Whilst much of our focus zooms in on the imminent beginning of the Premiership season, for the Ladies and U-21s, preparations will be at an advanced stage. The Ladies resume their domestic programme after the break for the Olympics, whilst the newly revamped reserves league- now billed the U-21 Premier League, begins on Monday with a game against Bolton Wanderers at Emirates Stadium. I`ll write separate articles previewing the task ahead for the U-21s and the Ladies, but after this week, last season`s Reserves and Ladies column will return as an amalgamated piece.
We start with Terry Burton`s U-21 side. The two competitions he will preside over elucidate what a multi faceted role coaching a reserve side is. He of course will look after the U-21 Premier League campaign, as well as the NextGen tournament- a kind of U-19s Champions League. Results are important, but largely it is development that is the byword for his role. That really takes in laying down the roots of a good education and then sorting the wheat from the chaff. People are always very interested in how the club`s younger players are doing. I`m always asked which Reserve team players I believe will be the next superstars following a Reserve match.
The brutal truth is, that any youngster with designs on being a fixture in the Arsenal side will spend a very short time at Reserve level. A look at those who have come through successfully- Szczesny, Wilshere, Coquelin- shows you that they will play no more than a handful of games with the second string before they are fast tracked to the first team. The biggest part of a Reserve manager`s job is weeding out that are unable to make that step up. There still exists a big gap between second string level and the Premier League. Loan spells are usually a good indication of how capable a player is of executing the leap successfully. For instance, Jay Emmanuel Thomas made Reserve football look asinine. He looked positively bored most of the time. Yet loan spells at Doncaster, Ipswich and Blackpool brought him few admirers.
In that respect, there are many in the 19 year old age bracket that Burton will have to make a final determination on this year. Nico Yennaris, Ignasi Miquel, Chuks Aneke, Kyle Bartley and Craig Eastmond really are in "now or never" territory. In truth, if you aren`t at least sitting on the first team bench by aged 19, you probably aren`t going to make the cut at Arsenal. Expect all of the aforementioned to be farmed out on loan. Henri Lansbury will probably be sold having not forced his way into either Norwich or West Ham`s Championship sides. Benik Afobe will also need to bang in some serious goals at Bolton to be considered next season. Ryo Miyachi joins Wigan and, with this his third loan spell, he`s going to have to show he`s more Wilshere/ Coquelin/ Szczesny than Merida/ Lupoli/ Owusu Abeyie.
Conor Henderson finds himself in a slightly different position having spent the whole of last season injured. He might find a little slack whilst he rediscovers his sharpness. Expect a more forgiving loan for him this year. The second half of the season for the Reserves always sees the objectives change. I imagine the end of the August window will see some of the older lads learning their trade elsewhere. So the team for the games against Blackburn and Bolton (both at the Emirates) will change markedly come September. It`s at this point that last year`s scholars need to push through.
The focus changes again in January when yet more players further their experience on loan. The early rounds of the Carling Cup have to be a realistic target for the mainstays of the Reserves. Once they pass and the winter January window opens, it`s time for some of the U-18s to start pushing through and for last year`s scholars to stake their claim. Jon Toral, Hector Bellerin, Anthony Jeffrey and Martin Angha were bled slowly into the Reserves during the spring. Those players will look to cement their lace in the Reserves. Zak Ansah is another who is on the comeback trail from a cruciate ligament injury, but he need only look at Emmanuel Frimpong to see that shouldn`t necessarily preclude him from first team involvement if he shows the quality.
With Oghuzan Ozyakup gone, there is a spot for a creative central midfielder and this represents a good opportunity for Kristoffer Olsson. He spent much of last season injured, but appears to have put those woes behind him and impressed in Arsenal XI`s summer programme. Likewise, Jack Jebb is a first year scholar that plays a similar role. He has found himself accelerated through youth levels at Arsenal- even leaving school a year early- and he will look to break into the Reserve side- possibly after January. Isaac Hayden also impressed in Steve Bould`s U-18 side. He was a physically imposing central midfielder that Bould converted into a commanding centre half. He appears to have leadership quality too and currently captains the U-18s. If Miquel is to go on loan- as seems likely- there could be a spot at centre half that Hayden will have his eye on.
The two players who will probably have their eyes set most firmly on the first team are quite similar in mould. Thomas Eisfeld was bought as one of Arsene`s "worth a punt" cheap deals when he arrived for £425,000 from Borussia Dortmund in January. A questionable injury record and a contract close to its zenith explained away the cheap fee. In pre season Eisfeld has shown a class that appears to be above reserve level. (He will be 20 in January). But whether or not he will be good enough for a first team role will depend on early performances for the U-21s. He will have much to prove from an early stage. Particularly as Arsene does like a creative player and Eisfeld appears to fit that bill. He will have his eyes fixed firmly on the Carling Cup.
I mentioned earlier that players coming through the ranks will, realistically, only look to make a small clutch of appearances for the second string before being fast tracked to the first team. The club are, quite rightly, trying to quell some of the hype around him, yet Serge Gnabry currently looks the lad most likely. Gnabry spent most of last season in the U-18s before finishing strongly with a few Reserve appearances. He is the prototype Wenger player. A number 10 capable of playing on the wing. German education with Ivorian heritage. He can run 100m in 10.7 seconds. Gnabry has technical qualities in advance of his years. But there again so did Bentley and Merida. That Gnabry went to Arsenal`s training camp in Germany tells you how highly he is regarded having just turned 17.
Many reserves will feature in the earlier pre season excursions- mostly out of necessity with international commitments obliterating the first team. But to be invited along at the latest stage of the summer when the preparations are firmly in place is the ultimate compliment for a player at this level. He will still begin the season nominally with the U-21s you would think. But by the time the 3rd Round of the Carling Cup comes around in September, you would think that he would want to be involved in the squad. Competition is fierce in the Arsenal side on the wings, so don`t expect a breakthrough into the first team proper this season, but this time next year he`ll want to be challenging. In fact, he would probably rather look to make the final decision on Ryo Miyachi rather more uncomfortable for the manager. It is unlikely both will make it.
The structure of the competition is improved this year for the U-21s. There are more games for a start and Arsenal will be playing the first two at the Emirates- the second of which will be a Saturday afternoon when the first team aren`t playing. It`s a fertile ground for the crop to show its credentials for the winter. The NextGen series also offers these lads a chance to expose themselves to their continental peers. The fact that they will pit their wits against the very highly rated Athletic Bilbao academy is a challenge they should relish- a chance to benchmark themselves against one of the most highly rated development centres for technical footballers in Europe. Terry Burton will likewise look upon that as a challenge in his new role. LD.