Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of defensive options at senior level, but that problem isn’t just restricted to the first-team, with the club’s U23 side also suffering from a dearth of availability in that area.
That issue was certainly in evidence last week, when, in the first game of the season, coach Steve Gatting elected to deploy Ben Sheaf- a defensive midfielder- at centre-back.
Sheaf, as it transpired, was one of Arsenal’s better performers on the night, but he couldn’t prevent the young Gunners from falling to a 2-0 defeat against Reading, with his central-defensive partner Kristopher Da Graca particularly struggling.
Arsenal’s back four against the Royals was rather makeshift, with Kostas Pileas, who is better suited to playing at centre-back, being utilised at left-back (although he has featured in the latter position previously.)
Chiori Johnson, meanwhile, is a natural fit at right-back, but Arsenal don’t have many other defensive options at this level, apart from Jordi Osei-Tutu who is currently playing for the U18s.
The loan departures of Stefan O’Connor, Julio Pleguezuelo and Tafari Moore certainly haven’t helped matters, but it is a little strange that the club haven’t sought to bring in some defensive prospects during the transfer window.
When injuries inevitably strike (Marc Bola is already out) Arsenal’s options will be depleted even further, which could cause Gatting to turn to new scholars such as Tobi Omole and Joseph Olowu, who have barely played for the U18s.
There has long been a concern that Arsenal are more focused on developing creative and attack minded talents as opposed to defensive ones, and that theory was provided with greater evidence in the Reading game, when the likes of Gedion Zelalem, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Chris Willock and Reiss Nelson all featured.
Unless significant improvements are made then this could prove to be a very difficult season for Arsenal U23s at the back. Sheaf looks set to continue at centre-back for the away game against Manchester City tonight and it is difficult to envisage how Arsenal are going to cope when up against top sides.
On a more positive note, it does appear that Arsenal will be a threat at the other end of the field, with Gatting able to call upon the likes of Stephy Mavididi, Donyell Malen and Edward Nketiah up front.
Meanwhile, with Zelalem and Maitland-Niles having not yet been sent out on loan, the pair could play some further games at U23 level, which should boost the chances of Gatting’s side impressing in an attacking sense.
Defensively, however, there is much to be concerned about.