It has become a near annual occurrence. Arsenal, with a first-team squad decimated by injuries, call upon a hitherto almost untried youngster in the heat of a Champions League fixture.
Following in the footsteps of Serge Gnabry and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in that regard, Alex Iwobi took to the field for the final six minutes of Arsenal’s crushing defeat to Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night.
Arsenal’s fate had long been sealed before Iwobi was called upon, but the game was still a notable experience for the young winger, who had been awarded another cameo appearance in altogether more favourable circumstances against Swansea City last weekend.
Iwobi wasn’t the only young representative on the Arsenal bench in Munich, with goalkeeper Matt Macey and the prodigiously talented French starlet Jeff Reine-Adelaide also being called up. Reine-Adelaide, just back from representing his country at the U17 World Cup, is likely to be on the standby for the game against Tottenham Hotspur, whilst Iwobi may well play some part in that fixture.
The glut of injuries to established players have provided plenty of other youngsters with an opportunity to sample a first-team environment, with many talented players training with the senior squad in recent weeks. Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds, two attack-minded youngsters who have been in excellent form for the club at U21 level this season, have trained with the first-team over the past couple of weeks and that is usually the precursor to further involvement with Arsene Wenger’s side in due course.
Willock and Hinds both featured as Arsenal took on Bayern at U19 level this week, with the game ending in a 1-1 draw. The young Gunners fell behind in Munich, but equalised through a spectacular strike from Ismael Bennacer before spurning an inviting opportunity to take the lead when Ben Sheaf missed a penalty.
Bennacer was singled out for criticism in some quarters for failing to make a substantial impression during his first-team debut against Sheffield Wednesday recently, but the youngster’s performances at youth level this season have been very encouraging and, even though he undoubtedly has some developing to do physically, he should be regarded as one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects.
Another player who falls into that category, Dan Crowley, played 45 minutes on the right wing in that aforementioned game against Bayern. The England U19 international returned early from a loan spell at Barnsley which, whilst bringing his first senior goal in a Capital One Cup tie against Everton, hadn’t worked out completely as expected, with the midfielder not having been selected regularly for the League One side during the final few weeks of his deal.
It could well be the case that Crowley, once he is fully sharp, will be sent back out on loan again. For now, though, he is one of many youngsters who, owing to injuries to first-team players, currently finds himself on the cusp of the senior squad, and it would only require further injuries for yet more youngsters to be called upon.
The circumstances are hardly ideal as far as the first-team are concerned, and Wenger would certainly want all of his senior stars available. As it has transpired, though, the plethora of injuries have meant that several youngsters are gaining valuable first-team experience much sooner than may otherwise have been the case.