Arsenal take their place in new Under-21 Premier League

Arsenal take their place in new Under-21 Premier League

It’s been mooted for around 12 months, but will finally come into place next season. The Premier League will scrap its existing Reserve League format, in favour of a new Under-21 tournament.

The changes are brought in less than two years after the last overhaul of the reserves system, when the league was divided into groups A, B and C, as opposed to the previous North and South divide.

The new league is aimed at Under-21 players only, but a total of four overage players will be allowed in each match day squad, including a maximum of three outfielders and one goalkeeper. The rule is designed at making the matches more even and competitive.

Another key element of the league, is that it will be mostly made up of clubs granted a category one academy licence, although a number of teams who applied for category one, but were refused, will also feature.

The 23 teams confirmed have been divided into two groups of eight, and one group of 7, with the top two from each group advancing to the elite stage in January.

There they’ll be joined by two of the best third-placed teams, and will then do battle for the trophy in a knock out style format. You following?

The full details are yet to be confirmed, but it’s understood the opening groups are as follows:

Group A:
Arsenal, Blackburn, Bolton, Everton, Norwich, Reading, West Brom and West Ham.

Group B:
Newcastle, Tottenham, Southampton, Stoke, Manchester United, Watford, Sunderland and Aston Villa.

Group C:
Fulham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Wolves.

The most obvious changes are that there will be no divides, and a quality range of opponents for each team. It’s not yet been made clear, but the Under-16’s and Under-18 leagues are expected to undergo similar changes.

Update: Arsenal have confirmed their participation, with a list of fixtures published on the official site here. The first two games, at home against Blackburn and Bolton, will be played at the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal ask Francis Coquelin to end their midfield hunt

Arsenal ask Francis Coquelin to end their midfield hunt

Arsène Wenger has handed Francis Coquelin the opportunity to become Arsenal’s next great defensive midfielder, and with it, save the club a substantial sum of money.

Arsenal scouts have been to France, Norway, Belgium and then back to France in the hunt for a prime defensive midfielder in the last 12 months, but they are yet to appease Wenger.

Yann M’Vila, Kara Mbodj, Lucas Biglia and Étienne Capoue have all been extensivily watched, and have all been subject of positive reports, but none of them have fully convinced the Frenchman they can be a quality alternative to Alex Song.

Wenger had made signing a more natural holding player a priority this summer, with worries that Song’s new found roaming style often leaves the back door open in critical matches.

But doubts over M’Vila’s temperament, Capoue’s maturity and whether Mbodj and Biglia can adapt to the Premier League, have left the Gunners boss unwilling to take a chance on any of them, with all boasting fees in excess of £10 million.

Instead, 20-year-old Francis Coquelin has been promised an opportunity he might not get again. After a year spent as Song’s deputy, he will now be assessed as to whether he can become his main competition, on a full-time basis.

Coquelin has grown up significantly in the last few years, helped by an experience-building loan spell with French side Lorient, but there have still been question marks as to whether he is ready for a permanent graduation.

Wenger will make a decision in the next week or so, with the madcap travelling and intense training in Asia a perfect chance to test Coquelin’s character, maturity and talent at it’s limits. Should he succeeed, he will be allowed to keep the number 22 shirt on a permanent basis.

Coquelin has impressed in several audtions in big matches in recent months, but must now prove he has progressed enough to oust, or even compliment, Song in the Arsenal engine room.

A steady performance against a Malaysia XI has set the tone, but he must show more in Beijing and then Hong Kong in the coming days, in order to seal the permanent promotion.

The ball is very much in his court.

Arsenal head to Asia retreat with several first-team hopefuls

Arsenal head to Asia retreat with several first-team hopefuls

It’s been another difficult summer for Arsenal. The early arrivals of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were initially inspired, but now underwhelm, as captain Robin van Persie prepares to walk away.

Arsène Wenger has felt the strain more than most, and after two weeks of intense criticism and question asking, he will no doubt be glad to retreat to Asia tomorrow afternoon, as the club begin their tour of the Far East.

