Arsenal U21s continued their impressive start to the season by dispatching of Norwich City in the newly-created U21 Premier League Cup this week. A superb solo goal from Benik Afobe, his first since returning from a lengthy injury lay-off, was enough to send Arsenal into the next round, but the Gunners were also reliant on the heroics of goalkeeper Matt Macey, a recent recruit from Bristol Rovers, who made several stunning saves to preserve a clean sheet.
Once again, the game emphasised Arsenal’s staggering amount of depth at second-string level at present, with Hector Bellerin, Kristoffer Olsson and Chuba Akpom, who have all featured for the first-team this season, only capable of making the bench, despite the fact that both Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld were absent.
Another young German returned to the side in Gedion Zelalem, with the midfielder playing several precise passes, whilst Jon Toral, operating on the left flank, continually posed a danger to the Norwich defence. Afobe’s goal would prove decisive, however, with the striker somehow manoeuvring his way past three defenders before finding the net. The only real downside to the game from an Arsenal perspective was the fact that Afobe suffered a hamstring injury shortly after scoring which forced him to be withdrawn early in the second-half, but the England U21 international is not set to be out for too long.
The fortunes of the U21s are in stark contrast to those of the U18s at present, with the younger age-group having not experienced victory since the opening game of the season. Their miserable run of form continued with a 3-0 defeat at home to Chelsea last weekend, and they will be looking to avoid a similar result when they take on Tottenham Hotspur this week.
The disappointing results and performances at that level cannot exactly be attributed to inexperience, with coach Carl Laraman, whose abilities have been questioned by supporters recently, able to call upon the likes of Akpom, Jack Jebb and Alex Iwobi last week. There is an element of concern that some players are able to perform commendably at U21 level but struggle to replicate that form when they return to the U18s.
Development is always prioritised over results at youth level, but when a side fails to win for twelve games, as Arsenal have done, then serious concerns begin to arise. There have been calls for a reshuffle of the coaching staff at youth level, but, until a permanent replacement is found for Liam Brady as the club’s Head of Youth Development, Laraman is likely to keep his job.