Today we continue our Season Review, assessing Arsenal's performance in each competition during the 2011/12 campaign.
Below, Arsenal.com reporter Joe Brewin reflects on the Premier Academy League season which produced a third-place finish for Steve Bould’s young hopefuls.
Steve Bould will be a satisfied man with the youth team he leaves behind this summer. From developing second years to exciting first-year scholars, it has been another positive campaign for Arsenal’s academy.
It is little wonder that the 49-year-old heads for pastures new with a slightly heavy heart as he embarks on a new challenge as Arsène Wenger’s assistant manager. No fewer than 10 youngsters from the Under-18s made inroads into Neil Banfield’s Reserves last season, with several others close to making their mark in the second string.
A disappointing end to the season cost Bould’s youngsters the Premier Academy League Group A title. Winners Fulham finished just two points ahead to leave the young Gunners third after a tight campaign.
But it didn’t begin that way after the Under-18s kicked off with a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Barnsley at London Colney in August. “We were very poor and I thought we would be in for a really long year,” admitted Bould.
There were to be better times ahead, though. Bould’s youngsters would enjoy a five-match unbeaten run from there, recording victories over the likes of Leeds, MK Dons and Bristol City.
Germany youth international Serge Gnabry proved a particularly explosive performer throughout the year and announced his arrival in style. Making his debut against Crystal Palace in September having only recently turned 16, Gnabry picked up the ball 30 yards from goal and turned his man before unleashing a wonderful effort into the top corner.
A thriller at Colney against Fulham followed - but this time Arsenal’s youngsters were to be on the losing side. Philip Roberts’ brace put the hosts ahead inside five minutes but the Cottagers fought back to claim an entertaining 4-3 win.
Like their opening-day defeat, however, Bould’s promising youngsters fought back strongly. Three league wins on the spin ensued, with a late 3-0 win over Chelsea kicking off the run in eye-catching fashion. But while Bould admitted the result flattered his side, successive wins over Southampton and Charlton provided even more encouragement. Another first-year scholar, Anthony Jeffrey, notched his fourth goal of the season in style with a delightful opener against the Addicks.
Arsenal hit a rough patch before Christmas after losing three games in succession, with both Southampton and Charlton exacting revenge for their earlier defeats either side of a disappointing Youth Cup exit at the hands of Derby County.
But January and February provided a much brighter outlook for the Under-18s as they set about establishing themselves as firm title contenders. A rare defeat against West Ham proved the only setback of an impressive streak as the Gunners recorded five wins in six.
The finest performance of the season was arguably the 3-0 win at eventual champions Fulham, as late goals from Josh Rees, Jordan Wynter and Elton Monteiro secured a vital three points in west London. While the scoreline was admirable, it was the manner of the display which pleased Bould most.
From this point onwards the title was in their hands - but subsequent defeats against Chelsea and Leicester followed to leave hopes of glory in the balance. Rees and Wynter had put Arsenal in command in the former, only for the Blues to fight back against the run of play in the second period. “It was a disappointing result but I thought it was a hell of a good football match and it gave us problems we don't generally have in this country,” declared a positive Bould after the defeat.
Rees in particular impressed throughout the campaign to earn himself a deserved call-up to the Reserves, completing a fine run of goalscoring from midfield with his fifth goal in as many matches. He would eventually finish the campaign with seven goals, adding a strike for the second string in January.
An excellent substitute's appearance from Zak Ansah inspired Bould’s youngsters to a thrilling late turnaround against Aston Villa at London Colney, before a late double from Coventry earned the Sky Blues a 2-2 draw one week later.
That result put a significant dent in the Under-18s’ title bid, but incredibly they still had a sniff at glory when they made the short trip to face Watford. Ultimately, however, Kyle Ebecilio’s second-half equaliser was only enough for a disappointing draw.
Roberts and Ebecilio secured a positive final-day victory over Birmingham but in the end it was too little, too late in terms of the Group A title. Nevertheless, this was still a hugely-promising year in which a number of exciting youngsters have made their mark.Copyright 2013 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 29 May 2012