The world's toughest playground: New Under-21 Premier League kicks off

It has replaced the old school Reserves – with the aim of making the step up to the first team less daunting. But will it work? Jack Pitt-Brooke goes along to find out

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 fight-back, 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 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 over-age 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. Those academies awarded Category One status can spend more time with their youngsters, and so the intention is for the best youth teams to play together regularly.

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. "Much has been done across the game to modernise the youth system over the last three years," Roddy said.

"Clubs have consistently highlighted the need to create serious competitive games as part of the overall professional game in this country. 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 itself."

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. It is part of the new structure which I'm really for, and it's a shame it's not six games instead of two."

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 and Chelsea by Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon. The hope is that by restricting the competition to Category One applicants, who are allowed most time with their players, the standard will be higher than in the old reserve league.

Many have feared, quite understandably, that 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. All of a sudden people had to go and get better grounds, better facilities, and pitches were roped off. They were only little details but all of a sudden it gave an improvement. 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 one goal and one 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. Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel both showed the assurance of first-team experience while substitute goalkeeper James Shea made five good saves to keep Arsenal in it.

Burton, understandably, 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. "He hasn't really played that much football," said Burton. "Technically, he's excellent and he got back and shielded, protected the back players when he had to, pushed out when he had to, made a lot of good decisions as much off the ball as he did on the ball. He's got obvious quality."

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 over-age players in it. That's what it's about, it's about development."

U21 Premier League: How it works

The teams

There are 22 teams involved in the Under-21 Premier League, the 17 Premier League and five Championship clubs who applied for Category One academy status. Watford did apply but have withdrawn. The teams have been randomly drawn into three groups, in which they will play each other home and away.

National Group 1

Arsenal

Blackburn Rovers

Bolton Wanderers

Everton

Norwich City

Reading

West Bromwich Albion

West Ham United

National Group 2

Aston Villa

Manchester United

Newcastle United

Southampton

Stoke City

Sunderland

Tottenham Hotspur

National Group 3

Chelsea

Crystal Palace

Fulham

Liverpool

Manchester City

Middlesbrough

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Elite Group Stage

The top three teams from National Group 1, the top two teams from Groups 2 and 3 and the best third-placed team from Groups 2 and 3 will go into the eight-team Elite Group Stage, in which every team plays each other home and away.

Qualification Group Tiers 1 and 2

The remaining third-placed team, and the fourth, fifth and sixth-placed teams from all three National Groups will go into the 10-team Qualification Group Tier 1. The three seventh-placed teams and Group 1's eighth-placed team will go into Tier 2.

Knockout stage

The second and third teams from the Elite Group Stage will play a semi-final, while the first-placed team will face the winner of a play-off between the two winners of Qualification Group Tiers 1 and 2. The two winning semi-finalists will then meet in the final.

Fixtures

Almost all of the group games are on Fridays and Mondays, to ensure that young players can be selected for Premier League games on weekends, and can continue to train with their first-team squads in midweek.

Locations

Each team is obliged to play two of their group games at their home stadium, as well as all play-offs, semi-finals and finals. Beyond those, clubs are using their training grounds and some lower-league grounds. Chelsea, for example, are playing at Brentford, Manchester City at Hyde, Arsenal at Barnet and Manchester United at Altrincham.

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