Arsenal, like all clubs, are in a constant state of flux at Reserve level, with players frequently embarking on, or returning from, loan spells, and others earning first-team call-ups, so it was to coach Neil Banfield’s immense credit that his side managed to maintain something of a title challenge last campaign despite him calling upon almost half a century of players.
The quest to go one better than last season’s second placed finish began at Underhill on Monday night, with the Gunners prevailing 2-1 over a Manchester United side containing the likes of Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson and Tomasz Kuszczak in a hard-fought encounter.
A large crowd for this level was in attendance, possibly owing to the fact that the majority of United fans live in London, and, although what they witnessed wasn’t the prettiest affair, it did represent something of a coming of age moment for several of those involved.
The core of this group has been playing at this level for around 18 months now so, not only are they well aware of the intricate facets of eachother’s games, but they are also now more developed physically, something which was demonstrated on Monday through the performance of centre-back Daniel Boateng. Boateng, despite still being prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, dealt well with the threat of eventual United goalscorer Mame Biram Diouf, especially in the first half, emphasising how far he has come in just a short period of time.
Some more established names were to the fore, too. Vito Mannone made some impressive stops in goal, although how long he will be happy to remain third choice goalkeeper at the club remains to be seen. Sanchez Watt and Chuks Aneke, the two Arsenal goalscorers, drifted in and out of the game, but, when they did receive the ball, their respective qualities were clear for all to see.
Both players are expected to depart the club shortly, but in very different guises. Watt’s time at Arsenal appears to be coming to an end, with Benik Afobe having overtaken him in the pecking order, whilst Aneke, who could be mistaken for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas in appearance and performance, is in need of a loan spell.
It was Afobe, though, who threatened to light up proceedings early on. The 18 year old embarked on a lightning run past the majority of the United defence before fizzing a shot wide. He subsequently succumbed to injury and had to be withdrawn, but his importance to this side was emphasised by the considerable period of time it took them to get going again after his departure necessitated a formation change.
The Arsenal Academy does have its critics, but, against Newcastle at the weekend, Emmanuel Frimpong became the 48th graduate to play for the first-team since the Academy was established.
Seven members of the current first-team squad are amongst those, showing that, even if it is a long, treacherous road to the top (Frimpong played 79 games at Reserve and youth level), if you possess sufficient quality and an attitude to match, then you will most likely be provided with an opportunity to shine.
The players in the current set-up are at various signposts on their route to the top. Some will fall off along the away, but games such as Monday’s help to provide the coaching staff with assurances that many are, currently at least, heading in the right direction.