Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gunning for the First Team: The Youth at Arsenal

Article written by Elliot Gibbons.

With potential first team players Kyle Bartley and Henri Lansbury leaving the Gunners for Swansea and Nottingham Forest respectively in the past couple of weeks, I thought that a focus on the youth coming through at Arsenal might be an interesting topic for my first article. I’ll first take a look at the two departures I’ve already mentioned and what they mean for the club and the players, before examining more potential first teamers from the youth ranks. Enjoy!

Kyle Bartley
Arsenal confirmed Bartley’s £1m move to Swansea on August 17th, and the move came somewhat out of the blue for many fans, with Bartley having finally been promoted to the first team after several season spent out on loan at Sheffield United and Rangers. Impressive performances at both clubs had earned Kyle praise from many at the Emirates and it had been hoped that the player would have a bright future at the club. At 21 however it was clear that what Bartley needed most was assurance that he would have been given plenty of first team opportunities this season, something that was simply never going to happen at Arsenal with many others considered higher in the pecking order, and therefore a move away was probably in the best interests of both parties. Although Bartley showed glimpses of his talent during his time at the club, displaying leadership qualities and a dominating presence at the back, he was given few opportunities to showcase this in the first team and evidently felt that his career would progress more rapidly with a move to Wales, where if Swansea are willing to incorporate him into their back line they could end up reaping the benefits. Bartley has many years of top level football ahead of him and is a potential leading Premier League defender of the future, much like Steven Caulker at Tottenham who spent last season on loan at the Liberty Stadium, and with the right backing will succeed even without Steve Bould’s influence at the Emirates.

Henri Lansbury
A slightly less surprising departure from the club was completed on August 28th just days before the end of the window with Lansbury leaving to be a part of Sean O’Driscoll’s exciting project at Nottingham Forest. Lansbury’s future had always been in doubt throughout the summer as the club were reluctant to allow him to leave on loan for a fifth consecutive season. Henri had followed the typical path of potential youth team graduates by spending several seasons in the Championship in the hope that this would aid his development and prepare him for a presumed step up into the first team. However, this never really occurred and Lansbury’s development stuttered, with inconsistency in his form being one of the main issues. There have also been reports of problems with his attitude and temperament but Arsenal had remained hopeful about his prospects. That was until this summer and the arrival of Santi Cazorla. This coupled with the return of Abou Diaby left almost no space in the Arsenal midfield and forced Wenger’s hand on some of his younger players, as, like Bartley, Lansbury was simply never going to get the opportunity to get a run in the first team that he so desperately needed at 21. Many fans immediately voiced their disappointment at the departure, as Lansbury clearly has a lot of talent and a bright future, but the truth of the situation is that the player had no real future at Arsenal. Nottingham Forest will benefit from his natural talent, with accurate passing, driving runs and a decent shot all part of his arsenal and also his experience in the Championship, where he has helped both Norwich and West Ham to promotion in previous loan spells. Don’t be surprised if Lansbury returns to the Premier League very soon, either with Forest or after being snapped up by another team, as his sole motivation will undoubtedly be to show Arsene just what he missed out on.

Craig Eastmond
One player who always divides opinion in discussions about the youth at the club is the 21 year old defensive midfielder who, despite looking like he might break into the first team a couple of years ago before Arsenal fans had even heard the name Frimpong, has faded away since and is now the subject of much criticism from the club faithful. Making his debut in the 2009/10 season, Eastmond produced some assured displays in the Arsenal midfield, even earning his first Premier League start against Bolton, but couldn’t do enough to convince either the fans or Arsene Wenger, leading to two seasons of limbo on loan at Millwall and Wycombe Wanderers. While these low profile moves suggest that Craig won’t be back in the first team anytime soon, he has to be considered a legitimate option should Arsenal’s injury problems worsen, with Song having now departed and Frimpong remaining on the side-lines for at least another month meaning that, barring a late move for one Yann M’Vila, the defensive midfield position is looking fairly thin on the ground. I may be on my own here, but I honestly believe that the single biggest thing that Eastmond is lacking is support, and maybe with a bit of confidence and a couple of good performances in the new Under 21s league, he can begin to restore the faith of manager and fans. Eastmond is hard working and physically powerful, and if he can refine his technique over the next season there is no reason why he can’t take advantage of the lack of other players in his position and prove his critics wrong. 

