Sutton United 3 (Stuart, Slabber, Kudjodi) Arsenal XI 4 (Jeffrey, Jebb (2), Hayden)
By Jeorge Bird @ The Borough Sports Ground, Sutton
In many ways this was typical pre-season fare. Despite the seven goals scored, it was a game lacking in fluidity, whilst an onslaught of half-time substitutions disrupted the rhythm of proceedings further still. In years to come, however, tonight’s game at the dilapidated Borough Sports Ground may go down in history as the first time a particular future first-team player featured for the club.
Dan Crowley, a summer acquisition from Aston Villa, was only on the field for 45 minutes, but the England U17 international provided an assist for one of Jack Jebb’s two goals and also demonstrated his potential with some wonderful slaloming runs from midfield. It was not a perfect performance from Crowley, as he over-hit some passes and was pushed off the ball rather too easily at times, but, as first impressions go, it wasn’t a bad introduction.
It wasn’t just Crowley who was featuring for the second-string for the first time. Injuries, first-team call-ups and internationals had deprived Arsenal of no fewer than 17 players who could have potentially featured in this game. As a consequence there were U21 debuts aplenty, with Deyan Iliev, Tom Dallison, Arinse Uade, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Tafari Moore, Elliot Wright, Stefan O’Connor, Crowley and Jamaal Raage all, at some point in the evening, making their maiden appearance at this level.
Arsenal started the brightest on a balmy evening, with Anthony Jeffrey, having just signed his first professional contract with the club, finding Jebb, who in turn fed Leander Siemann, but the former Hertha Berlin defender’s effort was wayward.
Crowley then provided the first tantalising glimpse of his immense potential by weaving his way into the area and almost creating a scoring opportunity in the process, but there wasn’t long to wait until the traditional refrain of “One-nil to the Arsenal” could be belted out, and the first goal of pre-season was an impressive one as Austin Lipman beat the offside trap, accelerated, and crossed for the on-rushing Jeffrey to turn home.
Shortly afterwards, Uade made a vital interception at the other end to preserve Arsenal’s lead, before Jeffrey almost returned the favour for Lipman by finding the striker well-placed in front of goal. On this occasion, however, a defender was alert to clear the danger.
Arsenal looked to have the game wrapped up as early as the 14th minute when Crowley was brought down and Jebb, as his is wont, fired a superb free-kick into the back of the net from distance to double the scoring.
That good work was almost undone immediately when Tom Dallison inadvertently turned the ball against his own crossbar under pressure, with Iliev having to be alert to gather the subsequent re-bound.
The end-to-end nature of the game continued, with Arsenal then making it 3-0, and, once again, Jeffrey was at the forefront of the move. The winger used his speed to somehow keep the ball in play when it seemed to be drifting out and managed to fire it across goal for Isaac Hayden to latch onto. The midfielder, certainly not a prolific goalscorer, dithered for a while, but eventually unleashed his shot and found the bottom corner with a well-placed strike.
Despite the strength of their lead, Arsenal never seemed comfortable at the back with an unfamiliar defence in place and, sure enough, after Iliev had made another superb save, Sutton pulled a goal back, with Jamie Stuart placing a header out of the Macedonian goalkeeper’s reach.
It would be 4-1 before the break, though, with Crowley finding Jebb with a delightful lofted pass which the latter latched onto before finishing adroitly. The pair combined again shortly afterwards, but on this occasion Jebb dragged his shot wide, squandering the opportunity for a hat-trick.
Arsenal made a plethora of changes at half-time, with only Uade and Hayden remaining on the pitch from the side that started the game. The tempo of the game had evidently dropped following the changes, but, in Raage and Wellington, the latter making his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt for three years, the Gunners did at least have some pace on the flanks.
Raage was almost played through on one occasion, but couldn’t control the ball under pressure, before Wright made a good interception at the other end. Sutton were gradually gaining a foothold in the game and substitute goalkeeper Josh Vickers had to make two quick-fire saves. He could do nothing, however, about Jamie Slabber’s powerful header in the 61st minute to make it 4-2.
Wellington, whose long-term future at the club is still no closer to being resolved, tried his utmost to rekindle Arsenal’s attacking threat, but frequently found himself closed down, whilst Maitland-Niles and Jebb re-entered the fray late on to replace the tiring Uade and Hayden.
Maitland-Niles, indeed, forced a good save from Wayne Shaw, and, although Sutton did cause some late tension when Bed Kudjodi fired home with six minutes remaining, Arsenal had done just enough to win their first game of pre-season.
There was, as expected, some rustiness this evening and it will take some time for the likes of Crowley and Raage to acclimatise in what is essentially a completely new side compared to last season. The most important positive to take out of tonight’s game, however, is the fact that many of the club’s scholars experienced U21 football for the first time, which will hopefully provide them with an incentive for the future.