The League Cup tends to give a good indication of who will be the first teams’ B level players for the upcoming season. Who will live in the shadows of the first team, in the dreaded “limbo zone”, where they fight just to get a seat on the bench.
This is often where the team’s younger players operate. So, who are they, what can they expect from the 20/21 season, and should they stay, be loaned out or sold?
Squad too bloated, everyone can’t be facilitated
Five of Arsenal’s starters in their 2-0 League Cup win against Leicester (yes, I’m calling it the League Cup), were Hale End products: Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and goalscorer Eddie Nketiah.
Developing youngsters is a proud feather in the Gunner cap, and the current first team squad is brimming with them. Including the aforementioned players, Hector Bellerin, Matt Macey and injured Emile Smith Rowe make 8 players who came through the youth teams at Arsenal.
But it’s impossible to facilitate all of these promising players this season, and sitting on the bench or playing for the U21’s is not going to give them the development, the resistance, they need.
Furthermore, Arsenal’s current squad is too bloated. The problem is too many centrebacks and too many seemingly immovable, out-of-favour players such as Mesut Özil and Matteo Guendouzi. With the transfer window shutting in one week from when this is published, some players should be heading out the Emirates door imminently. This is important to clear the path for the club’s younger players, who are mostly good enough to play significant minutes this season.
Here’s a list of Arsenal’s younger players who are fighting for a place in the first team, some stats, some info and speculation about their imminent future.
STAY, LOAN OR SELL
Bukayo Saka – 19 years old
Saka, who had the most assist in all competitions for the Gunners last season (11), will be a big part of the first team this campaign (and many more, hopefully). His talent and Mikel Arteta’s trust in him is obvious. Saka played as many minutes as record signing Nicolas Pepe last season, and deserves even more minutes this year. However, utilising Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left wing will hinder his game time somewhat, and when Gabriel Martinelli comes back in December/January things will become more complicated. Most of his playing time might come from the left wingback position.
Saka looks a real gem, though, and we can only cross our fingers and hope he develops into a clear starter for the team in the next couple of years.
Estimate game time: Medium – always in the matchday squad – 25-ish starts out of 60+ possible games
Conclusion: Stays, stays, stays!
Eddie Nketiah – 21
Arsenal’s super sub has a clear understudy role behind Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang. His start against Leicester in the League Cup and coming on as a sub against West Ham was, however, a clear indication from Arteta that this is exactly the type of game time Nketiah will get this season: cup games and as a sub in the league. This could change if Lacazette gets injured before Martinelli is fully fit. He shouldn’t be expecting the phone to ring this final week of the transfer window…
Though, it’s difficult to see Nketiah make those next steps and become more than a squad player for Arsenal in the future. Even if Lacazette is sold next summer when he’s 30 and has one year left on his contract, it will always be more likely Arsenal move Aubameyang up front or invest in a new striker, or keep Lacazette until he’s contract expires. The striker position is perhaps the most difficult position to make your own, especially when you’re in your early twenties.
Estimate game time: Low/medium – will more often than not make the matchday squad as a sub – 10+ starts
Ainsley Maitland-Niles – 23
Arteta managed to convince AMN to stay at least another year after several impressive performances in almost as many different positions on the pitch during the latter stages of last season. One of his most impressive performances was playing left wing back against Man City in the FA Cup semi-final. This gave him leverage before the summer transfer window and rightly demanded more playing time to stay. His versatility is such a great tool for Arteta, but being the team’s Swiss Army knife often means your playing time and role in the team remains inconsistent. When the squad is fully fit, AMN won’t be starting too often.
Being 23, it’s easy to envisage him wanting to leave the club next summer in search of becoming the number one starter in one position elsewhere, not being the number two or three in three different positions at Arsenal.
Estimate game time: Medium – will make matchday squad more often than not – 15-20 starts depending on injuries
Conclusion: Stays, but should probably be sold next summer
Joe Willock – 21
Willock also started the League Cup game, hinting that he will play a part this season as he did last year. Willock had half the minutes on the pitch as Saka in 19/20, but had some impressive performances. However, the consistency isn’t quite there and he will have to impress when he gets the chance this season.
What’s interesting about his situation is the potential departure of Torreira and Guendouzi and the possible arrival of a new midfielder before the transfer window shuts on October 5th. If Arsenal don’t bring in a new midfielder and the squad more or less stays the same, Arteta will have a difficult decision to make. Does he prioritise Willock’s development or keep Torreira and Guendouzi’s valuation up for next summer?
Estimate game time: Low – is the current occupant of the eighth seat on the bench, under 10-starts
Conclusion: Depends on transfer activity, though a loan would be ideal for his development
Reiss Nelson – 20
Also started the League Cup game against Leicester but his competition with Pepe and newly signed Willian will be tough. Nelson made 22 appearances last season scoring three times and assisting three times. His inconsistency and sometimes anonymity, however, reminds of Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in their early years in the first team never quite taking that next step to become a solidified starter.
A loan seems a good option for Nelson. He did quite well at Hoffenheim two years ago and another year with regular playing time is needed for the 20-year-old to progress to a point where he can either be sold or come back and really put his competitors to the test.
Estimate game time: Low – another player in the “limbo zone”, 10-ish starts
Emile Smith Rowe – 20
Smith Rowe has carried a shoulder injury into the new season but should be back soon. After making six appearances for Arsenal in 19/20, he was loaned to the Championship and Huddersfield in January where he did quite well in his 19 appearances. Smith Rowe has never played an official game under Arteta. Where Arteta might want to use him, in central midfield or out wide, or if he even rates him, is a good question.
Considering this and the size of the squad, Smith Rowe should see himself very much in the shadows of the first team, possibly even a backup’s backup.
Estimate game time: Low – 5-ish starts
Conclusion: Loan. Has the potential to press for a starting position in the future but with the season already underway and a bloated squad, it won’t be now.
* I haven’t included U21 players as I doubt they will play much at all for the first team this season. A bloated squad and so many young players in it already, and Arteta talking about a balance between youth and experience, I don’t see it for players like Folarin Balogun or Miguel Azeez.
Consider following me on Twitter @ awoaken