Academy

Young gun

Young Gun: Matt Smith

Matt Smith

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 Matt Smith as our under-21s skipper talks loan spells, training with the first-team and making sure he is ready as and when Mikel needs him

I think this season has been really good for me so far. I’m enjoying the senior role I’ve been given with the under-21s and the responsibility of being captain of the group. Having been out on three loans so far in my career, I can definitely help the lads in the team to let the know how it’s going to be a bit later in their career and give them little tips here and there.

Working under Mehmet Ali has been really good. He has been helpful for me tactically, but also really good for me in terms of pushing me to keep my standards high and keep me on track every day. I’ve been lucky enough to be training with the first team most days, but for a player in my position, who has been out on loan a few times and been around that first-team environment, to then being back in an academy set-up can sometimes be difficult, but Mehmet demands a lot from me and knows how to get the best out of me, so I think we have a good relationship.

By Mehmet giving me that responsibility this season, I think it says a lot. I know that I have to set a good example to the other boys in the team and be a good role model.
It’s funny, because Mehmet and I didn’t really have a conversation at the start of the season where he let me know I would be captain. I wore the armband for one pre-season game and then I think once he knew which players he would have for the season after the transfer window shut, I was just the captain from that point forward!

Matt Smith and Mehmet Ali

I had enjoyed all three of my loans and obviously gained a lot of experience and developed as a player massively from them, but when it came to making a decision on where to play my football this season, I knew I wanted to give it one more go at Arsenal.

I think sometimes it can be forgotten that the reason players go out on loan is to develop as a person, as a player, and ultimately come back with a view to make it into the first-team, and that’s what was the ambition for me. I feel like I had done my time out on loan. I could have gone out again but something about that didn’t feel right, so I didn’t think it would do me any harm to give it a go and stay here up until January, at least.

My loans were all a massively valuable experience for me. All three were different, they weren’t all good, and there were ups and downs, but I can definitely say that they were all still valuable because they all play a part in shaping you into the player that you want to be. I would say that Swindon Town is where I played my best football and where I felt at my best. I went from being on that high at Swindon to then going to Charlton Athletic, where I wasn’t really playing, not making the squad, but you have to still take the experience from that and ask yourself what you can learn.

"Every game I’ve been on the bench for this season, I’ve been thinking to myself: ‘this could be the one.’

Doncaster Rovers is where I played the majority of the games, so I can’t complain in that department, but it’s also where I was around a team that was fighting against relegation, so it’s all a part of the experience of going on loan. They give you the tools to come back here and show how you’ve developed as a player.

Going out on those loans has given me that exposure to senior football and that experience of playing against all different types of teams and styles, and learning different sides of the game that you don’t get from playing academy football. It’s helpful for me this season when we play in the Papa Johns Trophy that I can know what to expect from those games, but for the other boys in the team it’s a great experience too. 

The game we played against Ipswich Town earlier this season at Portman Road, when we walked out on the pitch and all the lads were like: “wow, this is a proper side.” It gave everyone a wake-up call that this isn’t even the highest standard, but that’s the standard that hopefully some of us will be playing at – or even higher.

Matt Smith warming up before kick off

As a player, it has always been my dream to make my first-team debut for Arsenal. I would say that every game I’ve been on the bench for this season, I’ve been thinking to myself: ‘this could be the one.’ It’s just about being ready for when that opportunity comes and making sure that you take it. You only have to look at Reiss Nelson – he has taken his chance this season and that opportunity can come when you least expect it.

The likes of Bradley Ibrahim, Khayon Edwards and Catalin Cirjan have been with me in squads this season and I’ve been helping them with a few little things here and there. Just having been around the first-team environment more, you pick up on the little things that you should and shouldn’t do, and when you’re younger you don’t always know those things.

I would say the majority of my training this season has been with the first-team and I definitely feel more at home in that environment than ever. I was around the first-team a bit before I went on my first loan to Charlton and then I went on two loans since, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to work with Mikel properly. Coming back into that first-team environment in the summer was a bit of a strange feeling because I hadn’t been involved for a while, but they made me feel massively welcome. 

"Every day is an opportunity to impress and show the boss that you’re ready"

I think there was a little bit of an adaptation period at the start because it’s obviously massively different from what I had been experiencing with a League One team to then working under Mikel. Tactically it’s massive under Mikel, so I had to get used to it again after being away from that for two years, but now I think I’ve adapted well to them and I’m comfortable with the staff and players in the first-team.

I would definitely say there’s a difference to training with this group than my first spell training with the first team. The togetherness and camaraderie is massive – you can see the players in training are demanding a lot from each other and that comes from the boss. Everyone has such high standards and I feel that’s why we’re doing so well at the moment.

Two years ago, before I went on my first loan, Granit was really good for me and I think any of the younger players going up because he sets the level so high and demands that from not only himself but every player, every day. I think he’s a top professional and someone a lot of Academy players can look up to. Coming back to this environment two years later, Granit is exactly the same and you can see in his performances recently that he has gone up another couple of gears.

He’s someone that both before and now I’ve always looked up to and he’s helped me with bits along the way. Then Thomas Partey plays in my position as a holding midfielder, and I look at him in training and try to pick up on little bits that he does and how he implements things that the boss wants tactically.

Matt Smith and Thomas Partey in training

Mikel obviously played in my position towards the end of his career and after training he will give everyone different tactical advice on what they can do to improve their game. There have been a few occasions after sessions with me where maybe I haven’t understood something entirely and he’ll walk through it with me – he has been really good in that sense. 

Being patient and needing to wait for your opportunity can be frustrating for any player, but the key is how you react to having to be patient, and that’s massive for the boss with the values that he has. You have to find a way to make that frustration a good thing and use it in training to show that you really want it. Sulking and keeping your head down is not going to benefit you in any way. Every day is an opportunity to impress and show the boss that you’re ready, so every single time I go over with the first-team, that’s what I try to do.

"One month you’ve won the FA Cup and then the next you’re hit with the reality of things in football!"

From a selfish point of view, you can’t worry too much as a player about what other people are doing – you’re on your own journey in football. If you work hard every day and do things properly, give it your all and keep trying to improve, you can’t do much more than that. Everyone’s journey is different.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some amazing experiences at this club. Lifting the FA Cup at Wembley is something that I will never forget and something that can never be taken away from me. It’s funny because that day happened, but then after that summer I was out on loan in Swindon, so it was a massive contrast in such a short space of time. One month you’ve won the FA Cup and then the next you’re hit with the reality of things in football! That experience at Wembley was something I will never forget and I can never thank the boss enough for involving me in that and making me a part of that.

A massive part of my decision to stay at Arsenal this season was to not just make my first-team debut, but also look to break into the side and have a future at the club. I’m at that age now where that’s the reality of things – and I’ll be giving it my best shot.

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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