Feature: Ben Sheaf – on first-team prospects and Iwobi inspiration for u23s

The versatile and very talented 18-year-old has shown his ability in amongst Arsenal’s u23 side, where he has established himself as a mainstay in the team over the past few months.

Originally a defensive-minded midfielder, Sheaf has reverted to a more defensive role in the backline and coped with the pressure remarkably well in unfamiliar situations when called upon.

Having played right-back, centre-back and occasionally a central midfield role this term, the Dartford-born youngster has looked composed in possession and equally tenacious off-the-ball in pursuit.

Recently, the club’s official matchday programme featured an exclusive interview with the teenager. He spoke well about the importance of Cup fixtures and how they can help some of the younger players get settled into senior sides, which is increasingly tough to do at bigger sides such as Arsenal.

Although he didn’t feature at the Emirates when named in the squad for the EFL Cup game against Reading, being selected was a nod to his ability.

He said, “Being on the bench is another step forward and even being asked by the manager to warm up means that you are in his thoughts to get on and play.”

Ben’s versatility to play in a more defensive role has helped him to flourish on a number of occasions when the vast majority of his team-mates struggled.

“I have played in every game for the u23s since I broke into the squad. Last season I played in central midfield and also at right-back but I’ve started playing regularly at centre-back and I am really enjoying it.”

Arsenal are known for their high-quality youth prospects, most of which tend to be attack-minded players, which means players like Sheaf – who excel defensively – don’t tend to get much credit.

As seen with the ever-improving partnership between Laurent Koscielny and summer acquisition Shkodran Mustafi, consistency at the highest level merits praise, and defensively the Gunners are looking more assured than in recent seasons.

Sheaf highlighted the centre-back pairing as a perfect example that you “do not need to be a towering presence” to be an effective defender, as he is just under 6ft 1in in height.

“Since I started playing in the heart of defence I’ve concentrated more on watching the central defenders during a game, and then try and bring what I have learnt into my game. I have adapted well into the role, working hard on my heading, and I think my experience in other positions has helped me immensely.”

BOREHAMWOOD, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 14: Ben Sheaf of Arsenal (R) challenges Southampton’s Alfie Jones (C) during the match between Arsenal u23 and Southampton u23 at Meadow Park. (Photo source: David Price / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Highlighting Alex Iwobi as an inspiration just reiterates how far the Nigerian youngster has come in the space of twelve months, where he found himself in the academy before a surprise breakthrough after impressive displays in pre-season and the FA Cup saw him play on a more regular basis for the senior side.

“The players are focused and it’s important to keep that. For us younger players we are all especially encouraged by how well Alex Iwobi is doing. He is a player that we have played alongside regularly, and he has kept his humility to show us the way forward.

“He’s a big inspiration for us and I’m hoping to become more and more involved with the first team setup as the season develops. In the meantime, however, my focus is on trying to do as well as I can for the under-23s so that we can climb up the league.” 

Sheaf turns 19 in February and provided he remains fit and consistent with the u23s, there’s no reason why he cannot be afforded an opportunity in the senior side – just like Chris Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are beginning to earn.

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