Ahead of Tuesday’s FA Youth Cup semi-final against Manchester City, Jack Wilshere believes that the best is still to come from his under-18 side.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a route to get to the final four, filled with late goals as well as comebacks against Watford and Cambridge United in the past two rounds that have seen our Young Gunners’ resilience tested to their limits.
And while Wilshere is delighted to see his players pass with flying colours so far, he believes there is still much more potential to unlock, and hopes it appears at the perfect time to help us advance to our first final since 2018.
“We’ve suffered a lot in this competition,” he said. “We’ve come from behind a lot and we've had difficult moments in games, but why I'm so happy is that we get another go at the Emirates and get a chance to play in front of our fans again, and show them a little bit more. I don't think we've seen the best of the team yet.
“We didn't play that great against Cambridge, but we found a way to win which is very important. We showed a different side to our game and character that they're all going to need if they're going to go on to have professional careers, so I'm happy that they found that.
“We were 2-0 down at Watford and I walked into the dressing room at half-time and everyone was flat. I just said to them: ‘look around this room, look at the quality, look into each other's eyes and find something because we’re one goal away from winning this game comfortably.’
“That's a special thing to have in a group; even if you're one or two goals down, you know you're in the game and you’ve seen that throughout the whole competition. That's something in their character that coaches can't give them - you either have that or you don't. This group have it.”
Wilshere has a burning desire to win this tournament as a coach, having been a part of the side that last lifted the trophy back in 2008/09. Since his appointment back in July, he admits the competition is something he wanted to build towards, with the competitiveness of knockout football combined with the possibility of players making a name for themselves shaping them up perfectly for a potential step up to first-team level.
“As a club, we do naturally target winning the competition,” he added. “It's probably the biggest thing that we enter at this age. It's difficult because it starts in January so we were doing a lot of work and it wasn't really in our thoughts before then, but I feel like we got to a good place with the team. We were four or five months into the work and we were ready when the Youth Cup came around.
“In Youth Cup, there's a chance that if you do well, your name is all of a sudden on Instagram and sometimes that can be the starting point. All of a sudden, people are looking out for you, and then on a Saturday you score a couple of goals and people go: ‘oh, that's Osman Kamara’, or ‘that's Omari Benjamin’.
“They've created that this season through developing every week, every day, working hard as a good group. There's an opportunity to get your name out there and make the first-team manager aware of you.”
There will be plenty of eyes on those players selected to run out on our hallowed turf in our semi-final, who will be under no illusions as to how difficult their opponents will be.
City have won all of their last 13 games in all competitions and currently sit second in the U18 Premier League North table, within touching distance of leaders Sunderland. Wilshere has scouted our semi-final foes, and knows we’ll have to be at our best on Tuesday.
“They're a good team - I went to watch them again for the last round,” he continued. “Their philosophy throughout the whole club is to play like the first-team, which is obviously to dominate the ball and try and create overloads around the pitch, so we're going to have to be good defensively and alive in every single moment.
“We definitely have a team that if we get into our flow and find a rhythm early, we can hurt them and cause them problems defensively, so I'm excited. It's a game that will suit us more. City will come here and they'll try and play, try to press and it should be a really good football game.”
A sizeable crowd is expected at Emirates Stadium hoping to see the next generation make the final, and having seen how our supporters have helped roar our men’s and women’s team onto great things in recent weeks, Wilshere is hoping that passion can be replicated to help give our youngsters an extra boost as they aim to continue on their own path to glory.
On playing in front of a larger crowd than what his squad are used to, he said: “You can't give the boys that experience - they need that as part of their development. I watched the women against Bayern Munich and what helped them through was the support from the fans - everyone's buying in. If we could get a little bit of that, I think it’s going to help us massively.
“We're going to need our supporters because City will be good. I said this to the boys last time - use the fans. I think it's so important and such a tool. Mikel does it brilliantly - he gets the fans’ energy and it feeds into the team. If we can get a little bit of that, it would be much appreciated.”
You can stream our FA Youth Cup semi-final with Manchester City on Tuesday on Arsenal.com and the official app from 6.55pm (UK time)
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