For Arsenal’s rising stars, last week’s NextGen Series victory at Inter Milan felt like a seminal moment in their developing careers. Played in dreadful conditions, with rain pouring down and the pitch cutting up at every moment, this was a challenge like no other.
In times like these, you need your captain to lead by example, and Nico Yennaris certainly did that. The 19-year-old, a battling ball-winning midfielder by trade, had scrapped for everything all afternoon in Italy and when his moment arrived, he took it.
Picking the ball up in midfield, Yennaris charged through the howling winds and deep puddles towards the Inter goal. With runners on either side, he looked sure to try to play one of them in - but he had other ideas. Instead, he took aim from 25 yards and arrowed a low shot into the bottom corner.
The goal sparked wild celebrations and gave rise to one of the images of the season as a jubilant, screaming Yennaris slid across the sodden turf, his team-mates racing to catch him. It was a moment he will never forget.
“I got the ball on the halfway line and started driving at the defence,” Yennaris told Arsenal.com. “Everything just opened up. I had Zak [Ansah] to my left and Chuba [Akpom] to my right making runs and the defenders were backing off so I thought I’d just take a shot and thankfully it went in.
“We had been talking before the game and said that if someone scores, the slide was there to do. Fortunately it was me that scored. As I was running to the bench, I heard someone shout ‘Dive!’ so I just did and everyone joined in.
“It was unbelievable - the conditions we played in were horrendous. To be honest, I didn’t think the game was going to be played. It went ahead and if we had lost, we’d have been screaming left, right and centre. But we won so I’ve got no complaints! I’ve never played in conditions like that at this level.
“With some of the incidents happening on the pitch, we really wanted to win. We flew out there and didn’t want to waste our time. You could see how great the team spirit was when we scored and at the end of the game. Everyone was together and it was a great learning curve.”
The West Ham game will be crucial for us. We want to keep our recent form going and if we can do that, it will be a confidence boost for all the lads
The win in Italy had an immediate impact on their domestic fortunes, too. Having gone five games without a victory in the elite group stage of the Under-21 Premier League, they returned to winning ways against Southampton on Monday. Now they will be hoping to maintain their momentum when they face West Ham United at Upton Park on Friday evening.
“Against Southampton the pitch was hard but we moved the ball well and pressured well from the front,” he said. “They are things we’ve been trying to work on and it paid off for us. Everyone was on key. When one pressed, we all pressed and it was a good team performance overall.
“We know in ourselves that we have the ability to score and win games. I think we have to do the other side of the game a bit better - things like defending set pieces and crosses. We have to get the basics right.
“The West Ham game will be crucial for us. We want to keep our recent form going and if we can do that, it will be a confidence boost for all the lads. Hopefully we can get on a good run now.”Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source