You wait for years to make your senior debut, and then, when the moment finally arrives, you find the event overshadowed by an inept team performance.
That is the predicament that Alex Iwobi and Glen Kamara found themselves in this week against Sheffield Wednesday as they, along with foreign recruits Ismael Bennacer and Krystian Bielik, represented the Arsenal senior side for the first time in extremely difficult circumstances.
The performance and result prompted mass debate about the current situation regarding the club’s youth academy but firstly there are several factors to consider.
Iwobi and Kamara are players that need to go on loan first before being considered for first-team action. The former has fared well at youth level over the past year but still has much to work on if he is to make the grade at a top club, whilst the latter has featured prominently for Arsenal’s U21 side yet it always seemed likely that first-team football with the Gunners, at this stage in his development at least, would be a little too much for him to cope with.
Arsenal’s 2012 intake of scholars, which Iwobi and Kamara were part of, wasn’t the strongest group, even though it did contain Chuba Akpom, who featured for the first-team last season and is currently on loan at Hull City in the Championship.
The next age group, the 2013 scholars, contains some extremely promising prospects. Gedion Zelalem, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dan Crowley all surely would have featured against Sheffield Wednesday had they not been out on loan, whilst Julio Pleguezuelo, a centre-back who has performed well at youth level in recent seasons, was unfortunate not to make the squad.
It is true that there are many aspects of the academy set-up that need addressing, not least the lack of defensive prospects emerging through the club’s Hale End system, but there are still some positives to be taken from the overall situation.
Bennacer and Bielik aren’t completely ready for regular senior football, as Tuesday’s game showed, yet both players are still intriguing prospects for the future. Beyond that the likes of Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Chris Willock, Donyell Malen, Yassin Fortune, Vlad Dragomir, Marcus Agyei-Tabi and schoolboy Reiss Nelson are all excellent talents, although, of those, only Reine-Adelaide is capable of performing at senior level at present, and even he is still some way off becoming a regular.
With the club now capable of signing players such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, the bar has been raised for academy prospects in terms of breaking into the squad. If a youngster receives even a slither of an opportunity then they have to take it, but to do so they must first be an immense talent.
Of the current squad, Hector Bellerin, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs featured prominently for the club at youth level before breaking into the senior set-up. It will be extremely difficult for others to join them, but if they are good enough then they will get the opportunity.
Tuesday night’s performance was abysmal, but it wasn’t just the youngsters who failed to impress, with senior players such as Mathieu Debuchy and Mathieu Flamini particularly culpable.
The performance against Sheffield Wednesday should be criticised, yet it is an exaggeration to say that the Arsenal youth academy is in crisis. Andries Jonker has slowly been helping to improve the club’s youth department since his appointment and much work is still required, but, unlike at some other clubs, the pathway to the first-team is still open for those that are willing to take their chance.