The winds of change are currently seeping through London Colney and, over the coming months, a wider range of schoolboys will be introduced to U18 football, the level at which they will be hoping to ply their trade with more regularity from next season onwards.
For tomorrow’s game against West Bromwich Albion, for example, coach Steve Gatting will call upon a side composed almost entirely of schoolboys, with 11 U16s in total to form part of the matchday squad for the game, many of whom will be making their debuts at that level.
This isn’t just a case of providing youngsters with an opportunity, however, as there is a valid reason behind the stark change in selection policy; that being the fact that many of the players who usually play at this level will be kept fresh for the FA Youth Cup tie against Newcastle United at Underhill on Tuesday.
That game will see the young Gunners come up against a side who are seriously struggling in their group this season, although it is certain that nothing will be taken for granted against the Magpies, especially given last season’s unexpected defeat to Derby County at this stage of the competition.
Arsenal will be confident of progression, though, despite the fact that they haven’t been beyond the Fourth Round, or indeed played a game outside of London, since winning the competition four seasons ago. Much will be expected from Gatting’s side, particularly given that they can call upon a vivacious attacking quartet of Serge Gnabry, Kris Olsson, Anthony Jeffrey and Chuba Akpom, ably supplied by the precise passing of Jon Toral from midfield and the rampaging forward runs of full-backs Hector Bellerin and the highly-regarded Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill.
Speaking of highly-regarded youngsters, 15 year old midfielder Gedion Zelalem was selected to train with the first-team this week prior to their Champions League game with Montpellier. A combative midfielder who blends strength and skill, Zelalem is not eligible to play for Arsenal at any level until he turns 16 in January, but the fact that he was also chosen to train with the Brazil Olympic side when they were at London Colney earlier this year speaks volumes as to how highly he is rated within the football club.
Arsenal U21s, meanwhile, were in action today against their West Brom counterparts, suffering a 2-1 defeat at the training ground. Swedish midfielder Olsson scored a sublime free-kick, his second goal of the week after he also notched in the 4-2 victory over Norwich on Monday, but poor defending enabled the Baggies to come away with all the points.
There was a positive element to proceedings, however, as striker Zak Ansah made his return from a lengthy spell on the sidelines as a second-half substitute and came close to marking his comeback with a goal. The 18 year old was making his first appearance of the season having fell awkwardly against Liverpool back in March.