Last week, I wrote about the signing of Cedric Soares and how it might have spelled the beginning of the end of Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ Arsenal career. However, for some of Arsenal’s other Hale End graduates, there are potential opportunities a-plenty as we head into the final third of the season.
Bukayo Saka is already making a name for himself in a wing-back role, while Gabriel Martinelli has chiselled out a place for himself in the starting XI in recent weeks. “Players are going to start games if they deserve to play and they perform at the level of this football club, whether they are academy players or not,” Mikel Arteta said at the end of last month. Here are some players who could join Saka and Martinelli in the starting line-up if they play their cards right.
Willock is a rangy, hard-running central midfielder who can carry the ball long distances and has a knack for late penalty box arrival. Arsenal’s current midfield is quite conservative, Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi do not rank highly when it comes to end-product.
Mesut Özil is playing with intensity and picking up good positions in pockets of space between midfield and attack. However, he is not chipping in with assists or goals and has been substituted with over 20 minutes to go in the last two Premier League matches. Willock played very impressively at Bournemouth in the FA Cup in an advanced role, picking up similar positions to Özil but he looked more threatening than his German counterpart.
Arsenal have lacked goals from all sources bar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Martinelli this season, which is part of the reason that the Gunners have struggled to convert territorial dominance into goals under Arteta. The team also lacks players that can carry the ball into the final third and Willock’s ability to make loping runs is a very interesting attribute. His game is still developing, but Joe should work to build a case for regular inclusion in midfield.
Arsenal's U-21 talent:
Gabriel Martinelli – 18
Bukayo Saka – 18
Reiss Nelson – 20
Matteo Guendouzi – 20
William Saliba – 18
Joe Willock – 20
Emile Smith Rowe – 19
Eddie Nketiah – 20
Best set of U-21 players in the Premier league.
— LTArsenal™ (@ltarsenal) January 27, 2020
“I am very pleased with him, how he’s training, how he’s reacting, how willing he is to learn. He’s asking the right questions, I know about his ability, I’ve known him since I was here and I coached him when he was 16. I know his potential and now he needs to put things away. I am really, really pleased with Reiss. He needs to improve his end-product a little bit in the final third, but he’s doing all the right things.”
Arteta spoke in glowing terms about winger Reiss Nelson just before the 20-year old picked up a knee injury which has kept him out ever since. Nelson should have his eye on the right-wing spot in the current setup, where Nicolas Pepe is still struggling to impress the manager. Nelson does not possess Pepe’s talent, but he is arguably a more natural fit for the role than the Ivorian.
Arteta asks the right-winger to hold the width of the pitch, while the right-back does not offer an overlapping option in the manner that Saka does on the left-hand side. It makes the role a lonely one for Pepe, whose dribbling skills would be better utilised by a decoy runner from right-back. Pepe is also left-footed and wants to cut in on his left foot but can’t because his role is to stretch the pitch.
Nelson is a less spectacular but more tactically disciplined player than Pepe. As a natural right-footer, he ought to be more comfortable playing this position. Under Arteta, the right-sided role is a more functional one and Nelson has shown himself to be a pliable player capable of following tactical instruction. Reiss can make a case to be a tactical foot-soldier for his coach.
Nketiah was all set for another loan move when his temporary spell at Leeds was terminated in January, but Arteta had a last-minute change of heart and decided to keep Nketiah on board. In itself, this ought to be a boost to the player’s confidence, the form of Alexandre Lacazette should also offer encouragement for the 20-year old.
Nketiah played well and scored in the FA Cup victory over Bournemouth. Lacazette has kept his place because his ability to move away from the front line to knit moves together remains valuable, but his overall game is becoming embalmed in self-doubt due to his scoring duck. At Burnley, even the fundamentals had escaped the Frenchman’s game. It can’t be long until Arteta is tempted to try something or someone else and Nketiah will be knocking on the manager’s door in the meantime.