With the Europa League group stages concluded and the Quarter-Finals of the Carabao Cup out of the way, the first stanza of the season has closed for Arsenal’s second string. The manager used the Europa League and the Carabao Cup to rest his first team players and apportion minutes to some fringe first team players. These squad players fell into two broad categories.
There were seasoned professionals either on the brink of the first team or who have recently fallen out of favour- such as Giroud, Walcott, Ospina, Mertesacker, Coquelin, Debuchy, Wilshere and Elneny. But the manager also gave valuable game time to some of the club’s younger prospects. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Matt Macey.
The first thing to remember is that the manager’s primary motivation was protection, rather than development. He wanted to rest his big stars- giving minutes to squad players and academy products was a secondary benefit. Nevertheless, the likes of Nelson and Maitland-Niles have been able to use the first part of the season as a kind of first team scholarship (allowing for the fact that Maitland-Niles is two years Nelson’s senior).
That’s why Arsene wasn’t overly concerned about playing them in unfamiliar roles. Firstly, it is a common trope in Arsenal’s junior teams for players to spend some time in the full-back position to learn defensive responsibility. It probably wasn’t in the short term plan for Nelson and Niles to become valuable first team players this season, so even minutes out of position would be seen as part of their apprenticeship.
Though Maitland-Niles has impressed enough at full-back to earn Premier League starts there of late, it still doesn’t seem likely that either he or Nelson will carve out their futures as wing-backs. Maitland-Niles has earned praise from his manager in the full-back role, but I can’t help thinking that the attributes that Arsene elucidates- his recovery pace and aptitude for one on one defending- are quite useful in the defensive midfield position too. (Not least because Granit Xhaka is lacking in both areas).
Nelson, Willock and Maitland-Niles have effectively been ‘bidding’ to be involved in the match day squad. Maitland Niles was often the 7th substitute and the fact that Arsene has trusted him to play at left-back in the Premier League demonstrates the value of building competency at wing-back in the cup competitions.
Nelson would do well to eye up Theo Walcott’s current squad role for next season. It feels as though Theo’s future is not longed for Arsenal and with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain also gone, Nelson’s attributes will become more valuable. Next season, the 18 year old should have the reasonable ambition to be trusted for 20 minute cameos from the bench- at least at the outset of 2018-19. Premier League cameos are the next building block for his development.
Eddie Nketiah was tossed into the fray against Norwich with just 6 minutes remaining, with the Gunners trailing by a goal in the recent Carabao Cup fixture. After a match winning, two goal performance, he saw the last 19 minutes of the ensuing cup game against Red Star Belgrade. That represents a half step on the rung of the ladder towards first team contention for a teenage player.
Maitland-Niles and Nelson will aspire to play in their more natural positions too, but for now, if they can become genuinely multi-functional, they build their case for inclusion in the squad further. Not every young player has to be an out and out superstar, becoming a valuable utility player is a reasonable ambition for an academy product. As Wenger himself said of Maitland-Niles recently, “maybe he realised that there’s no opening where he dreams to play, but there could be an opening where he doesn’t dream to play.”
Alex Ferguson’s achievements in youth development will always be aligned with ‘The Class of 92’, but he used less remarkable players such as John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher and Phil Neville to excellent effect as multi-purpose back up players. Academy players at big clubs are often far happier to play this kind of role than bought-in talent and it is easier for a manager to mould a young player into something malleable for his squad.
Often, young players can be parachuted into the first team if they have attributes that the squad lacks. Alex Iwobi was fast tracked into the first team squad due to a lack of secondary creators in 2016. Hector Bellerin, like Ashley Cole before him, benefitted from the ill-fortune of a more senior counterpart. Willock, Maitland-Niles and Nelson should all look at the current Gunners squad and see opportunity.
Conceding possession cheaply in midfield has been an ongoing issue for Arsenal this season. Wilshere’s contract remains unresolved, the club were apparently willing to let Elneny go during the summer, Granit Xhaka has still to convince in the deep lying playmaker role and Santi Cazorla’s Arsenal career is sadly winding down. Willock and Maitland-Niles can be encouraged by this skill gap.
The recent integration of Maitland-Niles at left-back has been very interesting. Often players don’t find their true position until they are leaving their teens. Ainsley played on the right whilst on loan at Ipswich Town in 2015-16, he played some cup games at right-back last season and now has half a season at left wing-back under his belt. He might never become Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla, but he could be our Gilles Grimandi.
Matt Macey will also view this as a crucial time in his nascent career. Petr Cech is ageing, there is little suggestion that David Ospina will sign a new contract and Emi Martinez has yet to start a game on loan at Getafe. It might be a little early for him to covet the number 1 shirt, but he could force his way into the back-up position next year if he impresses.
Rob Holding and Calum Chambers fall a little between the two stalls of ‘squad players out of favour’ and ‘youngsters learning their trade.’ They are certainly further along in their apprenticeship than Nelson, Willock and Maitland-Niles. Holding has observed a curve many young players negotiate when they first rise to prominence.
After the high of last spring, where he became a valuable part of a back 3, this season has seen him drop to earth a little. But the cups have allowed Holding to keep ticking over with game time to cushion his slight stumble. Calum Chambers is a more interesting medium term situation. He signed a new two year contract in August and the length of the deal effectively means he is on probation for the next 18 months or so.
Arsenal have so much business to do this summer that it made sense for them to pause the ultimate decision on his future. The manager still does not appear to totally trust Chambers, but with Mertesacker retiring, Koscielny and Monreal ageing and Gabriel departing, Arsene doesn’t want to give himself unnecessary work this summer by having to replace another back-up centre-half.
I doubt whether Chambers got much of a payrise with his most recent deal either. Arsenal will need to reinforce with central defenders during the length of his contract, for Chambers, it is a case of convincing Wenger that he can take care of one of those squad spots, at the very least. That neither Holding nor Chambers is trusted as a rotation option at the moment is a concern for both players, especially given Koscielny’s well documented achilles troubles.
The upcoming cup tie with Nottingham Forest should represent another chance for some of Arsenal’s young hopefuls to impress, as well as a two legged Carabao Cup semi-final. Historically, Wenger has taken the picks of the League Cup litter into the early rounds of the FA Cup with him.
There’s a chance Arsene might get the Europa League band back together for the Östersunds tie (the first leg at least) too. But Arsenal’s young second string hopefuls can be satisfied with how the first phase of their integration into first team business has gone.