For years Arsenal’s Hale End Academy was regarded one of the most fruitful in England, the likes of Ashley Cole, Steve Sidwell, David Bentley and Jack Wilshere being amongst the swathes of talent it nourished in the late-90s and noughties.
With the exception of Alex Iwobi, academy graduates leaving their mark on the first team seemed to have dried up in recent years. That was until Unai Emery and caretaker coach Freddie Ljungberg unleashed a whole new batch of Hale End hopefuls during a disastrous first few months to the 2019/20 season.
Manager Mikel Arteta has since taken over reins and not only shown a willingness to give youth a chance, but actually relied on their exuberance, energy and technical prowess on a consistent basis. Having a manager who so openly offers clean slates and gives players second chances to impress has in turn resulted in a number of youngsters drifting in and out of the starting line-up.
Even with a manager that trusts youth, being a young player at Arsenal Football Club is not without its challenges. Breaking through the ultra-competitive youth setup is one thing but the pressure placed on first-team players by fans is enough to shatter one’s confidence at such a tender age.
Chaotic team performances in recent years haven’t exactly resulted in the most comfortable setting for said youngsters to develop and make mistakes either – something Cesc Fabregas cited as essential to his own development, having grown up around the ‘Invincibles’.
With that in mind, the current crop, dubbed ‘Hale End FC’ on social media, shouldn’t be harshly criticised. They still deserve ample time to learn their trade – whether that’s at Arsenal or elsewhere.
The following list is therefore not a reflection of what the players may go on to do or their ‘ceilings’ but how they’ve fared in this peculiar merry-go-round of a season.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the West London born 19-year-old and the confidence he instils in both fans and the more senior players around him.
Arsenal’s most consistent performer for the past two seasons has been at the centre of many of the team’s highlights, possessing the rare ability to create excitement amongst fans even in the most dire circumstances.
Vision, technique, versatility and blessed with unfaltering end product – he has the traits of a veteran – not a teenager. From the excellent weak-foot finish against Southampton midweek to his chipped goal against Chelsea, cheerful chap Saka somehow still manages to surprise us despite showing he’s the real deal time and again.
Grade – A+
Emile Smith Rowe
Croydon de Bruyne. Emiledinho. N5 Grealish. Call him what you want at this point, it’s not often a youngster dives into the starting eleven at a club like Arsenal and dominates a key central position on the pitch with such vigour.
Arsenal in the six league games since Smith Rowe returned from injury against Chelsea are almost unrecognisable from the sideways-passing eyesore pre-Christmas. The 20-year-old is direct in possession, finds space in-between lines and adds goals from midfield, gliding forward in a way not seen since Aaron Ramsey chose Turin over sunny North London.
Already with two goals and five assists across all competitions, the only danger is the lofty expectations which Smith Rowe has set for himself with his displays up to now.
Grade – A
Like his mate Eddie Nketiah, Willock hasn’t been able to translate his fine Europa League form to the handful of Premier League cameos he’s made.
At his best, Willock provides energy from midfield, linking up with forwards and causing confusion with his late-runs into the penalty box. That’s what earned him three goals and three assists in Europe earlier in the season.
Patience is a rare commodity at Arsenal, however, and thus far Willock hasn’t shown the necessary technical ability and finishing to be a starting number eight or ten in league matches. For now, he will be watching Smith Rowe make the kind of impact he needs to make if he’s to break through.
Grade – B-
Arteta clearly sees something in England’s record u21 goal-scorer, preferring him to the highly-rated Folarin Balogun and deploying him regularly this season. Looking at Nketiah’s stats – five goals across 23 appearances in all competitions – it’s difficult to be excessively critical of the youngster who has largely not received sufficient service and works hard with his pressing.
Still, Nketiah has looked out of his depth when facing Premier League defenders on numerous occasions this season, most notably against Everton in December. His diminutive frame and link-up play with others leaves a lot to be desired and often results in him being easily dispossessed.
Nketiah has potential to be an excellent predatory striker but his rawness in possession has shown thus far that he’s unready to play a greater role in attack.
Grade – C+
As Maitland-Niles tucked away his penalty in the Community Shield shootout against Liverpool in his usual effortless style, many thought he had done enough to displace Hector Bellerin as Arsenal’s first choice right-back. Midway through this season, it’s now hard to see how Maitland-Niles fits into Arteta’s plans at all.
Since Bellerin’s move to PSG in the summer failed to materialise, both he and Cedric Soares have been ahead of Maitland-Niles in the pecking order. It’s clear that ‘Fofty’ has all the attributes to be a quality wing-back – pace, composure and technique. Perhaps it’s the shift away from a back-three, along with hesitations about his application to the position in general, which have led Arteta to look beyond the 23-year-old.
Now an established England international under Gareth Southgate, it’s likely he will want regular football and is expected to push for a loan or permanent move by summer.
Grade – C
Nelson is another one of the youngsters in desperate need of game time. The 21-year-old’s development seems to have faltered since returning from loan last season, partly due to injuries.
Other than the odd hint at finding form in the early Europa League games, he hasn’t had the luxury of a decent run this season, having suffered with a muscular issue. With Saka, Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabriel Martinelli and Willian ahead of him, it’s hard to see how Nelson can progress without seeking a move elsewhere.
Grade – C