Arsenal’s Under-21s of 2015/16: Where Are They Now?
By Max Mishcon
It may seem counter-intuitive to be optimistic about an Arsenal U21 side that has just avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth, but hear me out:
Miguel Azeez seems to be just as brilliant as his haircut and is on the brink of first team action. Additionally, Nikolaj Moller has the profile of a Zlatan regen and could offer us a completely different dynamic up front in the future.
But most notably, (and something written about superbly by my fellow writer, Sumaiya) Flo Balogun’s decision to stay at Arsenal until 2025 has induced a faint sigh of relief amongst the fanbase.
Our academy is famous for consistently producing talents of similar quality to these players - a la Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock - whilst also being very happy to let many of them go for pennies - a la Josh Dasilva, Donnelly Malen and Ismael Bennacer.
Let’s rewind 5 years ago to Arsenal under-21’s 3-1 victory against Aston Villa and see how many of starting XI have made it to the big time!
Goalkeeper: Matt Macey
Forever known as the very, very last resort in goal and for being absolutely giant, the Bath local never really looked close to placing his 6ft 7 frame into the Emirates net.
Since 2013, he trudged through the reserves and various loan spells before signing for Hibernian in January where he’s made 3 appearances.
Right Back: Julio Plegeuzuelo
Captaining the side on the day, the La Masia graduate made a single appearance for the first team - telling of his ability is the instant image of his bronze FIFA 16 card in my mind.
The Spaniard now deputises at centre-back for FC Twente with his contract expiring this Summer.
Centre Back: Krystian Bielik
The now 22-year-old was one of the better prospects in this side and managed to force himself a move to Derby for a respectable fee of £7.5 million.
His versatility and neat distribution set him apart at his successful loan at Charlton, so much so he has since earned 3 Poland caps and the opportunity to play in the Championship for another season.
Centre Back: Calum Chambers
It’s quite hard to believe Chambers was a Wenger signing and is one of the longest serving members of the first team squad today, but it’s not been easy for the former Southampton man.
It looked for a long time as if his progress stagnated to the point where he was surplus to requirements and an ACL injury didn’t help by any means. However, solid loan spells at Middlesborough and Fulham (which both ended in relegation funnily enough) have seen him grow into a reliable member of the squad, recently putting in consistent 7/10s at right-back.
Left Back: Tafari Moore
Probably the most problematic area of the academy, we haven’t really seen a player come through the ranks in this position since Kieran Gibbs.
Moore currently stands as a free agent with 54 senior appearances to his name at the age of 23, as Plymouth decided not to extend his contract.
Central Midfield: Francis Coquelin
Most likely playing in an academy game to return to full fitness, the Frenchman will be remembered relatively fondly by the fanbase; in a squad criticised for a lack of grit, Coquelin, despite his technical deficiencies, was a real fighter, a true warrior.
His terrific performance in a 2-0 away win against Man City in 2014/15 particularly springs to mind, emphasising his discipline and unrivalled determination.
These days he’s busy knocking us out of Europa League semi-finals with Villarreal and is having a decent season in Spain.
Central Midfield: Santi Cazorla
Man of the Match in the aforementioned win against Man City and partnering Coquelin in this under-21 game was a certain contemporary fan favourite, a little man with a huge place in Arsenal fans’ hearts.
Cazorla played with a smile on his face, fire in his heart and glue on his feet. The tiny touches, the close control, the drop of the shoulder, he took corners with both feet for goodness sake!
In hindsight, he was far too good for us and could’ve filled Xavi or Iniesta’s boots very easily. Had he not been injured in this 15/16 season, we really could've lifted the title.
He’s a true cult hero and the sooner he joins the coaching staff, the better. But for the time being, he plays under Xavi for an unbeaten Al-Sadd in the Qatari league, putting defenders on their backsides I’m sure.
Attacking Midfield: Jeff Reine-Adélaïde
We didn’t truly know just how good Jeff was until he left for Angers in 2017. Standing at 6ft, he dangles past defenders with aggressive strides and has a wand for a left foot.
The 22-year-old earned himself a £23 million move to Lyon, although is now on loan at Nice where he’s not really setting the world alight.
Left Wing: Chris Willock
Brother to Matty and our loanee, Joe, Chris bagged a goal in this game and hasn’t taken the most orthodox route since.
He joined Benfica in 2017, making 64 appearances for the reserves, had a mediocre loan spell at Huddersfield before moving to QPR for £1m in the summer. He’s made 38 appearances this season, chipping in with 8 goal contributions too and looks to have found his feet in West London.
Right Wing: Joel Campbell
Campbell endured a solid couple months in the first team before slowly slipping away. Goals against Swansea and Sunderland forced fans and Wenger alike to really take note of the Costa Rican.
Moves to Sporting Lisbon, Real Betis and Frosinone, where he played with Gervinho, have seen him peter out of the limelight, as he finds himself playing for Mexican side León.
Striker: Stephy Mavididi
Scoring the other 2 goals in this game and bagging 9 for Montpellier this season, Mavididi once had Arsenal fans baffled as he bagged a move to Juventus for £1 million. After making just one appearance for the Old Lady and 32 for the reserves, he was shipped out to Dijon on loan where he scored 5 times.
That’s about it for our little flashback. If this piece has taught me anything, it’s that elite level football is absolutely ruthless and that even when you’re one step away from your dream, it can all come crumbling down at any moment.
Some of the routes these players have had to take to make it back to the top is quite incredible, and power to them!
Oh yeah, there was also some unused substitute on the day called Serge Gnabry, wonder what he’s up to these days?