A chance to get away, and focus on the business of moulding his much critiqued new boys into an ever-evolving new-look squad.

Wenger took training on Friday morning already in the knowledge that van Persie would not be travelling. He will stay behind in a bid to work on fitness, and more crucially, a move away.

It’s a decision that will make the headlines, but Wenger is already planning for the future. Van Persie drops out, and is replaced in the travelling party by 19-year-old Benik Afobe. He is one of a handful of fringe first-team hopefuls who will board the plane tomorrow, desperate to force his way into the squad for next season.

Afobe has had a tough 12 months. This time last year, he was on the cusp of the first-team, but suffered a serious knee problem that needed a substantial operation. He returned, but found little game time on loan at Reading, before disappointment with England at the Under-19 Euro’s over the summer.

It’s not quite make or break, but it will feel like it.

Afobe will be joined in the squad by close friends Chuks Aneke, Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris, all of whom already have their eyes on loan moves, but will want to stick around to feature in the Capital One Cup next term.

Wenger is also planning on taking the much maligned Craig Eastmond – a player who has impressed in pre-season training, and did well on loan at League 2 outfit Wycombe in the closing stages of the last campaign. It is very much his last opportunity to leave an impression.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, we will also get a look at German play-maker Thomas Eisfield. He arrived in January in a rushed deadline day deal, and although has had injury problems, is highly rated.

It’s a tour aimed at building the commercial networks at Arsenal, but make no mistake, the trio of fixtures are auditions for the names mentioned above, and they know it.

The hard work only begins here.

Arsenal like M’Baye Niang but face a battle to sign him

Arsenal like M’Baye Niang but face a battle to sign him

Arsenal want to sign M’Baye Niang

He’s young, French and relatively unknown – if M’Baye Niang is not a classic Arsenal signing, he is at least a stereotypical one.

A 17-year-old striker from French minnows Caen, Niang has not only been talked about as a new Thierry Henry, but also a candidate to be the next iconic Les Bleus number nine.

They’re big predictions, for a big prospect. I first stumbled upon Niang midway through last year, when, as a burly 16-year-old, he played 7 times for the Caen first-team, and scored three goals. The club have produced the likes of William Gallas, Jérôme Rothen and Mathieu Bodmer in recent years, but Niang is something else.

He had offers to go last summer, but eventually stayed. A full season of first-team football was the reward, and while Niang played more games, he scored just twice, as Caen were relegated to Ligue 2.

It was quite an experience, but one that did little damage to his stock. Arsène Wenger was recommended Niang by France scout Gilles Grimandi last month, and soon used his vast contacts and influence to sort out a trial.

Niang returned to his homeland over the weekend, having left an impression.

He badly lacked fitness, but Wenger was impressed with his attitude and application, and earlier this week, a bid worth up to £5 million was lodged with Caen. It was rushed, as news spread that the player was available for trial. Manchester City, Tottenham and now AC Milan have all made enquiries over a deal.

Caen have since turned down Arsenal’s bid for Niang, and they are yet to return with a second offer. Arsenal like the player, and believe in his potential, but don’t want to spend a fortune on somebody they believe will require a lot of work to be ready for the first-team.

Niang is tall, strong and powerful, and be adapted into pretty much any type of striker. A target man, a poacher – even a number 10, but question marks over his concentration and finishing still need to be answered.

I covered Niang in The Independent in November, and believe he would be a sound acquisition for Arsenal. The question is, will Wenger go against the betting and stump up extra for the player, or risk losing him to a top four rival? The ball is in his court.

It’s good to be back – Young Guns returns

It’s good to be back – Young Guns returns

It’s good to be back. After a nine month sabbatical from blogging, I’m back at the helm with a relaunched Young Guns, just in time of the new season.

As regular readers will notice, the posts suddenly ended in October, with no word of what had happened. I’m delighted to say I’ve had a number of really nice emails and letters since, from long-term fans of the site who are keen for it to continue, despite enjoying my work on Twitter and elsewhere.

