Arsenal held their annual U21 squad photocall yesterday, with one player conspicuous by his absence.
Chuba Akpom, who hit the headlines recently after scoring a hat-trick against a Singapore Select XI in the Barclays Asia Trophy, wasn’t included in the photo, indicating that the striker is now considered to be more of a senior player than a youth team one.
Perhaps too much shouldn’t be read into this, but Arsene Wenger’s recent comments about the striker, in which he suggested that he will keep Akpom at Arsenal this season rather than sending him out on loan again, lent further credence to claims that the 19-year-old will at least get some first-team game time this season.
Whilst Akpom wasn’t involved, there were three fringe members of the first-team squad who were part of the photo in Gedion Zelalem, Isaac Hayden and Krystian Bielik.
Zelalem featured fleetingly against Singapore but, despite his immense potential, he will find it considerably difficult to break into Arsenal’s midfield at a time when even a player as talented as Jack Wilshere isn’t guaranteed a regular place in the starting line-up.
Hayden, meanwhile, didn’t travel to Asia, with the club instead preferring for him to remain at London Colney to undergo extra fitness work after he was plagued by injury problems last season. The youngster, who has featured twice competitively for the first-team, is likely to experience his first loan spell once he returns to full sharpness.
As for Bielik, his absence from the squad that travelled to Asia caused confusion for some supporters, but the Polish youth international was nursing a slight injury that was related to a problem he suffered towards the end of last season.
Capable of playing at centre-back but most comfortable as a defensive-midfielder, Bielik produced some impressive performances for the club at U21 level in the second half of the 2014/15 campaign following his arrival from Legia Warsaw.
He will be hoping to make his first-team debut at some stage this season, possibly in the Capital One Cup, but will be aware that he will probably spend the majority of his time playing for the U21s as he acclimatises further to English football.
The ultimate aim for Zelalem, Hayden and Bielik will be to join Akpom in edging ever closer to the senior side. Akpom, though, will surely know that his own journey to the top hasn’t quite reached its conclusion just yet, with many more hurdles lying in wait in his attempt to establish himself as a regular starter at Emirates Stadium.
Hector Bellerin proved with his tremendous breakthrough campaign that it is possible for a youngster to establish himself as an important player in a short space of time, but the quartet listed above will know that there is a major difference between being a first-team squad member and being a player who is of pivotal importance to the club.