Young Gunners taste the big time

As it happens, Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 a few hours before Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil and the rest began to etch out a result of heavyweight Champions League importance. The circumstances were somewhat different: 19km away from the Emirates Stadium, in leafy Borehamwood, where on the approach to the game a number of staff in Uefa-branded bibs looked less than thrilled with the thankless task of bobbing into the woodland next to the narrow away terrace to hunt for balls that were smashed over in the warm-up.

Welcome to the parallel universe of the Champions League – the competition’s younger brother if you will. It is the Uefa Youth League, the under-19 version that mimics the elite competition. What started out as the NextGen Series, run as an external commercial venture until Uefa twigged what a good idea it was and ushered it in house, has been trialled by the European governing body for two years. Now it is in its first season as a permanent fixture in its competition stable, and offers an opportunity for emerging players to feel that bit closer to the place they all crave to be.

On every Champions League matchday the group game that takes place in front of a global audience in the evening has its equivalent in the afternoon, which is what brought Bayern’s prospects to Meadow Park, in Hertfordshire, to take on Arsenal’s youngsters in front of a few hundred interested spectators in the low October sunshine.

Bayern’s most advanced hopeful was Fabian Benko, a 17-year-old with a silky touch whom Pep Guardiola took to China in pre-season to be with the first team. But it was Arsenal’s most experienced youngster, Alex Iwobi, who seized the moment with the match-winning touches.

Jay-Jay Okocha’s nephew, recently capped by Nigeria, could not wipe the smile off his face afterwards. His first goal was a screamer. “I can’t believe I did that,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. The second, ghosting in from the wing to finish precisely, he dedicated to one of his coaches, a certain Thierry Henry. “I owe that to him. He told me before the game that most wingers get their goals at the back post so I tried to take his advice on board,” Iwobi said. “Other coaches I have had have all played football but no disrespect to them, I have never had anyone like Thierry. I am basically learning from the best.” Happy days.

The significance of the Uefa Youth League and its particular flavour is not lost on Andries Jonker, the head of Arsenal’s academy. It is, he says, “like gold”. At such a delicate phase in the development of young players, tasting these experiences, pitting wits against different styles of football, becoming immersed in a more intense level of competition, carries a substantial weight.

At the end of the young Gunners’ win against their Bayern counterparts, Jonker went into the home dressing room with a clear message. “Welcome to the mature world of football,” he told his band of teenagers. “This is about winning. This is about getting to the next round. If not you are out. That’s what we learn here. It’s top football. It’s in or out. It’s black or white. There is no grey.”

The starkness of that was keenly felt at Meadow Park. Arsenal, with maximum points from their games against Bayern, Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb, are in great shape for the knockout stage. The German side, who have lost all three of their matches so far, are out.

Arsenal’s boys will travel with the first team to their remaining away fixtures at Bayern and Olympiakos. Although they stay in slightly more modest accommodation, the routine is that they play their fixture, then watch the first-team game, and then all return home together. The impressions they pick up are a significant part of the development process. “The fact we are in the same plane, same airport, playing the same opponent, we watch the match, you can see it gives the boys a boost in the way they feel close,” says Jonker. “They feel so close. It makes them feel motivated.”

The combination of tension and excitement, of knife-edge consequences, is a much more realistic preparation for life in a first team than the protected environment of regular under-21 football in England, which is almost designed to lack pressure. Jonker describes it as “the feeling” of football that really matters to players.

“You cannot deny that the name of the opponent, the exposure to the opponent gives a feeling. To play against Bayern Munich or Real Madrid or Barcelona or Ajax, those boys want to compete themselves with that kind of opponent. To get the opportunity is a huge challenge to prove yourself and see how far you are.”

