Prior to this week, Arsenal’s youngsters had not tasted action since December 6th, so the club’s young charges could have been forgiven for being itching to get some game time under their belts for the first time in 2013 when West Brom visited London Colney this week in the first match of the Elite Round of the U21 Premier League.
As it transpired, however, many of the players who usually feature in such matches were given the day off, at least in terms of playing time, as coach Terry Burton was instructed to deploy several members of the first-team squad in his side in the 1-1 draw. Seven senior figures started in total, with mixed results, as Abou Diaby impressed on his latest return from a long-term injury, whilst Andre Santos found the net with a well-struck effort. For Emmanuel Frimpong, back from a disappointing loan spell at Charlton, however, things did not run so smoothly. The midfielder, who turned 21 yesterday, was sent off for dissent after kicking the ball away having conceded a late foul when he was already on a yellow card. He had previously looked uncomfortable for large periods after he was deployed in an unfamiliar position on the left wing.
The game also saw the notable return of Conor Henderson to action. Henderson, like Diaby, has suffered countless injuries during the past few seasons, and the Irish midfielder’s recent loan spell with Coventry was largely blighted by minor knocks, which restricted him to just two appearances for his temporary side. He certainly looked a little ring-rusty on Wednesday as he put his own goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, under pressure with a rather unnecessary back-pass shortly after his introduction as a substitute.
The game against West Brom was the first of 14 which Arsenal will play in this section, with the Gunners scheduled to face Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool home and away. The majority of fixtures will, unfortunately, be played behind-closed-doors at the home club’s training ground, but the games at home to United and Tottenham, as well as Southampton, will be played at Barnet’s Underhill Stadium, with the first two matches in particular likely to draw large crowds.
The U18s did not fare nearly as well as the U21s in the first half of the season and, as a consequence, will compete in a lesser division in their section. They start with a trip to face Norwich tomorrow, and it is only a matter of weeks now before coach Steve Gatting will be able to hand a long-awaited debut at that level to midfielder Gedion Zelalem, who has attracted much attention since his move to the club, having already trained with the first-team at just 15 years of age. Calm in possession and adept at breaking up play, Zelalem will be able to play officially for Arsenal once he turns 16 on January 26th.
Arsenal are also awaiting information of their opponents in the next stage of the NextGen Series, but, before that, the cream of the U18s will do battle with Fulham in the FA Youth Cup at Underhill next week. Fulham, who can call upon a Moussa Dembele (no, not that one) in their ranks, should provide a stern test for the young Gunners, who may again be without Serge Gnabry, with the German winger still recovering from an injury he picked up prior to the Christmas break.