Arsenal often afford a plethora of youngsters the opportunity to impress during pre-season, indeed a large number of players received run-outs in last weekend’s opening friendly victory against Boreham Wood, but only a select few are invited to featured at just 16 years of age.
What made the inclusion of Chris Willock, who played 45 minutes against the Conference South side, even more remarkable was the fact that he featured for the first-team before he had even been called up to the U21 team. The hugely-promising youngster, who can operate as an attacking midfielder or on either flank, struggled with injuries last season, but still featured 12 times for the U18s, having made his debut at that level during the previous campaign.
Against Boreham Wood, Willock, despite the fact that he is still somewhat slight physically, didn’t look at all out of place in a first-team environment. The England youth international didn’t see much of the ball, but when he did receive possession he used it wisely and he developed an effective understanding with left-back Nacho Monreal, who helped to guide the youngster through the game.
There had been calls, in the wake of that performance, for Willock to stay with the first-team for their trip to New York, but Arsene Wenger elected to leave the youngster behind, meaning he is instead likely to feature for the U21s against Harrow Borough tomorrow. That appears to be a wise move. Willock has superb technical qualities, but requires some development physically before he can be thrown into regular first-team action.
That will come in time, but for now his aim will be to gain as much experience of youth team football as possible, whether with the U18s or the U21s. He will seek to follow the precedent set by Chuba Akpom, who featured regularly for the second-string during the first year of his scholarship, effectively bypassing U18 football.
With a more experienced first-team squad than in previous years, Arsenal are no longer in a position where they need to rush promising youngsters into the senior set-up. Yesterday Wenger remarked that Gedion Zelalem, for all his technical wizardry, will not be able to start in the Premier League for at least six months, whilst Dan Crowley, a midfielder of similarly great potential, didn’t even feature against Boreham Wood.
It is important to let these players develop and allow them to play regularly first at youth team level, where they can still learn a lot, enabling them to gain the required physicality to play top-level football, instead of propelling them into the first-team at the earliest possible opportunity.