Arsenal's injury woes highlight lack of defensive academy prospects
For all of Arsene Wenger's success in bringing players through from the youth ranks into the first-team, Arsenal still struggle to produce top-class defenders in their academy. A quick glance at the bench before the 4-0 FA Cup win over Hull City showed as much.
With Laurent Koscielny injured and Hector Bellerin rested, Nacho Monreal was the only defender available to Wenger as a substitute. Promising attacking midfielders Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chris Willock were both included even though Wenger had also brought the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey but there was a conspicuous lack of defensive cover -- a clear signal that Wenger doesn't think his academy defenders are ready to take the step up yet.
When both centre-backs Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista had to go off with injuries, it meant a complete reshuffle as Monreal and Calum Chambers played in the middle, while holding midfielder Mathieu Flamini deputised at right-back.
While Alex Iwobi -- who impressed again in his fourth FA Cup start against Hull -- is the latest creative midfielder to come out of the academy and earn a spot in the first-team, success stories in the defensive ranks have been far fewer. Kieran Gibbs and Bellerin are the current exceptions, but it's worth noting that Gibbs played as a winger in his academy days while Bellerin learned his trade at Barcelona's famed La Masia.
Arsenal history is littered with players like Kerrea Gilbert, Justin Hoyte and Ignasi Miquel (also taken from Barcelona) who did not make it. Fans have long screamed for Wenger to buy another imposing defender to strengthen the team's spine, however his reluctance to do so may also signal that he still has high hopes for some of his emerging teenage talents.
Here's a look at five prospects who could yet make the step up for Arsenal:
The Spaniard is yet another who was brought in from Barcelona's academy, following the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Bellerin. The centre-back now captains Arsenal's under-21 side and has been tipped by some as a possible long-term replacement for Mertesacker. Known for having both speed and strength, the Spaniard can also play at right-back or as a holding midfielder. Pleguezuelo trains regularly with the first-team but has yet to make his senior debut.
The highly rated Polish teenager was signed from Legia Warsaw last January as a defensive midfielder but is being re-schooled as a centre-back with the U21s. Bielik is tall at 6-foot-2 but probably needs more bulk to play as a defender in the Premier League. He made his first-team debut as a substitute in the 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup this season, but has not been given another chance by Wenger since. And with Arsenal's long-standing issues with the holding midfield role, that could yet be his best fit with the first-team.
The speedy right-back has impressed with Arsenal's and England's youth teams but had his development hampered by a long-term hip injury last season. He is now back as a regular with the U21s, where he is known for his willingness to push forward on the wing. Moore styles himself after Barcelona's Dani Alves and many expect him to compete with Chambers and Carl Jenkinson (on loan at West Ham) when it comes to providing backup for Bellerin in the future.
O'Connor was tipped for a bright future when he was given his full Arsenal debut at 17 as a late substitute against Galatasaray in the Champions League in 2014. However, he has not broken into the first-team and was sent on a short loan to League Two side York City earlier this season. Like Gibbs, he started out as a winger before being turned into a defender. Has compared himself to Rio Ferdinand, saying: "We're both calm, relaxed and very smart defenders."
The former U21 captain is on a season-long to Hull where he has impressed as a centre-back recently after initially struggling for playing time. Hull manager Steve Bruce has said he would love to sign the player on a permanent basis, but Wenger still thinks Hayden has a future in North London. Hayden has just one first-team appearance for Arsenal, in last season's League Cup loss to Southampton, but has the type of versatility Wenger likes as he is good on the ball and can also play in midfield.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.