For those who were not aware, last year I became a full-time football journalist, and have since worked for newspapers such as The Independent, The Daily Mirror, The Metro and a number of other magazines and websites. I had always planned on continuing to write the blog, but juggling 30 articles a week and then coming home to write something interesting on here is not easy.

Many have suggested that I’ve ‘sold out’, but football blogging is a full-time job that pays part-time wages. Many of the best sites have folded in recent months, while others are relying on hefty advertising or selling dodgy merchandise to get by.

However, working in football gives me the advantage of building contacts, keeping up to date with everything that’s going on, and, of course, a healthy income. That means I can run this page as a labour of love.

The forthcoming season promises to be one of the most exciting yet for Arsenal, with a busy summer of transfers, the reshuffle of the Under-18 and Reserve leagues and the NextGen Series. I’ll be covering lots of it on here.

As you will have noticed, the site has undergone something of a drastic re-design. Out with the flashy sliders and fancy graphics, in with clean colours, bold fonts and a feature style layout. It’s all designed at making the site more accessible and easy to read.

The template has been built from scratch, so please forgive me if there are any problems or things that are not working. They will be sorted out in due course, but the main stuff is all in place.

The new-look Young Guns is aimed more at exclusive news, opinions and features, rather than the traditional basis we operated before.

You can still follow all the snippets, such as who is going on loan, and where, on my Twitter page, but here you can expect to find analysis on how they’re doing on loan, scouting reports of players linked and signed, and a more in depth look at what’s going on at the club.

I’ll also be bringing in a new feature called Mailbag, where you can email me your questions, and I’ll pick one each week and answer it. It will be a lot more exciting than it sounds – I promise.

So, that’s about it. Welcome back, and sorry for not keeping you updated. Stay locked for a few features and snippets in the next few days – there’s lots to get through.

Jack Wilshere, Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain among Europe’s elite

Jack Wilshere, Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain among Europe’s elite

He may be out injured, but Jack Wilshere is among three Arsenal players short listed for Tuttosport’s annual ‘Golden Boy’ award – the unofficial version of FIFA’s World Player of the Year crown.

Wilshere, who finished second behind Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli last year, is joined by Gunners team-mates Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lorient loanee Joel Campbell. The trio will face stern competition for the overall title though, with Eden Hazard, Mario Gotze, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thiago, and Phil Jones all expected to boast big totals.

You can cast your vote here.

Arsène Wenger poised to hand Nico Yennaris a dream début

Arsène Wenger poised to hand Nico Yennaris a dream début

Arsène Wenger may have altered a number of his long standing philosophies in recent years, but the Frenchman will once again return to his youth orientated Carling Cup roots, by handing Nico Yennaris an Arsenal début against Bolton Wanderers this evening.

The fourth round clash comes at a time when Wenger’s new-look side have found some form, with six wins from the last seven games, including a 3-1 win over Shrewsbury Town, which set up tonight’s fourth round clash. A similar result would see the Gunners into the last eight for the ninth consecutive year.

As such, Wenger has included a few experience faces. Łukasz Fabiański, Sébastien Squillaci, Yossi Benayoun and Park Chu-Young are all in need of minutes, and are all set to start. As is vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen, who only re-joined full training on Friday.

That experience helps, but youngsters fill the key gaps. The versatile Yennaris, a rugged, aggressive and tenacious holding midfielder, will act as a make-shift right back, having been used there on a handful of occasions for the Reserves, while Ignasi Miquel is poised to occupy the other full back berth.

Third round stars Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin should return to boss the midfield, against a Bolton side who maybe be down on confidence, but not threat.

The bench is again made up of Reserves. The fit again Vito Mannone and the newly re-signed Sanchez Watt will be joined by Daniel Boateng and Shrewsbury débutants Oğuzhan Özyakup and Chuks Aneke. Jernade Meade and Ryo Miyaichi are also poised to be involved.

