Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock: Arsenal youngsters to get their chance?
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 01/04/18 12:23pm
Arsenal are 13 points behind fourth-placed Tottenham in the Premier League, leaving Europa League success as their only realistic hope of earning a Champions League spot for next season. So should Wenger prioritise youth domestically?
Ainsley Maintland-Niles has been the flag-bearer for Arsenal's academy this season, making 23 appearances in all competitions including six Premier League starts, but who else is pushing for more involvement?
Wenger is under pressure to get results after an underwhelming campaign, but in Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock, there are three more rising stars in the frame. We assess their prospects ahead of Arsenal's meeting with Stoke on live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday.
Reiss Nelson is arguably the most exciting young player on Arsenal's books. The teenager was handed his first professional contract shortly after his 17th birthday at the start of 2017. He then put himself on the first-team radar with a string of eye-catching performances in pre-season.
Arsene Wenger was as impressed by his temperament as his technical ability. "He has shown that he can dribble, go past people and he isn't fazed by the occasion," he said after Nelson's starring display in a 5-2 win over Benfica in the Emirates Cup. "He looks confident and it's good for him to play in these kind of games."
Nelson is a naturally attacking player who came through the youth ranks as a forward, but he has predominantly featured as a right wing-back in the first team. So far he has made 14 senior appearances, including starts in the EFL Cup and the early rounds of the Europa League.
He has only made one Premier League appearance, replacing Mesut Ozil for the final 18 minutes of Arsenal's 4-1 win over Crystal Palace in January, but he was among the substitutes again for the 3-0 victory over Watford before the international break.
Nelson could be used to deputise for Hector Bellerin at right wing-back in the weeks ahead, but would his speed and dribbling ability be more effective further forwards? It is worth pointing out that, of players to have played at least 300 minutes in the Europa League this season, he ranks in the top 10 for dribbles per 90 minutes (four).
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Nelson's attacking talents have long been apparent in England's youth teams, for whom he boasts an impressive scoring record. Just last week, in fact, he netted twice for the U19s in a 4-1 win over Latvia, the first a stunning drive from the edge of the box. With eight goals in 10 league appearances for Arsenal's U23s, the numbers provide food for thought for Wenger.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's arrival at the Emirates Stadium in January and Alexandre Lacazette's imminent return from injury could be bad news for Eddie Nketiah's immediate first-team prospects, but many supporters would be happy to see him given more opportunities.
Nketiah, who joined Arsenal from Chelsea as a youngster, has been a cult hero at the Emirates Stadium since October, when he stepped off the bench in an EFL Cup tie with Norwich, equalising with his first touch and heading the winner in extra-time. "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," was the chant from the stands, with Wenger praising his instinctive finishing ability afterwards.
"He was decisive and overall he has the flair to anticipate when you are in the box," Wenger told Sky Sports. "That's a quality you cannot give at that age anymore. You either have it or you don't, so that's very positive for him."
Wenger tried to temper the excitement around the teenager, but his instant impact earned him immediate comparisons with Thierry Henry, who previously coached him in Arsenal's youth ranks. "What a night for [Eddie Nketiah]," the Sky Sports pundit wrote on Twitter. "So happy for him and not surprised at all!"
Nketiah, who plays in the same England youth team as Nelson, has had to be patient since then, making just six substitute appearances in all competitions. He has been a regular fixture on the bench in recent weeks and made his Premier League bow as a late substitute in the 2-1 loss to Brighton earlier this month, but he is still waiting for his first start.
Wenger will be eager to give Aubameyang and Lacazette more playing time in the remaining weeks of the season, but could Premier League clashes with Stoke, Southampton, West Ham and Burnley open the door to Eddie?
Chris Willock's decision to walk out on Arsenal for Benfica in the summer was a disappointing one for his boyhood club - he was regarded as one of their most talented young players - but it has been offset at least to some extent by the emergence of his younger brother, Joe.
Willock Jnr, a rangy central midfielder with good passing ability, made his senior debut as a late substitute against Doncaster Rovers back in September and his first start in a Europa League tie away to BATE Borisov a few days later. After further appearances against Red Star and Norwich, he was rewarded with a new long-term contract in November.
Willock has impressed with his athleticism and cool-headed passing under pressure, and the new deal bodes well for his future, but could he get more opportunities before the end of the campaign?
He is perhaps the furthest away of the three. Willock struggled on his last start - the 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup - and his only appearance since then came as a substitute in the home tie with Ostersunds in the Europa League.
There is plenty of competition for places in central midfield, too. Aaron Ramsey is back from a spell on the sidelines and Jack Wilshere is expected to recover swiftly from the injury which forced him out of England duty. Mohamed Elneny's new contract was another reminder of the challenge facing Willock to force his way in.
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