By Rob Kelly
For an elegant player like Jon Toral, dictating play from the centre of midfield feels like his natural habitat. Pass, move, pass, move; this product of Barcelona’s youth system is at home on a football pitch. This is where he was born to be.
As such, missing six months last season through injury was a grievous blow for the 17-year-old. For it to come so early in his Arsenal career (he only arrived at the Club in summer 2011) felt like an injustice for a prodigious player desperate to prove his worth.
Happily those dark days are behind him now, and Toral is enjoying his football again, catching the eye with his vision, sumptuous passing and immaculate technique. He has starred for the under-18s, impressed in the NextGen Series and made his full debut for the under-21s last week at Blackburn.
Toral may be making rapid strides forward, but he admits he is just relieved to be playing once again.
“The under-21s is a different level but it’s good. I’m feeling happy about things,” the midfielder told Arsenal.com. “After six months out, you really enjoy your first games back.
“Seeing players like Serge [Gnabry] make his Premier League and Champions League debut makes you think you’ve got a chance to get there.
“I’d love to follow in his footsteps. But things like that just come - you have to work hard and enjoy every game after a long injury.
“I’ve worked really hard to get back and I’m enjoying every minute. Things are going right for me at the moment and I’m really happy about that.”
Toral had a few chances to open his account at under-21 level in the goalless draw at Blackburn last week, and coach Terry Burton says this is an area the teenager must focus on.
“Jon is an intelligent player, but he just needs to add an end product to his game,” he said. “Last Monday he had a couple of chances to finish a few moves off.
“Normally he is a good finisher, and that is an important part of his game that he needs to work on, to get himself on the scoresheet a bit more regularly.”
Burton is expected to take another young squad to the County Ground, and will be looking to build on an encouraging display against Blackburn.
“It was a young side and we started off brightly, created some chances and played some good football,” he said. “Gradually Blackburn got into the game and we defended well. Overall I was quite pleased.
“There were a few players who had not appeared at that level before, or certainly not regularly, and it is always good to see them play. The ones who did come in showed good character and worked extremely hard.
“Alfred Mugabo played in a position that he has not featured in regularly this year and did a really good job. Isaac Hayden came in and was arguably our best player, and Zac Fagan played his first game for the under-21s. They have to step up now and show what they can do.”
Toral will need no further encouragement. He is injury-free once again and determined to make up for lost time. And that continues tonight.
- We will have live text commentary of tonight’s match against Bolton on the @ArsenalLive account from 6.55pm (UK time). Kick off is at 7pm