All in all, its a solid Arsenal squad, for a game that always boasts a party atmosphere.

Wojciech Szczęsny targets the Arsenal captaincy after meteoric rise

Wojciech Szczęsny targets the Arsenal captaincy after meteoric rise

His rise to the Arsenal first-team has been meteoric enough, but goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny is not stopping there. The 21-year-old, who admits he’s already starting to become a leader at the club, is targeting the captaincy.

Szczęsny’s starring performances have been a rare highlight in an otherwise frustrating start to the season, but it wasn’t all plaudits when he first arrived in England. Adapting to a new country, new language, new club and new ways of doing things was daunting enough, but he told the Polish media this week he doesn’t regret a thing.

“It’s the best decision I could make. This is where I really grew up. I am here since I was practically a kid. If I didn’t come here as a teenager, I wouldn’t be able to play at such a high level.”

He goes on to say Arsenal is now his ‘second home,’ before adding some credence to the mischievous rumour this week that Barcelona might be interested, by adding:

“I can’t declare that I will spend my entire career here, but if I leave I will have a very important reason or I will go to Barcelona.”

However true speculation of a move away might be, Szczęsny’s focus is clearly on Arsenal. His role as a key communicator at the back has blossomed, to the point now where the former Brentford loanee feels like a leader.

“I feel that when I say something, everyone listens to me. More so on the field than in the dressing room, but that’s more important I think. In the national team as well as at the club, teammates respect me. I’m not saying I’m the only leader, but I feel I am one of them.”

The level-headed and very likeable youngster is as ambitious as he talented, and while Robin van Persie might be captain at present, Szczęsny has his eyes on leading the team who gave him his big break.

“I want to be the captain of the team. I feel that I am able to take on that responsibility. I always wanted to be captain and if I ever get that honour, I will gladly put on the armband.”

The Poland international is currently nursing a back injury, and while Arsenal fans sweat over the fitness of Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and the newly stricken Bacary Sagna, they know the fitness of the inspired Szczęsny is most crucial, with a long season of battles ahead.

Translations via Bartosz Ciurski

Loanees: Bendtner & Campbell On Target

Welcome to this weekends loanees watch – Young Guns’ analysis, reports and updates on the progress of the young starlets currently plying their trade away from the Emirates Stadium. You can read all the latest reports below.

Nicklas Bendtner played the full 90 minutes as Sunderland drew 2-2 with West Brom. Bendtner proved integral in rescuing a point after Sunderland went 2-0 down within the first five minutes. The Danish striker lashed home from just inside the box for 2-1, before his left wing cross was headed home by Ahmed Elmohamady to make it 2-2.

Kyle Bartley missed Rangers’ 1-0 win over Hibernian as he continues to receive treatment on a long standing groin problem

Henri Lansbury played the full 90 minutes as West Ham drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace. Fellow Arsenal loanee Manuel Almunia also started, and was forced to pick the ball out of his net within eight minutes. Lansbury turned in a combative display in midfield, and could have scored on several occasions, including two close range headers.

James Shea was not included in the Dagenham & Redbridge squad that beat Crewe 2-1.

Joel Campbell played the full 90 minutes as Lorient beat Valenciennes 2-0. Campbell, on his first start for the club, bagged the opener in the 22nd minute, turning home from close range. Joel was also involved in the build up to Lorient’s second goal, scored by Yann Jouffre.

Carlos Vela was not included in the Real Sociedad squad that lost 2-1 with Athletic Bilbao.

Wellington Silva was not included in the Levante squad that faced Real Betis.

Pedro Botelho played the full 90 minutes as Rayo Vallecano drew 1-1 with Racing Santander. The Brazilian turned in a good shift out wide, but was lucky to remain on the pitch after a dangerous tackle with 10 minutes remaining.

Samuel Galindo came off the bench to play the final 16 minutes of Gimnàstic’s 3-2 defeat to Villarreal B. Galindo, who picked up an injury last week, was thrown on in an attempt to grab an equaliser, but struggled to get involved.