The next big things and the players to look for
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal first-team are making the headlines for all the wrong reasons at the moment, but Terry Burton’s youth side are doing the exact opposite.
While the senior side face an uncertain near future in the pursuit of Champions League football, the young Gunners are progressing impressively through the NextGen Series – their latest triumph being a 1-0 win at Inter Milan in Wednesday afternoon’s last-16 tie, dumping the reigning champions out of the competition.
The all but unplayable pitch at the Centro Sportivo Giancinto Facchetti made for a scrappy game. Arsenal tried to play their characteristically smooth passing football but quickly realised it would be near impossible. They adapted their game superbly and prospered in quick, sometimes unusually long-ball, counter-attacking football.
As the rain poured they defended persistently, uncompromisingly and relentlessly – but the winning goal was a sublime moment. In the 68th minute Nico Yennaris chased to intercept a loose ball in the middle of the park before charging towards the Inter back line. Crafting space for himself, the England U19 midfielder – born in Leytonstone to a Greek Cypriot father and Chinese mother – let fly a glorious 30-yard effort that nestled into the bottom corner of Raffaele Di Gennaro’s net.
The eruption of joy among the Arsenal players and coaches demonstrated how much it meant to a young side who had fought vigorously throughout and would still have much to do ahead to close out the 90 minutes. They carried on their unwavering brand of defending for the remaining 22 minutes to record a clean sheet and a famous victory over the holders.
The victory set up a quarter-final tie with CSKA Moscow, and with Arsenal joining three other English teams – Chelsea, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur – in the last eight, these are bright times for Premier League youngsters amongst Europe’s elite.
NEXTGEN QUARTER-FINALSAston Villa v OlympiacosArsenal v CSKA MoscowChelsea v Juventus or Rosenborg BKTottenham Hotspur v Sporting Clube de Portugal
Arsenal’s academy has been producing excellent young players for a while, with graduates like Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs now first-team regulars alongside purchased youngsters like Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. The club’s admirably profitable business structure relies on a flourishing youth academy providing for the first team; the performance against Inter showed that the current crop of youngsters could do so. Those who doubt Arsenal’s formula should take a look at some of those stars of the future.
Yennaris was the stand-out performer of the Inter tie, the stalwart who stepped up when it mattered. (This year’s NextGen players have to have been born in 1994 or later, except for three 1993-born players per team; Yennaris is one of Arsenal’s older guard.) The versatile right-footer, who made his first-team debut at right-back in October 2011, is more than comfortable in possession and has added some defence-destroying passes to his game in the past year.
Yennaris in action for Arsenal's first team
Serge Gnabry adapted his game superbly against the Italian giants. His usual technical, skilful and experimental approach was wiped away by the ruthless mentality needed in the treacherous conditions. The adaptability is no surprise: the Stuttgart-born 17-year-old played in the Champions League this season and has been thriving in the newly-formed under-21 set-up.
Moments like his goal against Newcastle U18s in February, a space-creating touch followed by a clinically finessed top-corner finish, shows why the attack-minded midfielder is so renowned for his influential role in Arsenal’s youth set-up and will play a key role in years to come.
Chuba Akpom was another who worked tirelessly in Arsenal’s defeat of Inter, and indeed his whole game has progressed excellently in recent months. The Newham-born forward has scored bags of goals for club and country over the past few weeks, with braces against Manchester United and Tottenham in the Barclays U21 Premier League added to a goal against Everton in the FA Youth Cup and goals for England U19.
Gnabry (l) and Akpom: Breaking through
Six feet tall at 17 years old, Akpom has matured significantly. His physique, technical ability and appetite for hard work were never in question, but he had sometimes lacked goals; by improving in that department, he has made Arsenal's youth sides even more potent – and potentially given Arsene Wenger a future option.
Notes: Juventus v Rosenborg to be played tonight. Quarter-final dates TBC, but the semi-finals and final will be played at Lake Como over Easter – the semi-finals on Good Friday March 29, the final on Easter Monday April 1. The semi-finals and final will be broadcast live worldwide on Eurosport, ESPN, ESPN Asia and SuperSport.
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