The Gunners have traditionally given youngsters a chance under Arsene Wenger. Goal brings you the low-down on those most likely to break through next
Arsenal’s youth set-up is going through an overhaul after the recent departure of academy chief Andries Jonker but the conveyor belt of talent shows no sign of halting, with recent graduates Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles having made first-team appearances over the past season.
But which players are likely to break through next? Here, Goal picks out five starlets to keep an eye on in the coming months…
Arsene Wenger has high hopes for Nigerian starlet Nwakali, a player who was scouted and signed after his magnificent performances at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. The forward is able to play across the front line and possesses an abundance of dribbling and skilful technical qualities which allow him to beat opposition defenders with ease.
Currently on loan at Dutch second division side Maastricht following a recommendation from former academy chief Jonker, the 18-year-old was recently interviewed by Goal – his first with a major UK publication – where he spoke about his upbringing, future and more. The full interview will be published on March 29.
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Nwakali, who revealed he had always wanted to play for the Gunners, remains quietly confident of doing enough to impress Arsenal this season but has no problem with going out on loan for further experience next season, if required.
“I love Arsenal,” Nwakali told Goal. “I’m a Barcelona fan but I’ve always wanted to play for Arsenal. I was happy meeting the first team players face to face.
“I’m not the one who will decide what happens but all I can do my own work, work hard and let the boss see that I’m working hard. If Arsenal decide that next season they want me to play in Arsenal, no problem.
“If they decide they want me to come back to London it’s still no problem. They have to make their choice and I will respect it.”
Having signed a professional contract in December, the world is at Nelson’s feet as he continues to make inroads for Arsenal’s under-23 side. Nelson scored nine goals in 10 games for England at the European Under-17 Championship last summer and is considered one of the Three Lions’ hottest prospects.
Nelson, a former Tottenham trialist, joined the Arsenal academy aged seven and will look to impress for the under-23s and in pre-season this summer. His ability is unquestioned but it remains to be seen whether Wenger will look to blood him in the first team or send him out loan for further experience, as he’s previously done with the likes of Nwakali and Dan Crowley.
“I trained with the first-team during pre-season, which helped me a lot,” said Nelson in a blog on Arsenal’s official website last year.
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“I’ve trained a few more times with the first team since then and it’s both harder and easier at the same time.
“It’s harder because you have to work on concentrating for every second and thinking ahead, because the tempo and speed of play and movement is faster, but it’s easier because when you play with top-class players the accuracy and movement is better, so more of your runs and passes count.”
Wenger admitted last year that Willock wasn’t far from playing in the Arsenal first team but the England youngster has only played 25 minutes of League Cup action this season. The 19-year-old is being tracked by clubs in England and across Europe, making a loan move likely in order to fast-track his development.
Indeed, Celtic have been linked with Willock and the tricky winger might just be tempted by a move to Glasgow at the end of the current campaign because while his technical talent has not been questioned at the Emirates, he does have several players ahead of him in the pecking order.
Willock’s younger brother Joe is currently at the Arsenal academy, while his other sibling Matthew is a regular for Manchester United’s under-21 side.
“Chris is a very gifted player with natural strength and natural talent,” said Wenger. “He has what you do not find very easily. He can have a go at people, can get past people in one on ones.
“We forget sometimes that the basis of team sport is to first be strong one against one and Chris has that quality.
“I believe that he has the needed character when he has his back to the wall to always respond in a very strong way. That’s a very important quality, to be able to play under pressure. If I had to play him then I would have no fear in doing so.”
Versatility can be an advantage if you’re an up-and-coming youngster at one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. No-one has benefitted from that trait more than Maitland-Niles, a technically astute central midfielder who is also able to play at right-back or in front of the defence.
Wenger believes that the 19-year-old has both the physical and technical qualities to succeed, complimenting him on his “mobility” and “good eye” for a pass after a League Cup victory over Nottingham Forest back in October.
“Ainsley Maitland-Niles has played a lot on the flanks but I’ve seen qualities in him that tell me he can be useful in the middle and he can also be a defensive specialist,” the Frenchman said.
“He’s very good in one against ones and quick in his recoveries, very good in duels, and not scared to play either. I’m pleased for him because he’s a boy who has had to be patient, who has a good mentality. I like him very much and I think his game is very positive.”
Former Chelsea schoolboy Nketiah is only 17 but continues to show the goalscoring prowess of a much older striker. He’s trained with the first team on several occasions this season and academy staff believe he has the potential to make it in the top flight.
Nketiah was Arsenal under-18’s top scorer last season with 24 goals in 28 appearances but faces tough competition with the likes of Stephy Mavididi, Donyell Malen and Josh Dasilva all competing for a slice of first-team action.
“I achieved the contract through working hard and trying to keep improving, and as a professional that’s something that I’m determined to keep doing because it takes me a step closer to the first team and I know how high the standards are,” Nketiah stated.
“I’ve trained quite a few times with the first team now and you see how everything is faster and sharper. Playing against strong defenders like Laurent Koscielny, you have to be concentrated and use good movement to get away from him.
“I watch our strikers a lot too and I’m working towards being as complete a player as possible. My game is mainly pace, movement and finishing, but I’ve made an effort to hold the ball up better which is something vital for the team and that Olivier Giroud does so well.”