When Arsenal entered the NextGen Series this season, the club were at pains to emphasise that participation in the competition would enable its young charges to test themselves against the best players of their age group in Europe.
With one game remaining in the group stages, though, Arsenal have not made quite the impact on proceedings as they may have anticipated, having failed to win or score in any of their last four fixtures, most recently being held to a goalless draw by 1o-man Athletic Bilbao in Spain last night.
It all started so well for Terry Burton’s charges, too, as they comfortably swept aside Marseille at home in their opening fixture, but the subsequent games have all been frustrating for one reason or another as Arsenal, despite being able to call upon a plethora of attacking talents such as Thomas Eisfeld, Kristoffer Olsson, Serge Gnabry, Jon Toral and Chuba Akpom, have struggled to make the breakthrough.
The goalless draw at home to Olympiacos was perhaps the most difficult to take as Arsenal created several chances but failed to take any of them against a Greek outfit who were stronger physically and much more aware tactically. Perhaps one factor behind Arsenal’s stuttering start to life in this competition has been the sheer number of games being played this season at both U21 and U18 levels, which, not even taking into account first-team and international call-ups, must have had some impact at least on the sharpness of the young Gunners.
All is not lost, though, as a victory at home to Bilbao in the return game at Underhill early next month will likely secure progression to the next phase given that, in addition to the top two teams, the four best third-placed teams from the six groups will also receive a rite of passage to the knockout stages.
Even if they do progress, however, Arsenal will know that significant improvements will have to be made if they are to compete with the likes of Barcelona. Results are not the be-all and end-all at this level, of course, but it has been the performances more than anything which have caused the most concern.
Nonetheless, Arsenal still have some promising talent amongst their ranks and, providing that some of the players involved are produced for the first-team, how they fare in tournaments such as these will not prove to be the most important thing in the world.