Date: 20th April 2012 at 10:48am
Written by:

As the summer approaches, things continue to motor on behind the scenes with the club`s second string. Arsenal have only one fixture left to play, with Everton visiting Underhill in a game rearranged for Wednesday, 2nd May. But about now decisions will be taken on whom to move on, who to release and who to offer new contracts to. It`s the most nerve jangling time of the year for any second string player. This is part of the reason you will have noticed an increase in behind closed door friendlies.

Whilst match practice for the likes of Diaby and Connor Henderson is a big fillip, the club are also looking to showcase those that they wish to move on this summer. In that respect, the 1-0 training ground win over Oman will have done Gavin Hoyte`s prospects of a move no harm, given that he scored the only goal and presided over a clean sheet from centre half. Hoyte`s contract runs out in June. Hoyte has had loan spells at Watford, Brighton, Lincoln City, MK Dons and had an unsuccessful trial at Stevenage this year, having signed professional terms with the club in 2007.

The training ground friendly with Paul Le Guen`s Oman team also saw Abou Diaby complete a pre planned 45 minutes, with Squillaci, Park and Chamakh also being allowed 45 minutes to sharpen themselves up in the event that they are called upon. Connor Henderson continued his recuperation by playing 90 minutes (albeit missing a penalty) in a 1-0 win. The loan scene has been fruitful for some Arsenal forwards too. Joel Campbell scored a beauty to win the game for Lorient against Montpellier last weekend, with Andrey Arshavin also netting a blistering volley for Zenit St. Petersburg, who moved closer to the title with a 2-0 win over CSKA Moskva. Meanwhile, Benik Afobe has tasted promotion to the Premiership with Reading following his playoff disappointment whilst on loan at Huddersfield Town last year.

But the most significant announcement of the week arrived when Arsenal confirmed that they will sign up for next season`s Nextgen tournament. The tournament is essentially a Champions League for U-19 sides, with Ajax, Aston Villa, Barcelona, Basel, Celtic, Fenerbache, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Manchester City, Olympique Marseilles, Molde, PSV Eindhoven, Rosenborg, Sporting Lisbon, Spurs and Wolfsburg all signed up for next year`s competition.

The Nextgen tournament debuted this season. Arsenal had been keeping an eye on developments and with Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie both present at March`s Final between Inter and Ajax, the club`s interest seemed pretty concrete. Arsene Wenger confirmed he spoke closely with Inter Milan about their impressions of the initiative and received glowing reports. The chance to compete against Europe`s best youth teams, expose the young players to different styles of football as well as take part in a high profile, competitive tournament can all be seen as clear benefits. Arsene Wenger pointed out, “It can be good for confidence, if a young player can see he is a match for a 16-17 year old from Real Madrid.”

Whilst there`s little reason to doubt the administration as yet, he concern could be as to whether exposure is necessarily such a good thing. The increased profile of competition will no doubt lead to young players being subjected to increasing levels of hype and expectation. David Bentley invited comparisons to Liam Brady because he tried to chip Oxford United`s goalkeeper aged 18. Such hysterical comparisons will only increase if, say, Josh Rees were to hit a 30 yard winner against Barcelona`s U-19s the spotlight would become merciless. I would chance we`ll be seeing a few more Freddy Adu and Cherno Samba`s. There`s also the chance it could become something of a meat market. Perhaps as Arsenal fans it would be churlish to complain; but it will be difficult to keep any prized assets a secret. A good performance against Inter Milan from one of our teenage prodigies could see the vultures circle from the likes of City and Madrid. In turn, agents will begin to attach themselves to younger, more naïve players too.

Footballistically, to borrow a Wengerism, the tournament looks to be a winner. In terms of PR, it will take some managing. But I`m certain the club will already be considering that. These are probably concerns that were aired some 50 years ago when the European Cup was born! This would appear to fit an overall strategy to align youth and reserve football closer to its first team counterpart. The Reserve Premier League was restructured last year so that promotion and relegation from the regionalised leagues was tied into the first team`s performance. (So theoretically, even if you win the Reserve League, if the first team get relegated, so do you).

The Independent reported a fortnight ago that plans were at an advanced stage to turn the Reserve League into an U-21 league in time for the 2013-14 season. It is thought that in the revamped league, these U-21 games will exactly shadow first team fixtures. Many top flight clubs have dropped their Reserve teams altogether and this appears to be a move to bridge the gap between second string and first team football and make the scene more professional. Arsenal in particular have suffered in recent years from youngsters falling between the cracks. Jay Emmanuel Thomas for instance found Reserve football asinine, but then found Championship football tough going. Improved youth development is one of the key objectives of English football over the coming years and the Nextgen series and the revamped U-21 league seem to form a part of that, as well as the F.A`s Burton Academy.

Of course the Ladies game has undergone a similar facelift in recent years and European competition will be on Laura Harvey`s mind. Arsenal fly to Germany for their second leg Champions League semi final against Frankfurt on Saturday afternoon, chasing a 2-1 deficit. It`s an uphill task for sure for Arsenal, with Frankfurt enjoying such a formidable record at Stadion am Brantanobad. Harvey points out that that the requirement of two goals leaves Arsenal with little recourse but to attack. Even if Frankfurt take the lead, Arsenal`s objective doesn`t change much. She also points out that this is something of an unfamiliar position for the Germans, who have played all of their first legs away from home and been defeated, leaving them to chase the win at home. Now they have something to hold and it will be interesting to see how they deal with this challenge.

Frankfurt will be without their captain Sandra Sismek who picked up an abdominal injury in the 2-1 victory at Borehamwood last weekend. That said, if Frankfurt are as organised and ruthless as they were at Meadow Park, it`s difficult to see the Gunners getting through. They were restricted to very few chances by a very well organised Frankfurt side last time out and the visitors were ruthlessly clinical in front of goal too. I think they`ll have a hard time surmounting this deficit. The game kicks off at 1.15pm GMT tomorrow.

I wrote last week that a supposed knee injury to Faye White could yield concerns as to her long term fitness. It turns out that was something of a smokescreen as the ex England captain announced on Wednesday that she is expecting her first child in October. White has featured only as an unused substitute this season having spent most of last year recovering from a knee injury. The happy news saw White immediately call time on her international career. Having not started a game since last June and now approaching 35, another year out will see her 15 year involvement with England Ladies end and her captaincy relinquish. However, White says she will wait before making a decision as to her Arsenal career, which has seen her collect a total of 31 winners medals in her 16 years at the club. Whatever happens, her legacy is in tact as possibly the most influential English Ladies player of the 21st Century.

In other news, Arsenal Ladies` Reserves side, made up predominantly of academy graduates, confirmed their status as Women`s Premier League Reserves Champions with a 4-1 victory over West Ham United last Sunday. The second string Ladies- who have recently provided the likes of Danielle Carter and Jennifer Beattie for the first team, had already won the Women`s Reserves League Cup and the Hertfordshire County Cup this season, continuing the standards of excellence one comes to expect from the Ladies set up at the club. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA