The world's toughest playground

The Under-21 Premier League has replaced the reserves. Jack Pitt-Brooke finds out more

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There were 4,374 people at the Emirates on Monday night, including Arsène Wenger and Santi Cazorla, as Arsenal began their Under-21 League campaign. They saw an impressive fightback, a 3-1 win with 10 men, and the start of a new form of youth football in England.

This was Arsenal's first game in the new Barclays Under-21 League, the Premier League's attempt to build a better platform for young players to progress into first-team football.

The competition is for the 22 clubs who are seen to take youth football most seriously, defined by their applying for Category One status for their academies. There are two groups of seven and one of eight, before a play-off stage in the new year.

The hope from the Premier League is that the new competition will be "the hardest playground in the world", a much better route into top-flight football than the Reserve League which it replaced.

By permitting only Category One applicants it hopes to ensure talented and focused sides. By allowing only three over-21 outfield players (as well as an overage goalkeeper) it should provide more opportunities for talented youngsters rather than just fringe players.

This league, then, is an important part of the Elite Player Performance Plan, designed to strengthen and reward the strongest academies.

Arsenal's reserve team manager, Terry Burton, is confident that the new approach, elite academies and elite competition will deliver improvements. "Like all things," he said after Monday's game, "someone needs to stoke the fire a little bit and make it happen. And that's what the Premier League have done. They've got clubs on board. 'What if you can do this? Or that?'

"In terms of access hours with younger players, you would hope that that would help, and trying to change the format to make it different. They've given us a decent structure, and now it's up to the clubs to try and make it work."

Ged Roddy, the Premier League director of youth, said that the new league is part of providing a better bridge to first-team football.

"Clubs have consistently highlighted the need to create serious competitive games as part of the overall professional game in this country," Roddy said. "The Barclays Under-21 Premier League aims to provide that vital transitional step and will become the hardest playground in the world as part of a player's total education, because the next game may well be a debut in the Barclays Premier League."

The new format also demands that each team play two group games in their home stadium. Arsenal began with Bolton and will host Blackburn Rovers at the Emirates on Saturday afternoon. A club whose focus on youth development is reflected by its supporters, Arsenal can rely on local enthusiasm for their campaign.

This was borne out by a loud crowd, itself younger than the average, and an atmosphere different from what most young Arsenal players would have seen before.

"Playing a couple of games in the main stadium is fantastic," Burton said after his team's victory. "It's very exciting for the players. That should spur them on. I'm sure when they walked out here, some of them have not played here before, so they will be looking round saying, 'I want a bit more of this'. So it adds to it. "

The quality of the league will not be immediately apparent, although it started with a tense and technical 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Manchester City at Brentford's Griffin Park, with City inspired by the Spanish midfielder Denis Suarez, top right, and Chelsea by the Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon.

Many have feared the EPPP would damage the prospects of smaller academies, which would be squeezed out.

Burton insisted, though, that previous unpopular changes had turned out to be very beneficial in the long term. "When the Charter for Excellence came in we screamed like mad," he remembered. "We hated it. I was at Wimbledon at the time and you thought you were going to get shafted by the big boys. But it proved to be again a good vehicle, just a step up. I think the same will happen with this."

The new Arsenal reserve team and head development coach was pleased with what he saw on Monday night. After going a goal and a man down, when Emi Martinez was sent off and Adam Blakeman converted the penalty, Arsenal dominated the second half and scored three goals. Thomas Eisfeld, who equalised, showed delightful balance and poise on the right of midfield. The movement and link-up play of Chuba Akpom were remarkably mature for a 16-year-old, and he was called up yesterday for England Under-19s.

Burton was proud of the character shown in the 10-man fightback. "Those are important parts of their education, because this is the next step to the first team," he said. "So you've got to know, if you go down to 10 men, what do you do? What do we want to do tactically? What do you want to do mentally? The next time it happens to them they might have learnt a lesson."

Conor Henderson scored a free-kick and a penalty in the second half to complete the comeback; it was a perfect return after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury.

As much as Burton and Arsenal are enjoying the new competition, they are not desperate to win it. "You're hoping to produce players over a period of time who can play in the first team," insisted Burton. "If along the way you can win matches, all well and good, but the priority is to produce players for Arsenal's first team.

"It's about getting your players in, giving them the opportunity, giving them the pathway, hopefully doing good work with them and getting them into a system where they can come and play.

"Tonight, in terms of Under-21s it was probably a youngish side. I don't think there were any overage players in it. That's what it's about, it's about development.".

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