Arsenal’s Most Promising Young Players: A deeper look (Part 1)
By James Whiffing
This season has seen all three Arsenal managers (Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta) consistently utilise the talented young players at their disposal, and they have ultimately not disappointed.
Arsenal are renowned for putting their faith in youngsters throughout the years; a trend seemingly started by the legendary Arsene Wenger, who promoted the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin (to name a few) to the first team. They began to blossom into important members of the side in the latter years of his reign as Gunners boss.
With Hale End becoming a breeding ground for top young talent in recent years, it should come as no surprise to see several breakthroughs from Arsenal's young players this season.
Eddie Nketiah (20 years old)
After a loan spell that disappointed in terms of game time at Leeds United (scoring 5 in just 4 starts and 15 substitute appearances), Nketiah returned to Arsenal looking to prove a point to the new Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and force a way into his first team plans.
The Englishman’s strengths are his electric pace, clinical finishing, dynamic movement and relentless ability to apply pressure on the opposition defence. With Alexandre Lacazette underperforming of late, Nketiah has had multiple opportunities in the Gunner’s first team, scoring 3 goals in 6 appearances in all competitions in the Frenchman’s absence.
His 74% pass completion rate for the Gunners is impressive for a striker, as well as registering an impressive 30% conversion rate in all competitions, which highlights just how clinical he is. His extremely impressive 0.54 xG per 90 (albeit in a very limited sample size) demonstrates his ability to get into goal scoring positions, and is a good indication that his current goal-scoring exploits are sustainable.
The youngster came through the ranks of Arsenal through Hale End after being released by Chelsea, and scored 9 goals in 10 appearances in the Premier League 2 last season before joining the first team. Nketiah has also made 8 appearances for the England under-23 team, scoring an impressive 8 goals during his time with the young lions.
The 20-year-old has been a breath of fresh air for Arsenal since coming back from Leeds, and he is looking to continue his form and cement his place in the first team ahead of Lacazette in the coming games for the club. Nketiah has a potentially huge ceiling if he can maintain his knack for scoring predatory goals and can develop himself physically, which in turn will help his ability to hold the ball up.
Joe Willock (20 years old)
Despite not getting many starts for Arsenal this season, Joe Willock has shown what he is capable of off the bench in the Premier League and in various cup competitions. The Englishman came through the ranks at Hale End, making a journey from the Arsenal academy alongside his two brothers. He’s now the only remaining Willock at the club.
The 20-year-old can play anywhere in central midfield, and has played 1,504 minutes of football under Emery, Ljungberg and Arteta this season, scoring 4 goals in 30 appearances. He has also featured in the England under-23 team several times throughout this season, following some impressive displays for the Gunners, making 4 appearances for the Young Lions.
The versatile midfielder has an 83% pass completion rate as well as a 74% dribble success rate. Although he has not racked up many goal contributions, Willock is showing very promising signs and flashes of brilliance in midfield at times for Arsenal.
His physicality is possibly his best asset, and suits a counter-attacking side, with his powerful ball carrying skills very useful in away games for Arsenal this season. He also has the ability to get into goal scoring positions, making late runs from midfield and arriving in the right place at the right time. This is evident in his encouraging 0.28 xG per 90 in the Europa League this campaign.
However, there are certainly elements of his game that need to improve. His decision making and use of the ball in the final third is often wasteful, and his technical security will have to improve if he is to be a regular in a possession based system under Arteta.
Reiss Nelson (20 years old)
Reiss Nelson, similarly to Joe Willock, has been teetering on the edge of regular first team action for the Gunners this season- finding himself competing with record signing Nicolas Pepe has made getting game time difficult.
Most of his game time has come in cup competitions, scoring twice and registering 4 assists across these competitions. The wide man has, similarly to Willock again, regularly featured in the England under-21s, accumulating 5 goals and 2 assists to his name for the English youth team.
Nelson has also got a 56% dribble success rate this season as well as managing 86% pass accuracy- an extremely impressive stat for a winger although possibly suggests an element of caution to his game. The Hale End academy prospect spent last season on loan at Bundesliga side Hoffeheim, where he managed an impressive 7 goals.
Unlike Willock, Nelson’s technical security is not in question, with his ball retention abilities in the final third a very useful asset to an Arsenal side who contain a number of erratic forward players who cause many turnovers. However, he needs to begin imposing himself on games more, making more of a tangible impact.
The early signs against lesser opposition are encouraging, having registered two assists and 4 key passes against Portsmouth on Monday night, and a staggering 0.51 xA in the Europa League across his two starts. It’s in the Premier League, at a higher level, where he is yet to make his mark, and if he begins getting more opportunities here, then we may see him develop under Arteta’s jurisdiction- a coach who seems to specialise in developing young wide players.
Part 2 to come...