U-21s Half Term Report
For the U-21s, the season is now on hiatus until January. The summer restructure of youth and reserve football means that the U-21 league has taken on a two tiered approach, with the league dividing in the second half of the season. Participation in the Nextgen Series has ensured that Arsenal`s young croplet has been able to play more fixtures. The reforms were long overdue and have been a spectacular success in my opinion.
Arsenal`s youngsters have been able to experience the hotch potch of what it`s like to play three games in a week, especially with more league fixtures than previously. In past seasons, they might have had to wait three weeks between matches. Arsenal`s young guns have experienced a period of three games in a week three times so far this season. It`s a perfect blend of giving them experience of the sort of demands they can expect in the seniors, but because they don`t play three times every week, it mitigates the risk of burnout at an early age.
Having more fixtures also allows more opportunities for players from the U-18s to taste some U-21 action; experience and opportunity are always the best bedfellows for progression. So Isaac Hayden and Jon Toral, U-18 mainstays, were able to start the game against Athletic Bilbao, whilst Alfred Mugabo and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill came off the bench that night. I genuinely find it a real shame that UEFA have effectively hijacked the success of Nextgen with their recent announcement that they will be administering a UEFA U-19s Champions League as from next season, effectively undercutting Nextgen.
The issue is that Nextgen, in my opinion, is genuinely concerned with the progression and education of young players, exposing them to different styles and easing them into the demands and nuances of European competition. UEFA are no longer a governing body worthy of the name. They`re a nefarious, cash hungry corporation. They`ll have seen the success of Nextgen and spied an opportunity to flog broadcasting rights, hyping and exposing the game`s young gems in the process. Nextgen has been discreet; the odd game might be on Europsort to little fanfare. The games are played in front of crowds as a condition, so you can watch if you like, but it involves effort to go and watch, thereby minimising audiences.
It`s perfectly balanced between playing in front of live crowds without the hyperbole of Sky Sports` technicolour lens. UEFA will doubtless sell the broadcasting rights to Sky Sports and we`ll have to suffer all manner of nonsensical trailers urging you to watch "the next Messi" as images of Jon Toral doing a Cruyff turn flash upon the screen. Nextgen has benefitted Terry Burton`s tykes. They certainly found the demands of away matches problematic, having failed to register an away goal in their group. They also had no answer to Olympiacos` uber disciplined defensive display at Underhill. The kids might be used to opponents parking the bus, but not opponents with the pedigree that Olympiacos have.
Finding the tournament and its demands tough means that it`s been a positive education for them, which is the aim of the game at this level. Even more pleasingly, Arsenal qualified from a tight group in 2nd place. They experienced the demands of playing away in Europe in front of partisan home support and were in the pressure position of having to win their last group game to qualify against a very impressive Bilbao outfit. Formulating Nextgen can`t have been easy. There`s a balance to strike. In education, one needs to be set challenges, but crucially, they need to be achievable. Nobody`s going to learn anything by being walloped five or six nil six times. Casting an eye over the groups, the tournament seems to have avoided that and Arsenal`s group was so tight that every team had a chance to qualify in their last group game. The fear is UEFA will seed their bastardised version of the competition and eventually, the smaller teams will just get run down six times every winter.
Likewise Arsenal can be pleased with their progression in the U-21 Premier League. The league has been split into three groups for the first half of the season (two groups of 7 and one group of 8). Arsenal have finished a respectable second place in Group One just behind West Ham. That means they qualify for the elite stage for the second half of the season. (The top 3 qualify from Group One, the top two from Groups Two and Three). Liverpool, Wolves and West Ham will definitely form part of the Elite Group, Group Two has a round of fixtures to complete yet, but Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur currently occupy the top two spots there. Aston Villa and Sunderland could yet displace one or both of them yet.
Arsenal will play each side home and away in the Elite Group in a mini league format. The top 3 will go through to knockout semi-finals. The rest of the teams from Groups One, Two and Three go into two groups- Qualification Group tier one and tier two. They also play one another home and away. The winners of tier one and tier two play a playoff game to decide who takes the fourth semi-final slot alongside the top 3 in the Elite Group. This keeps the season interesting for longer, ensuring that even teams that have finished towards the bottom of their initial groups have something to play for. It also decreases the chances of playing against a side that has nothing to play for, as could often become the case early on in the U-21 Premier League of old.
Arsenal can be very pleased to have finished second in their group and, as with Nextgen, they are certain to face even stiffer challenges in the second half of the season. Both of Burton`s on pitch targets will have been met in qualifying for the knockouts of the Nextgen and for the Elite League at home. The U-18s are also in the 4th Round of the F.A. Youth Cup (where they were today drawn at home to either Fulham or Middlesbrough). Juggling competitions is to be a regular feature of life if these boys want to make it at the top level and they`ve dealt with it so far.
Burton`s objectives also lie in producing players for the first team. In that respect, Damian Martinez, Martin Angha, Serge Gnabry, Jernade Meade and Thomas Eisfeld have all had their first taste of the first team (Gnabry, Meade and Angha have also sampled Champions League action). Whilst the fit again Zak Ansah, Elton Monteiro, Sead Hajrovic and Chuba Akpom travelled with the squad for the Olympiacos match earlier in the month. Gnabry was blooded at crucial times in games the team were losing against Norwich and Schalke. Though he has a tendency to drift out of games for long periods, Eisfeld`s timing and eye for goal, which he demonstrated in pre season, have seen calls for him to become more involved with the first team increase across forums. I would imagine it`s more likely he will go out on loan in January. Possibly even to a Premier League side.
There have been harsh lessons along the way so far this season for Terry Burton`s boys. The 4-1 defeat at West Ham on a filthy Friday night in Romford followed a drab 1-1 draw at home to a weak Norwich side, which was then compounded by a 1-0 defeat at West Brom and an injury time loss in Marseilles most notably. Such is life at development level, peaks and troughs are always likely. But Burton will be pleased with the season so far. Now he will look to build upon that work with an even harder 2013 and look to groom the likes of Akpom, Olsson, Gnabry (all of whom signed professional terms with the club in the first half of the season) and Angha into players Arsene Wenger would feel comfortable to call upon if necessary. LD.