Burton's Boys: Super Chuba and Iggy Smalls
Even though the Arsenal U-21s have only played once since last I wrote about the club`s developmental activities, behind the scenes there has been a little moving and shaking. Whilst the club were rather firm in their announcement that Liam Brady will stand down from his role as Head of Youth Development in 2014, developments since have been shrouded in no small amount of mystery.
The news predictably set off a chain of press speculation linking Arsenal legends Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp to the role- as though having been a good Arsenal player is the sole requirement for an administrative role such as this. What is less clear is whether the reshuffle has actually already happened. U-18 Coach Steve Gatting took charge of the U-21s last night, with long time Academy coach Carl Laraman taking charge of the U-18s at Blackburn this weekend. This was first reported by the ever reliable Jeorge Bird http://arsenalyouth.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/burton-in-line-to-replace-brady-as-head-of-arsenals-youth-development/ last week and this seems to have been borne out over the last few days.
What is strange is that the club has made no announcement to this effect. Whether the current reshuffle is a trial basis remains to be seen in the coming weeks I guess. But it does suggest that Burton has impressed in his short time at the club. Youngsters such as Chuba Akpom, Serge Gnabry, Isaac Hayden and Thomas Eisfeld can all be said to have benefitted from his tutelage. Of course Steve Gatting only very recently replaced Pat Holland as U-18s coach, who floundered badly in the post and was quickly hastened to exit. It does make one wonder as to activities behind the scenes. Arsenal is a club renowned for the continuity of its staff and coaching- particularly at Youth and Academy levels. The last three months has seen an extraordinary amount of change by anyone`s standards, let alone Arsenal`s.
With regards to on pitch matters, the U-21s continued their Elite Group campaign on a ramshackle pitch at Altrincham F.C`s Moss Lane last night, with a 2-2 away draw against Manchester United. Lukasz Fabianski made his return from injury in goal, but the most eye catching performance came from Chuba Akpom, who helped himself to two goals. Chuba has progressed very quickly from U-18 level. He is already very developed physically, which tailors him precisely to the striker role in Arsenal`s 4-2-3-1 system. His hold up play and unselfish running were already eye catching and a joy for the likes of Eisfeld and Gnabry to play off of, but he hasn`t provided a sustained enough goal threat inside the penalty area.
Prior to the United game, Chuba had only registered 5 goals at U-21 level this season, with one more in the Nextgen Series. But in the last seven days, he notched two for England U-19s against Denmark and two penalty box goals against United at Moss Lane. The first a powerful dance through the United defence and blistering finish. The second a poacher`s goal after Ben Amos fumbled Conor Henderson`s long range strike. The rumour mill suggested there were two Barcelona scouts in the Lancashire crowd with the express purpose of watching young Chuba. He still has plenty to learn, but the second half of the season ought to see him kick on as a goalscoring threat.
The player I am always asked about the most with regards to the U-21s is Thomas Eisfeld. He is Arsenal`s top scorer at U-21 level this season with ten goals, which is eye catching. But last night`s game showed why he still doesn`t figure in the first team picture. Eisfield has a tendency to disappear for entire games. The truth is, if he isn`t scoring, he isn`t offering an awful lot else creatively. In truth, I`m at a loss to understand why he wasn`t sent on loan in the January window. There was concrete interest from Ipswich Town and rumoured interest from Cardiff. But I suppose if neither club could guarantee him a good chance of starting games regularly, they may have been tentative. He certainly needs to work on involving himself in play to a greater degree. A spell in an environment where livelihoods are on the line and results are the be all and end all might have done him some good I suspect.
One player who is closer to the first team now is U-21 captain Ignasi Miquel. He came on as a substitute at Sunderland, confirming his place in the pecking order above Sebastien Squillaci (but crucially, not above Bacary Sagna at centre half). Untimely injury against Reading in the League Cup this season probably prevented him from going on loan and I think he might have benefited from the experience as much as Eisfeld. Miquel has good qualities, but still panics rather heavily under pressure. I`ve lost count of the amount of passes I have seen him shank over Underhill`s shallow roof. There was an incident last night where United`s Nick Powell barged him off the ball in much the same ragdoll manner as Drogba once did to Armand Traore.
Traore almost became a professional kickboxer, the fact that Drogba knocked him over so emphatically is testament to the Ivorian`s awesome power. With respect, Nick Powell is not quite in the same mould. Miquel could probably do with some league football to attune himself to the more physical demands of the game that he still struggles with. One player who will be getting more of a taste of Football League action is Benik Afobe, who joined Millwall last week on an emergency loan. Just a cautionary tale in case readers got too carried away about Chuba`s prospects, Afobe was once heavily scouted by Barcelona too.
Afobe`s chances of becoming an Arsenal striker are probably over bar a miracle. A promising loan spell at Huddersfield Town two years ago seemed to have teed his development up nicely. There is no good time for a footballer to get injured, but bad injuries in your teens usually alter the course of one`s career for the worst. (See Conor Henderson, who started an F.A. Cup game against Leyton Orient just under two years ago, but struggled to get a game at League One Coventry City this season). Benik spent most of the 2011-12 season injured and it`s visibly hurt his progress. Not least because pace and power have always been among his chief assets. His loan spell at Bolton was rather lean, with 3 goals from 23 appearances. Whilst it`s true different young players develop at different rates (Fran Merida joined Atletico Paraneanse on a 1 year deal yesterday, David Bentley has yet to register a goal for FC Rostov in Russia and Jermaine Pennant is battling for a starting spot at Wolves), injury at a young age often curtails the development terminally. Emmanuel Frimpong will probably find this out to his cost as well. LD.