Mehmet Ali’s first season as head coach of our under-21 side has seen some great result claimed, but more importantly a whole host of players gain experience with our first-team, earn loan moves to the Football League or step up from our under-18s as the drive to develop more stars continues.
Our Young Gunners started the season on fire winning six out of our first seven games of the season which began with a convincing 3-1 win against Manchester United and included emphatic 4-1 successes over Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers. We remained unbeaten in the league until the new year when we were sitting pretty at the top of the table.
Alongside our league campaign, we showed many encouraging signs in the Papa Johns Trophy where our academy players were put to the test against professional Football League sides. Despite playing all our fixtures away from home, we made a good account of ourselves by beating Cambridge United and Northampton Town 2-0 and 3-1 respectively to help us qualify to the knockout stages and set up a round of 32 tie against Stevenage.
A strong away contingent of 700 fans followed us to the Lamex Stadium to cheer the team on. Unfortunately, the hosts edged out 3-2 winners but we put up a strong, spirited fight and the players showed that they can compete at this level.
Other highlights before the turn of the year saw a 2-1 win against Monaco in the Premier League International Cup, and 13 of our under-21 squad were also included in Mikel Arteta's squad for the Dubai Super Cup where many received gametime against AC Milan and Lyon, while Amario Cozier-Duberry was given a taste of life at Emirates Stadium in a first-team friendly against Juventus.
Once we reached the new year, the January transfer window allowed a number of players to gain further senior football experience out on loan. This included Brooke Norton-Cuffy, Miguel Azeez, Ovie Ejeheri, Omar Rekik, Tom Smith, Nathan Butler-Oyedeji, Taylor Foran, Kido Taylor-Hart and Billy Vigar. Their exits opened the door for players from the under-18s to step up, with Bradley Ibrahim, Michal Rosiak, Omari Benjamin and Josh Nichols all playing meaningful minutes.
Our first game after in the new year saw us fall to defeat at Manchester City and we dropped to second place. We responded well to the defeat with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Leicester City but after the turnover of players we began to see our title hopes fade, ultimately finishing in seventh spot - although April brought a 3-3 draw against Brighton & Hove Albion where we twice recovered from falling behind, plus a 4-1 win at Everton to show there is plenty of firepower at Ali's disposal.
However, the main aspect of academy football is development and it was amazing to see the progression made by a number of our players. Charles Sagoe Jr, Mauro Bandeira, Catalin Cirjan, Cozier-Duberry, James Hillson, Ethan Nwaneri and Reuell Walters were all named on Arteta's first-team bench throughout the campaign, with Nwaneri becoming the Premier League's youngest-ever player back in September.
Next season will be an exciting one for Ali and his coaching staff as they continue to develop Strong Young Gunners, and for the players who are under-19, they will have the opportunity of playing in the UEFA Youth League which we will compete in next season as a result of the senior team qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.
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