Ladies & U-21s Column: Issue 1
Whilst a mixture of the international break and the lack of a Champions League qualifier have made things a bit sparse on the first team front in the opening month of the season, the Ladies and U-21s have been much busier on the pitch. In fact, the reason this column has been so delayed is because I`ve been so busy going to all of the games, I haven`t had a chance to write about any of them! After a pre season in which the Arsenal XI`s principal issue was goalscoring, Burton`s boys have started emphatically on that front. The win against the odds against Bolton on the opening day of the U-21s campaign set the tone, as Arsenal then proceeded to whip a poor Blackburn side (who mustered only one shot- off target in the whole 90 minutes) 3-0 a the Emirates, with Conor Henderson conducting proceedings from midfield.
The young Irish midfielder had hinted during the summer that he would have been open to a loan deal for this season, but that aspiration was blocked by Arsene Wenger, who wanted Henderson to continue training with Arsenal. Henderson`s is an illustration of the misfortune that can blight any young career, having risen through the ranks and bagged himself a prominent spot in Arsenal`s 2011 pre season preparations, he ruptured his cruciate ligament in a friendly. Jeremie Aliadiere is a recent example of how injury at the wrong time can hamper your development. Henderson turned 21 at the weekend, meaning next season he will either have to make the grade for Arsenal`s 25 man squad or else be exiled. The new squad rules have similar implications on Craig Eastmond and Sanchez Watt, who have both turned 21 and are no nearer the first team than they were three years ago. Indeed, Sanchez Watt opened the scoring in the U-21s 3-0 win against Everton at Underhill last week five years to the day that he made his debut for the Reserves.
Early season results often do have a pleasing shape for an Arsenal Reserve side as many of the more senior reserves are still with the club. Nico Yennaris even captained the U-19s in their emphatic 3-0 Nextgen win over Marseilles. But it is likely that players such as Yennaris will filter out to the Football League for loan spells in the coming weeks. Chuks Aneke has already joined Crewe for such a spell and Daniel Boateng has joined Oxford United. It has to be said, 20 year olds loaned out to the obscure corners of League 2 rarely make the grade at Arsenal nowadays. It`s not just the need for further education that necessitates reserve mainstays such as Aneke, Miquel, Yennaris and Afobe look take to the Football League for the winter.
Burton has a groundswell of scholars and young professionals pushing through who desire action with the U-21s. Serge Gnabry has only just turned 17 and already finds himself included in Arsenal`s Champions League squad submitted to UEFA. Likewise, Chuba Akpom`s physicality and intelligence playing as a lone striker suitably impressed in games against Blackburn and Marseilles- a game in which Akpom scored twice. So much so that the 16 year old was called up to play for England U-19s in Germany. Kristoffer Olsson is also sniffing after a place in the heart of the midfield, though his penchant for hanging onto the ball a little too long and over complicating his passing slightly will be part of Burton`s focus on the training field. Burton also took a training session for the U16s and U-18s this week in an attempt to let the club`s younger protégés know what is required for progression to the U-21s.
However, a quirk of the fixture list has seen Terry Burton introduce his young side to 2012-13 entirely within the crèche of North London. Emirates Stadium and Underhill have been the scenes of destruction. With more senior members of the side surely set to leave on loan, Arsenal face a string of tough away fixtures. In the Nextgen series, the U-19s travel to Olympiacos, where they will play in the intimidating Georgios Kariaskakis stadium which the first team will visit in December. The U-21s then play two games in quick succession next week, Monday evening sees a home fixture against Norwich at Underhill (entry is free at the turnstiles), before a trip to Dagenham on Friday night to play West Ham at the Old Ford Sports Ground on Rush Green Road. (Again, that game is open to the general public to attend).
The likes of Jon Toral, Hector Bellerin, Chuba Akpom and Serge Gnabry will be tested more fully in unfamiliar environs in front of an away crowd of sorts. With three games in nine days, Burton will also have to juggle his resources. One player who has shown an unexpected lease of life is James Shea. The 21 year old goalkeeper looked set for the scrapheap after failing to impress on loan at Rushden and Diamonds, but the sending off of Martinez in the opening match has reignited his credentials. Some fine performances have likely come too late for an Arsenal career, but he will doubtless be looking for a permanent move into the Football League and he may have done enough to impress scouts. (I saw Paul Jewell of Ipswich and David Pleat at Underhill for the Everton game).
Meanwhile, Laura Harvey`s Ladies side have emanated from their Olympic cocoon and stay well on course for a domestic double. I had the honour of catching up with Steph Houghton shortly before the girls kicked off the second half of the season http://news.arseblog.com/2012/08/exclusive-steph-houghton-interview/ and she batted away any concerns of fatigue for the club`s Olympians. The schedule has been unforgiving, but such is Arsenal`s command at the top of the WSL, that they have been able to dictate on their own terms. A 2-2 draw at Everton was a good result because it kept a challenger at arm`s length. This was followed up by a cool 3-0 dispatch of Doncaster Belles at the Keepmoat. The match was played immediately after Doncaster Rovers` League One game with Crawley, ensuring a good and partisan crowd.
Kim Little`s goals were keeping the Ladies afloat earlier in the season. They have dried up a little for the diminutive Scot, but Jordan Nobbs has picked up from where she left off, bagging a late equaliser at Everton and two tap ins versus Doncaster Belles. Her form has seen her called up for Hope Powell`s England squad for the first time to play Croatia this weekend. Incidentally, if Rachel Yankey appears in that game, she will become the most capped England Ladies international of all time with 120 caps. A home draw with Bristol Academy produced a slight stutter, as Arsenal required a late thunderbolt from Kelly Smith to salvage a draw from a game they absolutely dominated. But having allowed Bristol to lead with a spectacular strike from Natasha Harding, Arsenal`s build up play became panicked.
Nevertheless, Smith was again the star of the show as the Gunners dispatched the same opponents 4-0 in the Continental Cup semi final. They will meet Birmingham City on October 10th in a repeat of the 2011 Final, which Arsenal won 4-1. Yesterday Harvey`s side scraped by Lincoln by 2 goals to 1 to leave themselves within four points of another WSL title. With a leggy performance against Bristol and a second half against Lincoln in which the girls almost entirely switched off and allowed the visitors back into the game, Harvey will be concerned about the prospect of complacency with the title so close now. Two home games await in the shape of Liverpool and Doncaster Belles, within which a draw and a win will see them retain their crown. But their form has hardly been all conquering since the Olympic break and Harvey will want to ensure those points are wrapped up quickly. A trip to main rivals Birmingham awaits on the final day and they won`t want to go there requiring points.
Harvey will also be mindful of maintaining momentum. It would be easy to switch off and stumble over the line to the title. But there`s also the small matter of the Continental Cup Final against Birmingham. If the Blues are to lose out on the league, they will want to salvage their own domestic double from the season, having already won the F.A Cup. Barcelona also awaits in late September / early October in the Champions League. The girls will not want any anxiety going into those two fixtures. The first leg takes place in Barca B`s Mini Estadi on the grounds of the Nou Camp on September 26th. The second leg kicks off at 3pm on Thursday, 4th October at Boreham Wood. The Meadow Lane floodlights don`t meet UEFA standards, hence the midweek afternoon kickoff. Tickets, as always, are £2.50 concessions and £5 for adults. An exciting few weeks await the Arsenal Ladies, but it could equally be a heartbreaking few weeks if tired legs and tired minds don`t stay on the job. LD.