Thoughts on NextGen Series And Reserve League
The line-ups for the second edition of the NextGen Series were confirmed yesterday with Arsenal being placed in Group Four along with Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and Anderlecht. The Champions League-style U-19 tournament was hugely successful last year and Arsenal are among nine new clubs enrolled for next season.
Besides allowing upcoming youngsters to hone their skills on the pitch, the NextGen series also provides an opportunity for them to experience life as football professionals. The travelling on away days, the hotel stays, the team bonding will all form a crucial part of their off-field growth. While the domestic U-18 and FA Youth Cup competitions do provide some experience in this regard, visiting Watford in the Academy League doesn’t really compare to travelling to Barcelona for a high-profile NextGen match.
For Arsenal fans, it is a chance to see how players like Kyle Ebecilio, Jon Toral and the highly rated Serge Gnabry fare against international opposition. I think the toughest test for the Gunners will be provided by Athletic Bilbao who have a strong youth set up. Current first team players like Fernando Llorente, Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain have all progressed from their academy. The tournament should be entertaining for supporters as the youngsters are likely to play without fear and will be out to impress.
At Reserves level too, I feel the level of competition can be increased. But instead of making it a youth competition, I would suggest it is run as if it were a ‘Premier League B’. It would benefit all if the Reserve League were to combine the experience from the first team with the youthfulness of upcoming players. Maybe a competitive 20-team league format that mirrors the EPL would be an option.
A competitive league like that would engender enthusiasm among fans. If Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh were part of an Arsenal team playing Manchester United with Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen in the starting line-up, would supporters come to see them play? I think so. For established players, it would be a chance to get themselves back in contention for the first team, for younger players an opportunity to impress their managers and gain experience playing along side international stars. Managers would benefit from providing playing time to squad members which would help keep them match fit.
Of course, not all youth and reserve players will make it at Arsenal and that’s the reality. However, many will go on to have rewarding careers with other teams. One such player linked way from Arsenal is Oghuzan Ozyakup, reports suggesting Turkish side Besiktas are interested in signing him. If opportunities at Arsenal are limited, competitions like the NextGen series and a more challenging Reserve League would give players like Ozyakup a better chance of achieving success elsewhere.