Thomas Eisfeld
On a slightly less controversial note, one midfielder who has earned rave reviews after his performances in pre-season is the 19 year old German who arrived at Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in January of this year. Eisfeld impressed so much in his first six months that he earned himself a spot on the tour of Asia and managed to score twice, following that up with two more in two games to start his season in the reserves, making many Gunners fans stand up and take notice. It is easy to draw comparisons between Eisfeld and new signing Santi Cazorla, both are relaxed and comfortable on the ball, have a great eye for a pass, and are not afraid to take a crack at goal, however Wenger must be careful not to rush Eisfeld into the first team set up prematurely. As I have already explored there is little space available in the Arsenal midfield this season and with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin and even Wilshere looking to develop their growing reputations it will be far more beneficial for Thomas to have at least a season at youth level where he can progress and mature outside of the spotlight.  Most Arsenal fans believe that there is something special to come from the young German but it may take more time than many people would like, and this is only a good thing in my opinion. In two or three years Eisfeld will have no problem with the Premier League and should already be featuring in some cup games as early as this season, but give him time to develop and he can be yet another success story for the club’s scouts and youth coaches.

Conor Henderson
Keeping the focus on midfielders, another player who is looking to use this season to springboard himself into the first team set up is the 20 year old, English-born Irish attacking midfielder who could argue that last season’s agonising lay off through injury is the only reason that it hasn’t already happened. Henderson made his debut against Leyton Orient in the 2010/2011 season and while he was unable to replicate his glittering reserve team form in that game, he showed glimpses of why Arsene Wenger himself is such a huge fan of his talent. Fast forward to this season and Conor has just come back from an eight month injury break with damage to his cruciate knee ligament but is already wowing fans once again with his performances in the early stages of the Under 21s league. Henderson holds the distinction of being not only a fabulous technical footballer but also a dead ball specialist, and his three goals in two games already this season, with one coming courtesy of a beautiful free kick; prove that he hasn’t lost a step. In contrast to the situation with Eisfeld, attempting to move Henderson to the first team may be more beneficial than keeping him in the reserves if he recovers well from his injury, as at 21 next month he is running out of time to make the step up. If Theo Walcott does leave before Friday’s transfer deadline, something that is looking increasingly likely, I would prefer to see the Ox deployed in a more central role and Henderson given the chance on the wing as this season could be his breakout year, just like last year was for Chamberlain and the previous was for Wilshere, he definitely has enough talent to make that kind of impact.  

Benik Afobe
Finally, a player who has gone out on loan to the Championship this season but will already be looking to next to truly make his impact at the club. Arsenal have sold many players already this summer and with more strikers assumed to be on their way out they may, like in so many other positions, have to turn to youth in the next couple of seasons to re-establish their team. Afobe is a genuine goal scorer and has played the waiting game at the Emirates for the past couple of seasons but will now get the opportunity to showcase his talent under the watchful eye of Owen Coyle, who has also overseen Ryo Miyaichi and Jack Wilshere at Bolton over the past couple of seasons. At 19, Afobe would not be expected to make a huge immediate impact on his return to the club next summer but may be promoted to the first team if players such as Bendtner, Chamakh and Park leave the club as predicted. He definitely has the confidence and belief to step up to the mark but would benefit far more from learning from other players at the club for a season rather than being thrust right into the action. Benik is someone who could potentially turn heads and help to lead our attack in, say, five years’ time, but before then he needs to be supported by transfers into the club who can take the pressure off him, otherwise he may end up simply buckling under the strain of premier league football.  

1 comment:

  1. Eisfeld is a bright prospect. An excellent signing