Arsène Wenger has been a regular critic of the current system in England, which makes it generally difficult for youngsters to bridge the world of youth football and first-team football because they lack serious competition. Hence the increasing use of the loan system to try to fill the void. Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem, two of those who are eligible for the under-19s, are on loan with Barnsley and Rangers respectively. Another handful, the likes of England’s Chris Willock and France’s Jeff Reine-Adelaide, who would certainly have played against Bayern, are away at the Under-17 World Championship in Chile.

Jonker was pleased that without so many potential players Arsenal were still able to beat Bayern. “I think in this age group, from 17-21, we have talented players.”

Arsenal’s team had a mix of English and imported players. Among those to catch the eye was the imposing Finnish goalkeeper Hugo Keto, the Pole Krystian Bielik did a decent impression of Per Mertesacker, and the England youth midfielder Ben Sheaf was dominant and energetic.

It is in this environment that the familiar Arsenal face of Henry has become absorbed. Their all-time record goalscorer is spending the season working with the youths, partly to fulfil one of the criteria for his coaching badges, partly to give something back to the game and club he loves, and partly to establish where he wants to set his own coaching ambitions.

He was on the pitch in his tracksuit before the Bayern game, imparting words of advice to Reiss Nelson, a bag of speedy tricks who is only 15. Then he headed for the dugout alongside two other young coaches, Ryan Garry – who was an Arsenal youth player until injuries forced early retirement – and the goalkeeping coach Jason Brown. Jonker likes the fact this age group has young, keen coaches who are learning themselves as part of the set-up.

Henry’s status obviously attracts special attention. Even for the scholars – in a recent media training exercise nearly every player chose him as their all-time footballing idol. “We all want to listen and learn,” says Iwobi. “He’s like one of us. He just jokes around. But when we have to be serious he’s very serious. He is teaching us what to do. He may criticise us a few times but that’s just for us to get better.”

Jonker has been impressed with Henry’s attitude to a new side of the game. “Thierry’s own wish is to be at Arsenal five, six, seven days a week,” the Dutchman observes. “It’s his own ambition to invest in his own future as a coach. What I am recognising is a guy who had a brilliant career as a player that is able to transfer his knowledge and experience to the boys. And the most important thing is he is willing to do it.

“He is doing much more than he is supposed to do in order to get his coaching badge. It’s his wish, his desire. We didn’t have to ask anything. It was his request to Wenger: ‘I’d like to be in the academy, is there any possibility? I just want to help.’ I started to work with him and found out how committed he is. He is really, really motivated to developing himself as a coach. He is open, he is internationally orientated, and he is a really good guy. ”

Jonker, a Dutchman who worked for a long time with Louis van Gaal, is in his second season at Arsenal’s academy. It has been an interesting period, trying to introduce some changes that have been challenging and different. The fundamental objective is to prepare the youngsters to have the chance to impress Wenger, as the likes of Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Héctor Bellerín and Francis Coquelin from the current squad have been able to do.

For anyone working in youth development, the pathway to the first team is a critical aspect. “I know I am in the most comfortable position of all academy managers because we have a coach who is here for a very long time who has the reputation and the guts to bring in very young players,” says Jonker. “But you know the alternatives. What would you do? The only thing I can do is try to make sure we have the highest quality potential we can bring in. Then it is up to Arsène to decide. But I know it is not easy for him.

“That’s where my experience helps. When I was in Barcelona, in Bayern Munich, in Wolfsburg – especially with Bayern and Barcelona you can compare them to Arsenal – I know how high the pressure is on the team, the staff, the head coach, to win. Then the question is all the time: Are you going to bring in a youngster over a player who has a huge reputation?”

Arsenal’s Under-19s left Borehamwood in fine spirits. Iwobi couldn’t help but wonder whether news of his goals would reach Wenger and push his case for inclusion in the Capital One Cup game at Sheffield Wednesday next week.

A few hours after jumping on the minibus at Meadow Park, the teenagers arrived at the Emirates to watch the first team pull off that extraordinary result against Guardiola’s passing masters. Not a bad few hours in the life of their football club. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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