Arsenal manager Unai Emery has delighted many fans by placing his faith in Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson during the opening weeks of the new season. It is the first time that the Gunners have handed back-to-back Premier League starts to two English teenagers since 1998. Yet Willock and Nelson, both aged 19, have played with a maturity beyond their years and vindicated Emery’s decision to leave more experienced stars on the bench. Arsenal have now won their opening two games of the season for the first time in a decade, suggesting that youthful vigour can play an important role in a team’s success.
A BetOnline review and a look at the best Premier League odds shows that Arsenal are now expected to beat Man Utd and Chelsea to a top-four finish this season. Emery has plenty of options at his disposal as the Gunners embark upon a long and gruelling campaign, but Nelson and Willock should be afforded plenty of game time. The Gunners were previously renowned for nurturing young talent and creating the superstars of the future, and many fans will be pleased to see them honouring that tradition once more by turning to youth in big games.
Nelson spent last season on loan at Bundesliga outfit Hoffenheim and he delivered plenty of eye-catching performances for Julian Nagelsman’s free-scoring side. He scored within 14 minutes of making his debut and ended up finding the back of the net seven times in 23 appearances, while creating plenty of chances for his teammates. Arsenal supporters may have been surprised to see him start Arsenal’s opening game against Newcastle, but he looked lively throughout. He was passive in the Gunners’ 2-1 victory over Burnley at the weekend and he was replaced at half-time after offering little in the way of creativity and attacking thrust, but he will improve as he gains more Premier League experience.
Competition for places should help. Nicolas Pepe, a £72 million club record signing from Lille, replaced him at the break against Burnley, forming a devastating attacking triumvirate alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. It will be hard for Nelson to nail down a start berth ahead of that trio, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan will also push to start, Mesut Ozil can play in an advanced role and fellow youngsters such as Bukayo Saka are knocking on the door. Yet Alex Iwobi was sold to Everton in the summer, and that was largely to accommodate Nelson, so he should still enjoy plenty more opportunities to prove his worth to the team.
Willock also faces stiff competition for a place in the side. He has played at the advanced tip of a midfield trio in the opening two games of the season, and he has impressed with his drive, composure on the ball and ability to link defence and attack. Yet Arsenal are stacked with options in the middle of the park: Dani Ceballos looks like a guaranteed starter after his display against Burnley, Lucas Torreira offers a tigerish presence, Granit Xhaka could well be named Arsenal captain, Ozil is their highest earner and Matteo Guendouzi goes from strength to strength.
Willock will have to excel if he is to hold onto his place in the team. Yet he has a unique set of qualities that he brings to the Arsenal engine room, and it is easy to envisage Emery trusting Willock’s drive, energy and desire over Ozil’s more elusive qualities in intense games. Nelson and Willock are best friends and they are currently living the dream, while youngsters Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are getting a lot of playing time. Emery seems keen to foster a strong core of youngsters to go alongside experienced stars like Sokratis, David Luiz, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil, and Arsenal could enjoy an impressive season if Nelson and Willock deliver on their potential.