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Arsenal’s golden generation of academy players is finally here

Ainsley Maitland Niles, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have made it to the first team in recent years. Fresh from their title winning 2018-19 campaign, the next batch of academy graduates is roaring for a first team opportunity.

An Arsenal academy player has featured with Paul Pogba in an Adidas advert. Another one has received Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s approval. The third was originally a central midfielder who played in three positions before settling down in his current role. Number four can deliver perfect crosses from a corner better than first team players. Next in the list is a teenage striker being tracked by Juventus and other European clubs. Player number six can play both as a number 10, and on either flanks. An attacking midfielder featured in the list reminds us of Cesc Fabregas. This is the story of some of the brightest teenage prospects at Arsenal.

Zak Swanson

Zak Swanson
Zak Swanson

The 19 year old right back made his debut for the Arsenal U23s in April 2019 whilst still a part of the U18 setup. He made 16 appearances with the reserve team and also made way for Hector Bellerin on a few occasions. One of Swanson’s biggest strengths is his fearless attitude while playing. He isn’t afraid to push high up the pitch and join attacks. His sudden burst of pace leaves the opposition defense out of shape. This in turn frees space for Smith, Balogun and John-Jules to make a pass or shoot at goal.

Swanson, originally a midfielder, played at centre back and left back before becoming a right back. Hector Bellerin’s fitness issues could provide Zak Swanson an opportunity to play for the first team. But before that he still needs to work slightly on the defensive aspect of his game. Swanson’s ability makes him a perfect candidate for the right back role if Mikel Arteta starts using an overload on the right flank. Cedric Soares has’t featured yet for the Gunners and it leaves a window of opportunity for young Swanson. 

Catalin Cirjan

Catalin Cirjan
Catalin Cirjan

The 17 year old Romanian midfielder joined Arsenal before the start of the 2019-20 season. He made a big step up from Romanian third division side Viitorul Domnesti to join the Arsenal U18s. He had a trial with the North London side in the preceding season following which he was offered a scholarship with the youth team. Cirjan made 19 appearances with the U18s this season featuring largely in the attacking midfield role. Cirjan has a good understanding of the game complemented with a vision to find the right pass. He relies on his speed and one touch passing ability to set up his teammates. Azeez and Cirjan have combined beautifully to produce an aesthetically pleasing brand of attacking football. Earlier in this season against Chelsea U18s, the duo got together to produce a great display of attacking football. 

Cirjan has the right skills and attributes to succeed in the number 10 role. It is still quite early in Cirjan’s career but the youngster is on the right path. In most likelihood, he will be promoted to the U23s for the 2020-21 season which would present a real test for Cirjan. Besides Emile Smith Rowe, he is by far the best attacking midfield talent among the young Gunners. In December 2019, he signed his first professional contract with the club. Watching Cirjan is like watching Cesc Fabregas play. Watch out for Catalin Cirjan because he has what it takes to make it to the top.  

Folarin Balogun

Folarin Balogun
Folarin Balogun

The 18 year old teen striker has been in great form this season. He was promoted to the U23s in July 2019 and has become one of the crucial players in Steve Bould’s setup. Balogun is the complete package. He offers much more than just scoring goals. He creates goal scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Balogun likes to be involved in build up play and often drops deep in the midfield. His off the ball movement is too smart for someone of his age. Earlier this season against Leicester U23s he kept dropping in the midfield on multiple occasions. As a result, one of Leicester’s centre backs always followed Balogun in the midfield which freed up space behind. It was from this exact situation that Balogun setup John-Jules with a delightful one touch pass. 

Balogun has 10 goals and 4 assists in 16 appearances to his name this season. But statistics don’t show the complete story. He could have had more goals and assists to his name but he was generous enough to set up his teammates on different occasions. Balogun has an ability to generate tremendous power behind his shot. He can find the back of the net with a shot from outside the box as well. 

Balogun scored a whopping 25 goals in 19 games for the Arsenal U18s in the 2018-19 season. His exploits in the U18 age bracket saw him receive an immediate promotion to the U23s. In the first game of the 2019-20 season, he completed a hat trick of penalties against Blackburn Rovers U23. He followed it up with goals against Derby U23, Wolves U23, Liverpool U23, Chelsea U23 and Manchester City U23. The New York born striker has always been one step ahead of his peers. 

He made his U18s debut for Arsenal at 16 and by the age of 18 was playing for the U23s. On February 13, 2019, he signed his first professional contract. Balogun was on the bench in Arsenal’s 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup earlier this season. He also received Aubameyang’s vote of approval while training with the senior team. Folarin Balogun is knocking on the first team door and could become a mainstay of the senior squad in coming years. 

