By Lambros Lambrou
When Nico Yennaris looks back on this season, the outstanding highlight for the 19 year-old was the NextGen Series – and that’s despite the Gunners side that he captained losing out in extra time in the semis against Chelsea.
“There were so many good things about the competition and our campaign,” Nico says. “Obviously I was proud and privileged to be the captain of the squad and I look back on a lot of very good team performances. I was pleased with many of the games I played too.
“There were very many similarities with the Champions League experience,” adds Nico, who travelled with the first team and featured on the bench for our trip to Olympiacos last season. “The travelling abroad and hotel stays give it a very similar feel, but it is also the enthusiasm for the competition. Every player relished the opportunity, just like all top players want to be involved in the Champions League. The competition and the games felt special and as a squad it helped us a lot. It was not just the experience, but it brought the team together and was character building, especially as we were able to do well in difficult circumstances.”
Ultimately, the departure from the competition was a particularly painful one. Terry Burton’s team fought back from 3-1 down to Chelsea in the semi-finals to take the game into extra-time, only to finally succumb 4-3 after an 116th minute winner for Chelsea, when penalty kicks looked most likely to decide the contest.
“It was clearly disappointing not to go on and win the competition, especially as I felt that we should have beaten Chelsea,” says Nico. “The two sides were quite well matched but I felt that we created the most clear chances and the game was there for the taking.
“We played very well in the first half, especially our defending from the front. However, we made a couple of errors in the second half that Chelsea punished with goals. That’s the big lesson to learn that if you make mistakes, top teams and players will punish you.
"It was clearly disappointing not to go on and win the competition, especially as I felt that we should have beaten Chelsea"
“The pleasing thing was that although a couple of players’ heads dropped when we went down to 3-1 we lifted ourselves and got back to 3-3. Losing in extra time was frustrating, but there was a lot of things to be proud of too.”
Those sentiments were echoed by first-team boss Arsène Wenger who declared after the game: “ We’ve always found the resources to do something special and that’s what I like in this team. They don’t give up, they keep going and above all there are two, three or four players who I think have a chance to play for Arsenal. That is most important.”
Nico has already made his first-team debut, and led the NextGen side to a dominant victory over one of the competition favourites, CSKA, at the Emirates: “We totally controlled that game and the lads did what was asked of them, which was simply to relax and play their own game. I knew that was the key from my own experience in playing in front of a packed crowd at our ground. There was a good turn-out for the quarter final and we started very well. We dominated the game and closed down very well. That part of our game really clicked in that match. The principle is that the higher up the pitch that you win the ball, the closer you are to the opposition goal. It took a while to get it right, but even the first team have only recently improved that part of their game. Sometimes things you work on in training just fall into place like that.
"Mistakes happen, but we have to work hard to eradicate them as far as possible, whether as a team or individual and the only way is working hard in training"
“We watched the semi final versus Chelsea again when we got back to learn from the experience. Where we made tactical errors, we worked on that in training and where there were errors in individual technique, each player tried to work on that part of their game. Mistakes happen, but we have to work hard to eradicate them as far as possible, whether as a team or individual and the only way is working hard in training.”
Training sessions have been particularly important for Nico this season as a chance to impress and improve. Having burst into the first team last term with a top-drawer performance at right back that saw him overcome Manchester United’s Nani, the young Gunner, who turns 20 this month, would have expected more this time around: “It hasn’t been as progressive a season for me this term. I would have hoped for more first-team games, which is a setback, but I like to use setbacks to come back stronger. It’s frustrating, but I will never let my head drop. I keep working hard and do my best in every game. I’m working hard on becoming more of a box-to-box player and look to learn from the way that Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta play. I’m watching when they take the opportunity to go forward, the runs they make and their positioning and their relationships with other players on the pitch.”
Nico ended last season with glandular fever, which cut short his loan spell with Notts County. After a lengthy period of rest to shake off the virus, he came back fit and ready for the beginning of this season. Then in November he was sidelined for a couple of months with a minor stress fracture in his back.
“Everything is OK now. I feel quite lucky though because I haven’t had many injuries. I had an ankle operation after being carried off in an FA Youth Cup game against Chelsea a couple of years ago, but I have been all right otherwise and I tend to have good powers of recovery. I see players like Abou Diaby who has been unlucky again and he inspires me in many ways. I see how hard he works to get back after injury and the mental strength he shows. Lesser players may have caved in with the amount of set backs he has had to contend with.
“It’s also the case that you appreciate it more when you are fit. The desire to make the most of every opportunity, every game is always there. You don’t take anything for granted.
“Abou is such a popular player and we are all hopeful he makes a strong recovery because he is such a valuable player to the team. He gives us something extra, especially in the physical aspects of our game when he is on the pitch.”
"Next season I’ll need regular first team football and the loan route has helped many players, with Jack Wilshere being a prime example"
Nico is hopeful of making it to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Turkey this summer with England: “I missed out on the Under-19s European Championships last season due to the glandular fever. I hope to do well enough in the Under-21 games for Arsenal, as it’s likely that England scouts will be watching, so that I can extend my season and represent my country.
Otherwise,” he smiles, “ I will use the summer to rest my body and mind. Last summer I was working hard to get fit after glandular fever and I was a little anxious of making sure that I made a good recovery. So if I’m not selected for the England Under-20s squad, I’ll make the most of the break this year.”
Nico has another year left on his contract. Hopeful of signing a new deal for the team he has always supported, he is inspired by the core of young British players pledging their loyalty to the Club: “That can only be good. I think at Arsenal we have been lucky in that when players from abroad have joined us, the vast majority have developed a love for the Club and the football played here. With British players, especially if they were Arsenal fans, that affinity is there straight away and runs deep.
"The signings may have something to do with the changes in the rules and regulations but it’s also much to do with the fact that we have such a good crop of British talent at the club and my target is to be amongst them. That’s the main thing I am aiming for. What is for sure is that next season I’ll need regular first team football and the loan route has helped many players, with Jack Wilshere being a prime example. Hopefully, come next season, I’ll get that opportunity to grow and develop my game and experience and show what I have to offer.”
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