The landscape concerning Arsenal’s youth development set-up has changed considerably over the summer, with Dutchman Andries Jonker now having formally started work as the club’s new Academy Manager. Over an extended period of time it will be intriguing to see how his tenure compares to that of Liam Brady, who helped oversee the development of many players, although only three of the many home-grown products, Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, went on to have sustained careers in the first-team having progressed through the club’s various youth sides.
Tonight another U21 league season gets underway as Arsenal travel to Basingstoke to take on Reading. As always with the second-string squad there are players at various points in their development, with winger Chris Willock, for example, set to be a key part of the team at just 16 years of age.
At the other end of the spectrum, Isaac Hayden has already amassed 30 appearances at U21 level over the past couple of seasons and the 19 year old will be hoping to gain more experience of the professional game during 2014/15. He impressed at centre-back during the couple of opportunities he was afforded for the first-team during pre-season, but still seems more suited to a defensive-midfield position.
Regardless of where he plays, Hayden will be hoping to experience a loan spell at some point this season. A tigerish tackler with a good passing range, he also possesses impressive leadership qualities. Quite how far he can take his talent is yet to be determined but a temporary stint elsewhere would provide a suitable gauge to assess his current level.
Other U21 players to watch out for include wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi, who were key figures as the U18s reached the Semi-Finals of the FA Youth Cup last season. Dan Crowley, provided he steers clear of further injuries, should establish himself as a regular for the U21s, whilst it is hoped that Gedion Zelalem will start to show some consistency befitting his immense talent.
Having struggled for form last season, the U21s find themselves in the second tier this campaign, meaning they will miss out on playing the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Following the individual development of each player should still be interesting, however, and Jonker will be seeking to add more names to the rather short list of Cole, Wilshere and Gibbs.