It has certainly been a whirlwind few days for Isaac Hayden. Last Saturday the promising youngster, who can play at centre-back or as a defensive-midfielder, was drafted into the first-team squad for the final pre-season friendly against Manchester City in Helsinki. Although the 18 year old only featured for the last two minutes at the end of the game, his mere presence in the squad was something of a landmark in his fledgling career.
Last night, however, he was brought back down to earth after receiving a red card for a late challenge during an U21 friendly away to Colchester United. To compound matters for Hayden and his team-mates, Arsenal lost the game 5-1 against what was essentially Colchester’s own development squad, with four of the goals that they conceded coming before the red card.
The defeat to Colchester concluded what has been an arduous pre-season for the second-string, who conceded 22 goals in their five warm-up fixtures, including seven in one game against Luton Town. A significant improvement will be expected when the U21 Premier League season commences with a trip to face Stoke City on Monday night, but genuine concerns have been expressed about the lack of options available at this level following the decision to release a horde of youngsters at the end of last season.
Especially with players such as Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom hoping to make the first-team squad for some fixtures this season, options are likely to be rather thin on the ground for coach Steve Gatting, who has been forced to call upon many first and second year scholars during the pre-season programme.
Results are not always the most important aspect of U21 football, with player development taking precedence, but continuous heavy defeats can hardly be of benefit to the morale of these young players, and, it seems, some rather significant changes are required if the situation is to ameliorate in the near future.
That could involve yet another overhaul of the coaching staff, with Gatting, despite having previously done an impressive job with the U16s, failing to prove his credentials since succeeding Terry Burton as U21 coach, with the 54 year old often making bizarre tactical decisions and deploying key players out of position.
A decision also needs to be made imminently on who will replace the outgoing Liam Brady as the club’s Head of Youth Development, as, until a successor is appointed, it will be very difficult to clearly establish the long-term aims of the Academy. There has been speculation that Romeo Jozak, the current Dinamo Zagreb Academy Director (pictured above), may be the man to replace Brady, but it is hoped that, in any case, this situation is rectified as quickly as possible.