Arsene Wenger was at Underhill this evening to watch Arsenal Reserves continue their winning start to the Reserve League South this season with a well deserved victory over a Stoke City side who made life difficult for the Gunners. Rhys Murphy’s 50th minute strike which was aided in by the Stoke keeper was the decisive moment in a game lacking in attacking opportunities, although Neil Banfield will have been impressed with the way his side coped against a physically imposing outfit.
Neil Banfield made six changes from the side which comfortably disposed of Birmingham a fortnight ago. Wojciech Szczesny replaced Vito Mannone in goal, with Ignasi Miquel coming in for Armand Traore at left-back. Elsewhere, Philippe Senderos made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt since pre-season after replacing Gavin Hoyte at centre-back. Francis Coquelin, Gilles Sunu and Fran Mérida all missed out because of international commitments, with Roarie Deacon coming in for his first reserves start and Rhys Murphy and Nacer Barazite also starting. On the bench there were call ups for first-year scholars Daniel Boateng and Oguzhan Ozyakup.
Arsenal, lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Murphy as the lone striker, Arsenal began their high pressing game, allowing Stoke limited time on the ball.
When you hear Stoke mentioned, it usually evokes images of physically imposing seasoned professionals who do not shirk a challenge. This occasion was no different with Matthew Lund scything down Craig Eastmond early on.
Opportunities were initially hard to come by, with both sides enjoying sporadic spells of possession. The Gunners created the first notable opening, Deacon embarking on a mazy run which bamboozled veteran Andy Griffin. His shot was parried and fell to Barazite, who saw his shot saved.
Stoke replied with an opportunity of their own, Leon Cort nodding over from Griffin’s in-swinging free-kick.
When chances did arise for the Gunners, Deacon was usually at the heart of the move and it was his burst down the right and pass to Eastmond which presented a chance for Murphy, whose snap shot was well saved.
Deacon continued to exert his influence on proceedings, this time cutting in from the left wing having swapped sides with Barazite. On this occasion he saw his shot saved after being teed up by Sanchez Watt, but it was another demonstration of the Londoner’s vast potential.
There were further flashpoints in a rather uneventful first half; Randall hit a superb volleyed pass into the path of Barazite but the Dutchman couldn’t get his shot away, whilst Stoke’s midfield menace Diego Arismendi became the latest player in a black shirt to clatter Eastmond.
The referee’s half-time whistle came rather as a relief than a hindrance, but Deacon’s presence was certainly felt in front of a certain Frenchman.
Arsenal made a double change at the break. Sanchez Watt and Mark Randall went off and were replaced by Luke Freeman and Ozyakup, the latter making his reserve debut.
The changes signalled some positional alterations for Banfield’s side; Freeman went to the left of the three man attack behind Murphy, with Deacon shifting into the centre and Barazite going to the right.
The Gunners accustomed quickly into their new roles and opened the scoring just five minutes into the new period. Eastmond, who was impressive throughout, slipped the ball through to Murphy who launched a clinical shot at goal. Dave Parton fumbled and, in doing so, helped the ball into the net for Arsenal’s eighth goal of the season.
Scoring breeds confidence and Murphy had an opportunity to double his tally soon after, but skewed wide following a delicious pass from Ozyakup, who was making quite an impact. Gilbert then hit a rushed shot well over.
It was a pity Deacon hobbled off with an injury because he may well have played himself into Carling Cup contention with his blistering start to the season, which continued tonight.
There were a few other incidents; Freeman should have done better after good link up play involving Eastmond and Barazite, whilst Szczesny claimed Tom Soares’ free-kick with ease as Stoke piled on the pressure late on with numerous long throws.
Freeman came close after lifting the ball over Shotton and Barazite hit it over before the referee blew his whistle.
Ultimately, though, it was not a free-flowing game and certainly not one which will live long in the memory. With Stoke involved, however, that was to be expected but the bare facts of this embryonic season make impressive reading. Three games, three wins, eight goals scored, none conceded. What makes it even more impressive is that only two players have played every minute so far; Kyle Bartley and Kerrea Gilbert. The latters experience aids the former, who is growing into quite a prospect. The pair could continue their partnership on the right side of the defence at Emirates next week against West Brom.
The reserves don’t play again until next month, when Chelsea visit Underhill. The Carling Cup will now take centre stage and, who knows, somebody may well have played themselves into the squad this evening.
Szczęsny ( 6)
Gilbert (6)-Bartley (7)-Senderos(6)-Miquel(6)
Randall (5)-Eastmond (7)
subs: Freeman (for Watt, 46, (6) ), Özyakup (for Randall, 46, (7) ) , Evina (for Deacon, 66, (6), Boateng, Shea.