Ladies & U-21s Column: Issue 2
With the new layout of the U-21 Premier League and Arsenal`s entry into the Nextgen series, one of the new demands facing Arsenal`s youth players is a more challenging schedule. Even last season it wasn`t at all unusual to be staring into the abyss of a three week fixture gap. Now, Arsenal`s Reserves are playing twice a week most of the time. The benefits are manifold in terms of broadening their experience, upping their game time and mimicking the tribulations faced by the first team.
But it also gives Terry Burton the opportunity to operate a squad cadre. This means that even younger players get experience of second string football earlier on. In the past, players from the U-18s, such as Gnabry, Bellerin and Olsson, have had to wait till the tail end of the season when most of the established reserves players have gone out on loan. The positives of this are countless and so this week, it`s probably no coincidence that Conor Henderson has been allowed to join Coventry on loan just two days after his U-18s counterpart Jack Jebb signed professional terms with the club.
In the UK, players are not allowed to sign professional terms until their 17th birthday. An indication of how highly a club rates a player is usually as to how quickly after his 17th birthday the deal is signed. Like Gnabry and Olsson this summer, Jebb put ink to paper within days of the apt calendar date. Like Henderson, Jebb is a creative central midfielder. With Henderson joining Coventry in the search for competitive football following a cruciate injury, U-18s mainstay Jebb will look to infiltrate his place in the U-21 line up in the same role. With the Nextgen and U-21 games coming thick and fast, the club can take such liberties with fringe players and throw down a gauntlet to its young imps.
After a flying start to the season, results have been trickier to come by for Burton`s boys. But at this level, results come second to exposure and experience. An unfortunate 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos in Greece will have taught them lessons. Looking at Olympiacos` first goal- a comfortable three yeards offside in its creation- lesson number one is that, away from home in Europe, one is likely to feel the sharp end of a contentious call. That said, the travelling did seem to leave the Gunners a little leggy in the last twenty minutes. Again, it`s all money in the bank for their later careers. The fatigue seemed to stay with them as they huffed and puffed in the second half against Norwich City and conceded a late equaliser at Underhill.
I travelled to rainswept Dagenham last night to watch the U-21s take on West Ham. The performance was almost a mirror image of the Norwich game. The boys started positively and took the lead- through an Elton Monteiro header following lovely footwork from Olsson. But then a mixture of fatigue and carelessness slipped in. West Ham took a 2-1 lead before half time. In the second half, Arsenal looked even more weary and conceded a further two. The difference between the Norwich and West Ham games was obvious. Against Norwich, Miquel and Squillaci formed an experienced centre half partnership that prevented the Canaries from creating too many opportunities, even when Arsenal`s midfield and forward line lost their hold on the game.
Burton opted for a much younger side in Essex and the inexperienced back four of Angha, Monteiro, Hajrovic (ordinarily a right back and not a very good one at that) and Bihmoutine- usually a centre half, did not have the same savvy. Arsenal`s use of full backs at this level has been intriguing over the years. Nico Yennaris is only really on the fringes of the first team as a deputy right back, yet always plays the holding role for the U-21s. Both Martin Angha and Hector Bellerin are currently being converted into roving right backs. The latter of the two is really beginning to impress there too. Bellerin came on as a substitute and nearly scored twice. Bihmoutine is a centre half tried out at left back last night. Jernade Meade is a left back who`s been pushed up to the wing in the last three matches. Sead Hajrovic is a Luzhny-a-like right back who has played predominantly at centre half this year.
Swapping positions is all part of the education process I expect. But Arsenal do it with full backs more than any other position. Even going back to Craig Eastmond, who won a Youth Cup in 2009 as Arsenal`s right back, but is now considered firmly as a central midfielder. Many of these young players, such as Gnabry, Bellerin, Eisfeld, Yennaris and perhaps Olsson will be looking at Wednesday`s Capital One Cup clash for places on the bench at least. Ironically, the next couple of U-21 matches- at West Brom on 1st October and at home to Reading on 8th October, will be pencilled in as possible comebacks for bona fide first teamers from our academy, with Frimpong and Wilshere looking to step up their respective recoveries. Arsenal`s next Nextgen game is, neatly, at home to Olympiacos on 4th October, 24 hours after the first team execute the same fixture.
That game against Olympiacos is pre dated earlier in the afternoon by another crucial European game for Arsenal in North London. Arsenal Ladies play Barcelona at 3pm at Borehamwood between the double Olympiacos assignment. Three European games for the club in 24 hours if you fancy it! But Laura Harvey`s focus will be on matters domestic for now. The international break is over and it`s been a successful one for Arsenal`s England contingent. England defeated Croatia 3-0 to qualify for Euro 2013. Jordan Nobbs earned her first England cap- a reward for her prolific form of late. At the other end of the scale, Rachel Yankey earned her 120th cap, making her the most capped outfield England international of all time. She is now six short of breaking Peter Shilton`s all time record of 125. Yanks is however, the most decorated English lady ever to play the game.
Whilst the bouquets are indeed welcome, there are more club centric matters at hand now. Arsenal could wrap up the WSL title this weekend. Birmingham City play Doncaster Belles at the Keepmoat Stadium at 7.45pm on Saturday night. If the Blues fail to pick up all three points, the Gunners can retain their title with a win at home to bottom club Liverpool this Sunday. However, even if Doncaster aren`t obliging for us this week, we can win the league by beating the same opponents at Borehamwood next Sunday. The kickoff for that game has been moved to 4.30pm as ESPN are covering it live. Probably in expectation of a trophy presentation after the game.
But Harvey will want the league wrapped up sooner rather than later, for the schedule is unforgiving. This Wednesday sees their first leg against Barcelona at the Mini Estadi, followed by the Doncaster game on Sunday, proceeded by the Barca home tie the following Thursday. That Sunday, Arsenal conclude their WSL campaign away at Birmingham City and they definitely won`t want to go there needing a result. On October 10th, Arsenal then face the same opponents in the Continental Cup Final at Barnet`s Underhill. Harvey will ideally want to rotate her squad adequately. But the biggest challenge may be in maintaining focus. Switching off mentally was a clear and consistent issue in their last two league games against Bristol and Lincoln. With glory so close, it would be easy to get complacent. Harvey will want to manage the situation so that the finishing rope is cut quickly so she can juggle resources, whilst at the same time keeping hunger and concentration at its zenith for other assignments. LD.