Promoting from the academy, and giving young players a chance, has always been central to Arsène Wenger’s philosophy at Arsenal. Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, and more recently Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin are all beneficiaries of this long-standing policy.
This season, the Europa League has offered Wenger a new opportunity to test the latest academy stars against some experienced opposition. The promise these youngsters have shown is a positive in an otherwise dreary season. But how have the most notable of Arsenal’s academy debutants fared individually when given their chances?
Grading Arsenal’s Academy Debutants This Season
At just 18 years of age, it would be unfair to burden Reiss Nelson with sky-high expectations. With that being said, the winger’s performances on this summer’s pre-season tour enthralled Gooners worldwide.
Demonstrating lightning-fast feet and a willingness to take players on, Nelson was tipped to be one of this season’s breakout stars. Frustration met Arsène Wenger’s decision to deploy him primarily as a wingback in both European and cup matches, as Nelson’s talents are clearly more suited to being used as part of a front three.
At times, Nelson has understandably struggled to master the defensive side of his game, especially in a positional sense. He also has yet to register a goal or assist. Nevertheless, his talent is obvious for all to see, and he is one of the few players who started against Nottingham Forest in the FA cup to come out with some credit, winning the free-kick which lead to Per Mertesacker’s goal with an impressive bit of trickery.
This pacey striker has been prolific at the youth level for some time and has fully taken advantage of his limited opportunities this season.
Nketiah introduced himself to the Arsenal faithful for the first time during the Carabao Cup match against Norwich City, when he made an immediate impact coming off the bench. Trailing 1-0 in the 85th minute, Nketiah rescued Arsenal as he notched a quick-fire brace.
The youngster terrorized the Norwich City backline and could have easily grabbed a hat-trick. Further substitute appearances have continued to showcase his ability to make things happen in the box. Given his limited minutes, this season has truly been a success for Nketiah based on his contributions.
Chris Willock traded the Emirates for Benfica’s Estádio da Luz this summer, but his brother Joe has continued to make strides with Arsenal.
Tall and rangy, Willock has exuded calmness in his preferred central midfield position, turning in a number of assured displays in his debut season with the first team. He caught the eye particularly in the 4-2 away win at BATE Borisov in the Europa league.
Boasting an impressive 89% passing accuracy in the competition, Willock has shone brightest in Europe. If there is one area of his game which he could improve, it is his influence in the final third.
While proving adept at keeping things ticking in midfield, Willock has yet to meaningfully contribute going forwards. To succeed at Arsenal, he will need to add an eye for a forward pass to his game. Luckily, at 18-years-old, he has plenty of time to turn himself into the complete midfielder.
Arsène Wenger’s policy of giving youth a chance has paid dividends, as this season’s academy debutants have shone in both the Europa League and cup competitions. As Ainsley Maitland-Niles has shown, the jump from academy to first-team regular is a real possibility at Arsenal, and with a little luck, any of these three could soon find themselves as a regular on the teamsheet.