It is no secret that Arsenal are some way behind English football’s elite and will remain so until the club undergoes major structural change. Although that reality has become unavoidable this season it is one most fans have known for some time.
When the club has a board with the money, drive and modern ideas required to make the Gunners a European force – there are four academy graduates who have the potential to become a key part of the resurgence. They are now playing to become part of that future and with just the Europa League on offer as a trophy, their efforts might just bring some excitement back to the club.
With plenty of energy, a willingness to carry the ball forward, a good passing range as well as defensive awareness, Willock has an impressive variety of skills.
The 18-year-old isn’t the perfect player yet and over the next 12 months, he needs to develop physically before he is capable of truly imposing himself on the man’s game. When he does however, there is reason to expect big things.
Willock only played in his first professional game, a 1-0 League Cup win over Doncaster, as recently as September and yet hasn’t been loaned out, a sign of the potential for opportunity. Arsenal do not have a world-class midfield, which is simultaneously a help and a hindrance for his development.
Mohamed Elneny’s shaky performance in Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Newcastle put a lot of undue pressure on Willock, which would not have been there had a more composed general been in situ. Equally though, if Arsenal had an already strong midfield, the youngsters might not get the opportunity.
Willock could be thrown into the deep end in 2018-19; how he responds will define his career in North London.
Not only is Reiss Nelson widely regarded as the best Under-23 talent at Arsenal, his rise comes at a convenient time from an individual perspective.
High-profile signings can sometimes be problematic for academy graduates but Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who had arrived as part of a January swap deal with Manchester United and Alexis Sanchez, picked up a knee injury.
Alex Iwobi can play out wide but tends to move and link play in central areas, meaning Arsenal have no real wingers. The closest representations were Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom have moved to Merseyside, while forgotten wide forwards Joel Campbell and Lucas Perez are on loan in La Liga. The dearth of options has at times forced Danny Welbeck into that position for his work rate, or Mesut Ozil for creativity, but neither would strike fear into the opposing full-back.
Rather than shoehorn one of those established first teamers into an unnatural wide position in the last home game against Southampton, Arsene Wenger instead saw enough talent in Nelson to hand him a first Premier League start.
Nelson didn’t steal the show in that 3-2 win – and in some ways it would have been wrong to expect him to. However, the 18-year-old helped his side by injecting raw energy, showing good movement and shifted the ball quickly to quicken the momentum of attacks.
Of the five players, Nelson has featured the most prominently in the Europa League, which Arsenal are 3/1 with Betway to win. The more game time he receives, the more we will see of his attacking quality which has shone so brightly at youth level. Now he has established himself as a viable first team option, exciting times lie ahead.
Although this has been an exciting breakthrough season for Eddie Nketiah, he is arguably unlucky not to play more than a combined 120 minutes of football in all competitions.
His longest time on the pitch was 35 minutes against Norwich in the League Cup, which saw the forward score a memorable brace, not long after his debut; a Europa League cameo at Bate Borisov. While those have been the only two first team goals for the academy graduate thus far, his form at youth level suggests a reliable finisher lurks within.
Nketiah has scored 12 goals in 10 appearances for England Under-18s and Under 19s combined and more recently bagged a hat-trick for Arsenal’s Under-23s against Everton. That starkly impressive record begs the question as to whether he should be Arsenal’s third-choice striker.
The senior record of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette makes them obvious first choices when fit and fresh, but Danny Welbeck possesses a more questionable conversion rate. If Arsenal want to become an elite club again, they need back-up players who can potentially reach the top level.
Welbeck works hard enough but at 27, will develop no further. For Nketiah, who has a mature attitude and impressive technique, the sky is the limit.
Now 20, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been part of the Arsenal furniture longer than the aforementioned trio; the fact he has made 18 starts in all competitions this term suggests significant career progression.
The next natural step will be to identify his best position. When he made his first professional start on loan at Ipswich Town in 2015-16, he was deployed as a right winger for his searing pace, perceived by Mick McCarthy to be too inexperienced to play in a back-four.
A year in the Championship benefited the physical side of the tough-tackler’s game, but Arsene Wenger didn’t share McCarthy’s views on his best position. The following season, Maitland-Niles made his first start for Arsenal at right-back in a 4-0 League Cup victory at Nottingham, before producing a dominant display in central midfield in a 5-0 FA Cup victory at Southampton in January 2017.
Ironically, there is an argument to say that he now looks better at left-back than anywhere else; it might be that when he must defend on his weaker left foot, he shows more positional caution than we see when he flies into challenges at right-back.
As well as his aggression, he has also retained the pace and adventure we saw from him in his first season and improved technical qualities. The key for him now though will be to nail down a position: having been a jack of so many trades, he must now become a master of one.