Academy

Young gun

Young Gun: Alexei Rojas

Alexei Rojas

Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, it's Alexei Rojas.  

From the moment I started playing football, I knew that I wanted to be a goalkeeper. Even when I was just kicking a ball around with my dad and brother in the park, using the trees for goalposts, it was a position that always came naturally to me.

Funnily enough, my dad was never a big football fan until I fell in love with the game. Now, he loves it too! My brother also grew up playing football, but he’s taken a slightly different path to me… he’s training to become a professional referee!

My route to Arsenal has never been far away from London Colney. I played for a few Sunday League teams until the age of 13. Boreham Wood FC was the first, back when I was five, and when I moved to St. Albans, I played for St Albans City for a couple of years. Then came London Colney Colts, a team who often had Arsenal scouts watching the games.

I'm still in good contact with Rob Bray, the scout who invited me for an Arsenal trial. Usually, the trials last eight weeks but after only four, I was told that I was heading to Hale End! I still remember the exact day that I signed for Arsenal: February 28th, 2019. I never looked back.

Alexei Rojas with teammates Michal Rosiak and Henry Timi Davies

My first impression when I got to Hale End was one of amazement. I was astounded by the facilities because I'd never been in such an environment where you had everything that you could possibly need. Once I was there, it honestly felt like home. I maximised the opportunities and think I adapted pretty well to the environment. I've had nothing but really positive experiences. 

I've always said to people: if I could be at any place, it would always be the training ground. When I was younger, that used to be Hale End but now it's London Colney. It's my favourite place to be.

As a goalkeeper, there are four of us in the under-18s. I think the most important thing is that we all get along. We understand that we need to push each other and in training sessions, we do our best to make each other better and make ourselves better. When you add in our excellent goalkeeper coaches too, it’s a great environment to thrive in.

I always go into a game expecting to play at some point, even if I’m on the bench. I still have the same mentality: I'll warm up like I'm playing, and I ensure I’m mentally prepared too. Nothing changes because I never know when I might have to come on.

"The club inspires all of us: if we have good performances on the pitch, our chance will come."

As well as being at the academy, I’ve also attended national youth team training camps with England, Russia, and Colombia. But Colombia is where my heart lies, and I’ve already decided to only represent them in the future. Who knows, maybe there’s a trophy lift in our future!

Growing up, Petr Cech was my idol. I’ve tried to incorporate the leadership aspects of his game into my own, as well as how he dominated his penalty area. Even if I’m not the captain, I still see myself as a leader, and the players like it! They want to have a keeper who’s vocal and instils confidence in them. I’ve always loved the responsibility and the leadership that comes with being in goal.

These days, I look up to Aaron Ramsdale a lot because of what he’s been able to achieve with us in such a short space of time, and how he’s proved his doubters wrong.

Like Aaron, I love playing out from the back, with the ball at my feet. When we're in possession, it’s great to help out the team like you’re another pitch player. But when we’re out of possession, being proactive, trying to prevent chances, and making big saves in big moments is what I aim to do.

Alexei Rojas

It’s not just goalkeepers who inspire me, of course. Bukayo Saka is such a role model and not only because of his journey through the academy. After talking with him on multiple occasions, I’ve seen he’s such a great person. It’s wonderful to see what he’s been able to achieve and how people look up to him.

I think one of the greatest things about Arsenal is the fact that our players come through from the Academy. The club inspires all of us: if we have good performances on the pitch, our chance will come.

Working with Jack Wilshere this year has been incredible. The fact that he’s still so young and has had the same journey, means he really connects with us. Jack has already helped me a lot and he’s improving as a coach as well. He likes playing football in an aggressive and modern way, which is the style of play we all love too.

Off the pitch, I’ve always been interested in the environment and how we can all live a more sustainable lifestyle. When I was back at Hale End, I remember speaking to our facilities managers and we were able to make quite a few changes; like no longer using single-use plastic and switching to compostable packaging. It’s becoming more of a spoken topic around the training ground: we have more meetings on it and at the end of last season, us Under 16s had a sustainability tour to Scotland, which was so educational.

It's not easy to create change because we’re all used to doing things in a certain way and change isn’t necessarily what we want. But the more you influence people, and the more people understand why they need to change, it can become a reality.  

Interview

Ali on the importance of our club's alignment

Mehmet Ali reflected on our narrow loss to Sparta Prague in the Premier League International Cup at Meadow Park and the takeaways from Wednesday night's performance.

The 1-0 defeat was our under-21s' first on home soil this season, and despite our Young Gunners' spirited fight to attempt a way back into the game, it wasn't quite enough on the night.

"In the last five minutes, I saw the boys really trying to get into the box, get crosses in, make aggressive runs in behind their backline," said Ali. "It was just a shame that we didn't do that earlier on in the game. I felt we had good control, our structure was good and we had a good rhythm, but we lacked quality in the final third.

"We lacked aggressive runs, aggressive crosses, shots from in front, and those clever combinations. That's what we were looking for. I thought we were good between the boxes but the game was decided inside both boxes," he added.

"I just said to the boys: we have to learn and we have to be better in those moments. We can have the structure and set up, but you have to also have the bravery to go and head [the ball], and be switched on and focused. There's plenty of work for us to do in training in terms of being more ruthless in the final third and stopping and scoring goals."

Our Czech opposition, who now sit top of our group, presented a unique test for Ali's young charges and the boss noted the distinct experiences this competition offers. 

"Tactically, I think there are different things going on. When you play foreign opposition, you always expect different things you know, from a referee's decisions and stuff like that. It is different.

"From their perspective, I think they gave us a lot of respect. They dropped off, they made it hard to break them down, and they tried to catch us in transition. When we were aggressive on them and we pressed, they were quite direct and they played forward passes. But that was their game plan and their style and credit to them, it helped them get the win today."

"They had some senior players that played for them today and they're a B team who play men's football every week," Ali continued. "You could see their know-how and their nous of how to buy fouls and run the clock down when they were one-nil up, which was very clever. It was great for our boys to experience that and find ways of beating that - we just didn't do that tonight."

There were several changes to the side who beat Swansea City 4-1 at the weekend and with the transitional nature of academy teams, Ali credited the alignment of the club as a whole as a way to ensure rhythm and stability.

"That's why it's so important that we're aligned overall as an academy and with the first team. There are so many players that have fluid movement from going up to the first team, staying with the under-21s, and even under-16s coming up to support under-18s. It's so important that our style and what we're trying to do remains the same and that our principles don't change regardless of what players we have in the side."

"It's just a shame that tonight we couldn't win the game, but there were some positive performances. I was pleased with some of the younger ones that did get the opportunity to play tonight and it will do them well in the future."

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