ball.
Wenger has already declared his desire for Willock to one-day feature in the first team, stating after a pre-season friendly in Singapore that he’d ‘feel very comfortable’ in introducing Willock to the first team, but fears of over-competition in the squad isn’t worth risking as he continues to develop for the U21s at the moment.
Like all of the youngsters in the past of Arsenal Football Club, it takes one moment of magic to start a legacy. The Arsenal U21s will of course be working hard to maintain their newly promoted league spot, as their players will be pushing on to the point where their hard work cannot be ignored by the first team representatives.