Serge Gnabry - does he have it?
I thoroughly enjoyed tuning in to watch the younger Arsenal players in Next Generation action against CSKA Moscow at Ashburton Grove last night. I would have liked to be at the game in person as I wasn't working, but my wife did have to go and earn a crust so I was on childcare duties instead. A few things stood out from watching the match, and one or two players also stood out for differing reasons. Cheered on by a very good crowd I think the boys should be pretty pleased with their 1-0 win over the Russians.
From the starting line-up there were six players whose names stood out to me. There was the goalkeeper Deyan Iliev who had looked good in the atrocious conditions in Milan in the previous round. I was also looking out for Serge Gnabry, Thomas Eisfeld, Nico Yennaris, Chuba Akpom and Hector Bellerin. Some of those players have already had a bit of first team experience, but whether or not they can make it at Arsenal is another matter.
Iliev impressed me a lot, especially in the second half. Arsenal dominated throughout the game, but the second period was particularly one sided. This meant that the goalkeeper was a spectator for most of that time, on a particularly cold night. He showed impressive levels of concentration when the ball did come near him and was fairly commanding of his penalty area. On a rare break by CSKA in the closing stages he was switched on and had an excellent position to race off his line and gather the ball before the striker could get on the end of it. Being a young goalkeeper is difficult anywhere, but especially at a big Club like Arsenal. Iliev looked confident and capable. Time will tell if he can make a breakthrough in the near future. With James Shea, Vito Mannone and at least one of Fabianski and Szczesny set to move on he will certainly be closer to contention next season, regardless of who comes in.
Serge Gnabry has been very much the headline grabber this season and he has serious ability on the ball. There are times when he really needs to learn to keep it simple, but he is quick, powerful and skillful. It was probably no surprise that he got the winning goal following a superb move involving the similarly impressive Bellerin. Gnabry missed a couple of chances as well, most notably an early header from inside the six yard box which should have been buried. Gnabry has been unfortunate not to get a bit more time with the first-team having been surprisingly involved a couple of times before Christmas. When you see Arshavin making his rare appearances on the Arsenal bench I can't help thinking we'd be better off with one of these younger players there instead. The fact is that Arsene Wenger has no intention of playing Arshavin, so why not have a kid there instead? If we were to get a comfortable lead then that youngster could have a ten or twenty minute run out at a higher level. They could only benefit from such experience. Gnabry seems to be at the front of that queue and might well get a nod or two between now and May.
Bellerin was in action at right-back and looks super comfortable. With Carl Jenkinson set to move ahead of Bacary Sagna and Bellerin knocking about in the Reserves it is perhaps no surprise that Sagna is heading for the exit door. He needs to develop physically, and I'd question whether or not he is good enough defensively (he wasn't tested at all in that regard last night) but on the ball, and using the ball, he looks excellent. He was the architect of the winning goal, and has the rare ability (for an Arsenal player) to put in a devastating cross. I'm sure Olivier Giroud wouldn't mind combining with him occasionally.
Nico Yennaris was the first of this group to play for the first-team and I've been disappointed to not see a lot more of him. He can play just about anywhere across midfield and at right-back, as he proved against Manchester United in the Premier League a year or so ago. In this team he is the Captain and is deployed as the defensive midfield player. I think this is doing him no favours career-wise. Of course he can play there, but Nico is not really big enough of physical enough to do that job at the higher level. He is a good footballer who can pick a pass, make a tackle and score a goal. I hope he doesn't see his Arsenal career fizzle out through being made to play a role he is not really suited to. He's a born and bred Arsenal fan and I'd love to see him make it, but time is against him now.
Thomas Eisfeld was disappointing last night. He made a big impact in pre-season with the first-team and then put in a match changing performance at Reading in the League Cup. That being the case I expected to see him all over the opposition. Playing wide on the left he did a very good impression of his illustrious compatriot Lukas Podolski. He even smashed a stunning free-kick against the bar late on, but that was very much the highlight of his evening. As with Gnabry I was hoping to have seen a lot more of Eisfeld in the first-team, especially with jokers like Gervinho and Arshavin knocking about. Last night was hopefully just an off-night. His goalscoring record would certainly suggest he is better than he showed against CSKA.
At centre-forward last night was Chuba Akpom who has been having a decent season in front of goal. Last night he looked strong and showed a good touch, unlike when he had previously been seen. He didn't really get a sight of goal last night so it's difficult to judge his finishing ability. He is actually the only other centre-forward at the Club after Giroud. That being the case it wouldn't have hurt for him to have the odd position on the bench. I'm not saying you would bring him on in place of Giroud at any time, but he'd surely be a better late option alongside him than Per Mertesacker. In the absence of anyone else Akpom might have been unfortunate not to have had a look in at all.
Aside from those named the other player to impress was Martin Angha. He played at left-back last night despite not having any inclination to use his left foot. I saw him against Coventry in the League Cup back in the Autumn and he looked out of his depth. Defensively he is not up to it, but going forward he can be an enthralling watch. Angha can take people on and carry the ball well across the pitch. If he could pass or cross the ball then a future as a winger could well be his. Sadly his lack of end product will hold him back.
It wasn't just Angha who lacked a killer ball in this side. In fact the similarities with the first-team are depressingly familiar. At times these boys move the ball brilliantly, right up until the final pass. Too often the through ball is not good enough and there is an unwillingness from too many to have a go at goal (Gnabry is a notable exception). When they did get through last night the finishing was generally poor, bar the brilliant goal. For all the pressure and dominance enjoyed by Arsenal the opposition goalkeeper was woefully under-employed. On the plus side there was an impressive work rate across the entire team, especially without the ball. There was one bit of showboating when the crowd started to "ole" but that was quickly brought to an end, I suspect by a shout or two from Terry Burton on the touchline. Overall it was hard not to be impressed. Hopefully one or two will make it with Arsenal. If I had to pick some that might I would have to look at Gnabry, Bellerin and Eisfeld (despite his average display last night).
One more thing to note is that Arsene Wenger has talked over the past year about his new British core of players, and how that is a good thing. Of course, in the past the passport has not mattered, he has told us. To me the nationality of the player means nothing whatsoever, just so long as they do the business for Arsenal. Our greatest team included precious few British players. Given Arsene's new found fondness for British players it is perhaps interesting that only three of last night's starting XI were born here. British core? I don't care.