Another Academy season is hurtling towards its conclusion and, as has often been the case in recent years, results haven’t made for positive reading as far as Arsenal’s youngsters are concerned.
This week Arsenal U21s lost 3-0 away to West Bromwich Albion, with Steve Gatting’s side falling to their third defeat in succession, a run that has seen them concede nine goals in the process.
The defeat to West Brom, which came despite the inclusion of the likes of Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem and Julio Pleguezuelo in the starting line-up, was significant in that it rendered it mathematically impossible for Arsenal to achieve promotion back to the top tier of U21 football this season.
This could have negative repercussions in terms of development, with Arsenal’s youngsters unable to test themselves against the best second-string sides in the country. However, with the club’s participation in next season’s Champions League almost secured, the U19s will most likely encounter some interesting and varied challenges in Europe.
Development is and always has been the end goal at youth level. There are some discrepancies about what it actually means to be an Academy product. Does Wojciech Szczesny count as an Arsenal product, for example, despite the fact that he joined the club at the age of 16? Regardless of whether he does or not, he is still a player who has made the jump from the youth team to the first-team at the club.
Hector Bellerin also falls into the category of having moved to Arsenal on scholarship terms before progressing to the first-team. It has been an impressive breakthrough season for the Spaniard, who perhaps wouldn’t have envisaged himself being Arsenal’s first choice right-back at this stage when he was struggling to get games on loan at Watford last year.
Whether any further youngsters will be able to join Bellerin in the first-team fold in the near future remains to be seen. Krystian Bielik’s performances at youth level so far have been largely impressive and the youngster, who is seen by Arsene Wenger as primarily being a defensive-midfielder as opposed to a centre-back, should receive some senior minutes next season.
Others, such as Alex Iwobi, Glen Kamara and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, are likely to experience their first loan spells next campaign as they seek to make the incredibly difficult journey from youth-team prospect to first-team player at Arsenal.
There is an argument that winning trophies at youth level isn’t always reflective of a successful academy. Chelsea, for example, have been involved in five of the last six FA Youth Cup finals, winning four of them, yet John Terry is the only academy graduate who has regularly played for their first-team this season.
In that respect, so long as Arsenal are able to produce players capable of making the grade at the club, results shouldn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, although it would surely be more beneficial for the youngsters to be able to test themselves against opponents of a higher calibre.
The worry is that most of Arsenal’s best prospects were signed from elsewhere, although there are a crop of Hale End products currently playing at U18 level who will be seeking to buck that trend in the future.