Whereas previously the Reserves could go two or three entire weeks without having a scheduled fixture, in the new U21 League the games are coming thick and fast, with Terry Burton’s Arsenal side preparing to face West Ham this evening having already dispatched of Norwich earlier in the week.
Burton has already stated that he will use the game against the Hammers, which will take place at the Rush Green Stadium, to hand opportunities to some members of his squad who have been on the periphery so far this campaign. There are a group of 18 year olds currently signed to professional contracts who are at something of a crossroads as they are now ineligible for the U18s but a struggling to command a place in the U21 set-up.
That will likely change as the season progresses and injuries, international call-ups and loan spells all take their toll, but, for now, the likes of Samir Bihmoutine, Josh Rees, Reice Charles-Cook, Nigel Neita and the injured Jordan Wynter must be very frustrated indeed, especially as preference is being given to several players who are a year below them in terms of age group.
Another player who would fit into that category, striker Philip Roberts, has attempted to alleviate the problem by joining Inverness Caledonian Thistle on loan, although that move may prove to be an ill-advised one as, although he has surely benefitted from training regularly with senior players, including another Academy product in George Brislen-Hall, the former Norwich forward has yet to be called up for an SPL fixture.
Burton has also been reluctant to call upon the promising midfield pair Jon Toral and Jack Jebb thus far this campaign, with both players currently stranded in the U18s. Given the respective qualities of the duo, however, it seems it will only be a matter of time before they are provided with the opportunity to test their myriad of talents against higher quality opposition, with a measure of the club’s faith in Jebb, the England youth international, evidenced by the fact that he signed his first professional contract with the club last week.
As well as providing game-time for players much in need of minutes, the West Ham fixture is also significant in that it is the first away game that the Gunners will play this season. Burton’s side are unbeaten in their four games to date, and would still have a 100% record had they not conceded late on against Norwich in a 1-1 draw, but games on the road will surely provide a bigger test and it will be interesting to see how the less physical but more technique-based players, such as young Swedish midfielder Kristoffer Olsson, cope in different environments.