Trae Coyle

Trae Coyle
Trae Coyle

The 19 year old is the preferred choice of Steve Bould on the right wing. He is versatile and comfortable on both the flanks besides being able to link up play as a number 10. A front three of Balogun, John-Jules and Coyle are delightful to watch. Against Leicester U23s and Everton U23s, the trio combined beautifully as they set up each other to score. 

Coyle was selected to play for England at the under 17 level. The teenager signed his first professional contract in January 2018 after scoring 7 times and providing 3 assists in 13 matches for the U18s. The upcoming 2020-21 season will be crucial for Coyle because there is plenty of competition in the team. There will be youth scholars promoted to the reserve side from the U18s and Coyle will have to step up as he becomes one of the senior players in the U23 setup. 

Sam Greenwood

Sam Greenwood
Sam Greenwood

Arsenal beat competition from a host of other clubs to secure the signature of Sam Greenwood in 2018. The Sunderland born 18 year old striker is highly regarded in the national youth setup and is often scouted by marquee European clubs when he plays for the Gunners. Greenwood has scored 22 goals so far in his youth career and looks hungry for more. He was a key part of the U18s title winning campaign in 2018-19. He is a number nine but often played on the wings to accommodate Balogun in the middle that season. John-Jules’ loan move and Balogun’s promotion to the reserves meant Greenwood could feature in his preferred role as a striker for the U18s. 

Greenwood and Balogun will become the mainstay of the U23 side from the 2020-21 season. It will be interesting to see if Steve Bould plays Greenwood on the wing or prefers him as a striker. Not being able to play Greenwood in his preferred role has been a concern for Arsenal. The club are well aware of other teams circling to lure their talented striker. If Arsenal can’t play him through the middle then a loan spell makes more sense. Arsenal have a plethora of attacking talent coming through and they must do everything possible to keep Greenwood in their fold.

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith

Promoted to the U23s before the start of the 2019-20 season, the 19 year old has made 12 appearances for the second team. Smith has featured mostly as a defensive midfielder but isn’t afraid to make an occasional run in the opposition box. His biggest strength is his ability to deliver corners with pinpoint accuracy. Despite being only 19 years old, he could possibly humble senior team players in a 1v1 for delivering corners. One reason why I always maintain that statistics don’t show the complete picture is because Smith’s ability to deliver corners isn’t noted through numbers. 

The teenager registered 14 assists with Arsenal U18s in the previous campaign from a deep midfield role. A Hale End player since the age of 9, he signed his first professional contract on February 25, 2019. He was the captain of the U18s in their title winning 2018-19 campaign and is one of the leading candidates to become the new U23 captain. 

Miguel Azeez

Miguel Azeez
Miguel Azeez

The 17 year old Englishman has already taken the football world by storm. He is by far the most exciting teenage prospect in his age bracket not only at Arsenal but across British soil. Some players leave a first impression which lasts a lifetime. You look at them play and instantly know that there is no dearth of talent here. That’s the feeling one gets when they see this teenager play. Azeez who currently plays for the Arsenal U18s has time and again shown that he’s outgrown the age bracket. He is the central midfielder any manager would dream of having in their side. He protects the back four, marshals the midfield, builds attack from midfield, connects the front four to each other, makes daring runs in the opposition box and can even score from a solo run. 

The Arsenal academy star made 17 appearances in the 2019-20 season. 14 of them came for the U18s while the remaining three with the U23s. It is too early to categorize Azeez as a number eight or a number 6 because he is young and still learning. Most of his appearances have come as a central midfielder with occasional caps as a defensive midfielder. One of his key attributes is his physicality and pace. It is very rare to find a box to box central midfielder with that skill set. The senior team lacks a creative number 8 and Miguel Azeez perfectly suits the bill. He can give Mikel Arteta’s side the cutting edge it currently lacks in midfield. The departure of U23s skipper Robbie Burton has seen Miguel Azeez promoted immediately to the second team. Azeez has been phenomenal at the U18 age bracket so far and will become a U23s regular in the 2020-21 season. 

However, it is very important to ensure that Miguel Azeez doesn’t fade into oblivion. He has featured alongside Paul Pogba in an Adidas advert as well. It is important for Miguel to stay grounded and focus on football. He undoubtedly has the talent but needs to stay focussed and keep grinding hard. 

All images above are copyright of Arsenal FC and I do not claim/intend to claim ownership of the above photos in any aspect.

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15 replies on “Arsenal’s golden generation of academy players is finally here”

Great list AB! I would also add Joel Lopez, who signed for us from Barca’s La Masia, and is following the footsteps of Hector Bellerin.

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Joel Lopez is an exciting prospect but right now he’s behind Bola in the youth setup. The coming season will see him get regular minutes and also give us a fair idea about his capabilities.

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