The Emirates Cup loss against Lyon was about much more than the result, it was the Arsenal youngsters’ last chance to stake their first-team claim to Unai Emery and the adoring fans before the season begins. Though losing a football match is never an enjoyable occasion, watching our academy products flourish is one of the most rewarding experiences a fan can have.
So let’s take a look at how the likes of Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson fared in the 2-1 defeat to Lyon.
Easily one of the best players on the pitch – despite being just 19 years of age. Willock doesn’t run, he glides across the football pitch – boasting the kind of ethereal movement you might see from Casper the friendly ghost. He’s a languid figure that can accelerate his lofty frame quicker than a Lamborghini Aventador. The 68 minutes that we saw of him were joyous. Within the first 20’, he’d already had two efforts on target and should’ve had a goal to his name – snatching at a parried Henrikh Mkhitaryan volley and sending it into the heavens. That rash moment along with his unwillingness to use his left foot were the only minor negatives I witnessed. He also should’ve had an assist for one of our other youngsters I will be reviewing – Eddie Nketiah – who spurned a beautifully stood up cross by Willock which was headed into the ground and wide.
One of Willock’s biggest strengths is his versatility. Arsenal started in 4231, where the youngster was deployed as a number 10 – but was allowed to roam and make the position his own. Rarely did he stick to that role, and was often seen running the wings, and at times going beyond his striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
In the second half, Willock slotted into a central midfield role, next to Granit Xhaka in a 442. This was probably a more familiar position for him to occupy, with his most regular role for the U23’s as one of the number 8’s in a 433.
This adaptability, along with his well-rounded skill set of pace, strength, agility, and quickness of thought, stands him in good stead to cement down a place in the first-team squad. Willock has been one of the most consistent performers for the U23 side, and will more than certainly improve on his four appearances for the senior side this year.
Eddie has really come into his own during the preseason. The slight striker has scored 3 goals in 5 games, including a last gasp winner against Bayern Munich in the US. Ever since he scored those infamous two goals to get Arsenal out of a hole in the Carabao Cup against Doncaster in 2017, he has been a fan favourite.
Against Lyon, the 20-year-old came on at half-time for Matteo Guendouzi, as he partnered Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front in a 442. It made for interesting viewing pairing the youngster up with the Gabonese international because it highlighted exactly what Nketiah offers that Aubameyang doesn’t. He’s smaller, more mobile, and likes to takes up slightly deeper positions to collect the ball.
He had a couple of standout moments, as mentioned earlier, he should’ve done better with a header from Joe Willock’s cross. He’s not the tallest of strikers, but he has a good leap on him. Not long before Moussa Dembele’s equaliser Eddie received the ball in the box, swivelled miraculously on a sixpence to baffle two Lyon defenders, and almost dinked the ball over Anthony Lopes to make it 2-0. His skill, power, and tenacity was met by shrieks of ‘Eddie, Eddie, Eddie’ from the home crowd.
Nelson was quite simply a man on a mission. As soon as he came on the field as a substitute for the injured Alexandre Lacazette, his every touch was greeted by a chorus of cheers from the Emirates crowd – and he obliged. His approach play and technical ability was a step above the player we saw before his loan spell to Hoffenheim. Nelson is a dazzling player with a box of tricks, which works for and against him at times. In the first half, he had all the speed and pazazz, but his final ball was lacking – either overshooting crosses or being too tentative in the final third and deciding to go backwards.
But we saw the other side of the 19-year-old in the second half. And I think that is the player that has benefitted so much from a year of playing first-team football in the Bundesliga. Show pony Nelson was put to one side, and the real man with an end-product came to the fore. On the hour mark, his breakneck speed got him to the edge of the box, where he squared up his defender, made a few inches of space and wrapped his foot around the ball which ended up whistling just past keeper Anthony Lopes’ post.
That whole move was what Nelson can do in a nutshell. He looked much more natural in a left-wing position in the second half, where he was mostly deployed for Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim. He employed his biggest assets – speed, close control and the ability to explode out from a standing position.
Out of the three players mentioned in this article, Nelson is the most likely to get minutes for the first-team this season. He would be an incredible impact player to create space when opposition’s legs are tiring, and Arsenal fans will finally see what all of the hype has been about.
The supporting cast (Gabriel Martinelli, Zech Medley, Tyreece John-Jules)
Gabriel Martinelli only had around 20 minutes on the pitch, and thought he’d scored in his first game at the Emirates – but his poacher’s finish from a loose ball in the box was ruled out as offside. The 18-year-old looks like an exciting prospect and should get a fair few chances in the Europa League and Cup competitions.
Mentions go to Zech Medley and Tyreece-John Jules, who were only on the pitch for 15 and five minutes respectively, and out of their natural positions. All 6’5 of Medley looked out of sorts at left-back, but he too has been one of the better performers for the academy, and his inclusion for the preseason tour of the US is only a good omen as to Unai Emery’s plans for him. John-Jules stole headlines with his impressive performance in the friendly against Dubai last season, and will to relish opportunities in Europe.
Unai Emery has reiterated throughout the preseason that the youngsters will be given a chance next season, and with the financial constraints Arsenal are under, we will need these young players and the academy more than ever. This is the chance for the club to regain the support of a divided fanbase, because nothing unites fans more than seeing young, British talent rise through the ranks and succeed.