By Declan Taylor
Steve Bould’s boys kick off this season’s FA Youth Cup adventure with a trip to Aston Villa tonight.
The Under-18s ran riot against Burnley at this stage last season when they came from behind to win 5-1, but tonight’s opponents will pose an altogether tougher problem.
The Villans are the form side across the whole Premier Academy League system, winning seven games on the trot, scoring 27 goals. Although the draw has produced a mouth-watering tie, it has also thrown up an almighty first hurdle for Arsenal - not that it bothers Bould.
“It will be a really tough game,” admits the 46-year-old. “But I would much rather go and play Aston Villa away at Villa Park because it is all part of the experience for them. I think this type of game is a much better gauge of how our kids are developing.
“It is interesting for me as a coach to see how different players handle the pressure. It is great from that point of view. One or two have played in much bigger teams, even first team games, but it will be a big test for them.
“We are treating it very much like a first-team game by going up early and staying in a hotel and it is a very different ball game for some of them.”
Football at academy level is all about the development of young players, and although results do matter, they are not the be-all and end-all. But that old adage doesn’t quite ring true in the Youth Cup, as Bould explains.
“The Youth Cup as a rule is different,” he said. “It is the one competition that everyone within the Club wants to win.
“In general we play down the Academy League games because it is more important that they develop as players and the result doesn’t matter in general. It does change things a little bit in the Youth Cup and there is a bit more pressure on the kids because you are playing on the big ground in what is deemed as a big game for them.
“When you play in the first team it is about winning and the performance comes second - that is part of the job. As kids we don’t put them under that type of pressure but this is a step-up from the League where the emphasis will be on a win rather than a performance.
“There is a massive difference in the players too. All 24 of them who can be involved all want to know if they will be playing and you can see them all waiting to see if their name is on the board. There is a completely different atmosphere and training has been more intense.”
With the desire to progress to the Fourth Round comes a selection headache for the manager. Just one defeat in their opening 13 games has seen Bould’s boys top Premier Academy League Table A. Will he stick with the side he picks week-in week-out or call up some of the Gunners’ much-coveted Carling Cup kids? The reality is a mixture of the two.
“In the League we try to give the younger kids more games than you would if you were just looking to finish top and nothing else,” said Bould. “It will be a little different [tonight] and we will have some of the older boys involved like [Henri] Lansbury who we haven’t seen at Under-18s all year.
“The only player who is eligible to play but is unavailable is Jack Wilshere. Everybody else is available for selection, including Henri, Francis Coquelin and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, all of that sort of group. Overall we should be fairly strong [tonight].”
Although there were easier opponents in the FA Youth Cup Third Round hat, victory at Villa Park could be the first step towards a trophy that has eluded Arsenal since 2001.
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