It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 For…Youth Edition

Every summer, just before the season starts, I write an ‘It’s Going To Be A Big Season For…’ piece focusing on three or four players for whom the upcoming the campaign represents a crossroads. Given Arsenal’s (enforced) focus on youth for 2019-20, I thought I would produce two of these articles, the first one analysing what the season ahead might hold for some of Arsenal’s academy graduates.

JOE WILLOCK
Circumstance is the midwife to opportunity for any young player looking to make an impression in the first team. For Willock, the departure of Aaron Ramsey sees him pushing against an open door for more minutes this season. Not only is Ramsey an obstacle removed for Willock, but Arsenal’s failure to manage the Welshman’s contract means they didn’t extract a fee and, therefore, have not been able to spend significantly on a direct replacement. (Though a goalscoring wide forward would at least replace his end product).

Willock looked quietly assured in his Europa League appearances during the 2017-18 season, forming an unfussy, tidy part of a midfield double pivot. Last season, Willock developed his attacking game and began to regularly produce goals and assists in the U-23s. This translated into the first team when he scored a pair of poacher’s goals against Blackpool in the FA Cup 3rd Round.

Joe has developed his touch in tight spaces and looks physically more robust. He seems to favour playing as a slightly more advanced number 8 and this is exactly the type of player Arsenal miss without Ramsey. Even with the loan signing of Dani Ceballos, there is not a huge amount of competition for that role in the team, especially if Mesut Özil’s fitful participation in away matches continues.

Willock has some qualities the first team misses and that is key for any young player looking to break through. “I really, really think that he made one more step last year during the season,” Unai Emery said earlier this summer. “He finished it very well with us, playing 12 minutes in the final against Chelsea with a big performance.”

Willock might initially aspire to Europa League group phase starts, but I think he can certainly expect to regularly feature in match day squads in the Premier League. He appears to have worked on his finishing over the last year or so, which is hugely encouraging. Often young attack minded players can lack in this area until their early 20s. Arsenal need more players making runs into the area from deep and they need more goal scorers from midfield.

REISS NELSON
If Willock fills a need and can add something to Arsenal in terms of end-product, then the same goes for Reiss Nelson. Emery’s squad has lacked goals from wide areas and Nelson looks like the mould of wide player that can give the team a little more fizz in the final third.

In Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, they had ‘final third entry’ types, who can progress the ball to the edge of the area, but neither stresses defenders enough in the final yards of the pitch. Even with the addition of Nicolas Pepe, Nelson is not exactly languishing at the back of a long queue.

Denis Suarez always seemed like a strange signing because he represented more of the same. Nelson, however, is far more in the direct mould of attacking wide player that Arsenal have missed. He takes players on and he looks to attack the area, either in search of a shot, or else to find a cutback opportunity.

Currently, only Lacazette and Aubameyang attack the penalty area with any sort of gusto for Arsenal and, in truth, even Lacazette is more of a link player. Nelson often hovers on the back post looking for scraps when the attack is building on the opposite flank which, again, not enough Arsenal players did last season.

There isn’t an enormous amount of traffic ahead of Nelson for a first team spot. Pepe, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are the only established choices in the area he favours. Again, he should begin the season with the aspiration to start Europa League group matches and the early rounds of the League and FA Cup.

As the season progresses and he gathers more minutes, there is no reason for him not to aspire for more and he should look to put pressure on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Nelson is still very much a rough diamond. It is quite typical of attacking wide players that they can drift in their youth. Their decision making still needs to develop and Nelson needs to learn to pick his moments a little more prudently.

In recent seasons, Arsenal have shed Sanchez, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Danny Welbeck. That presents Nelson with a golden opportunity to build his case as a first-team player. In this context, someone like Serge Gnabry would have easily become a first-choice player for Arsenal, but he had a lot of senior players in his position at the point of departure. The same is not true for Nelson and it’s a gift horse he needn’t look in the mouth.

EDDIE NKETIAH
If opportunities look plentiful for Nelson and Willock, then Eddie Nketiah found himself in a strange holding pattern last season. He almost certainly would have gone on loan were it not for injury to Danny Welbeck. Emery decided to keep Nketiah as an insurance policy (understandably so) but that rainy day never arrived as Aubameyang and Lacazette stayed fir for the remainder of the campaign.

My own impression is that Nketiah’s confidence was hurt as a result. He barely managed the odd cameo from the bench, even when Arsenal really needed a goal. It seemed clear that Emery was not a huge fan of Eddie but had no choice but to keep him in the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ box. On the occasions that he did play, he looked overly keen to make an impression, affecting his performances in front of goal.

During the Blackpool FA Cup 3rd Round tie, Eddie’s all-round game was very impressive, but he missed a host of presentable chances. His finishing lacked the elán that is necessary at the top level. It stands to reason then that when he scored with the last stroke of the season at Burnley in May, he sank to his knees and pointed to the sky.

His finishing still needs work and perhaps Pepe’s ability to play as a striker presents Eddie with a chance for another loan spell, allowing Tyreece John-Jules to become the fourth choice striker with occasional first team appearances. I think Nketiah needs to play regularly now so he can develop some end-product on a consistent basis.

He won’t play ahead of Lacazette and Aubameyang, but Arsenal really need back-up for their striking pair. However, Unai Emery could give him the Europa League and League Cup matches and reassess at Christmas whether he needs a loan spell. That might also be determined by the injury situation at that point.

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