Luton Town 7 Arsenal XI 0
By Jeorge Bird at Kenilworth Road
From the relative heroics of snatching a draw at Leyton Orient on Tuesday night, to this severe pummelling at the hands of a determined Luton Town outfit, the past week has carried a gamut of emotions for Arsenal’s U21s.
Despite the fact that it was a pre-season friendly, this result and performance will go down as one of the second string’s worst outings in recent times, just eclipsed by the 10-1 mauling away to Aston Villa in 2011. Arsenal were able to call upon two players who have played for the first-team in Nico Yennaris and Thomas Eisfeld, as well as the likes of Wellington and the returning Hector Bellerin, but struggled to find their passing rhythm throughout and were ruthlessly punished for some cataclysmic defensive errors, most of which were committed by the unfamiliar central defensive partnership of Julio Pleguezuelo and Ramy Bensebaini.
Pleguezuelo was making his debut for the U21s following his move from Barcelona last month, whilst Bensebaini, an Algerian defender, is currently on trial with the club and trained with the first-team yesterday. Both players unfortunately endured a day to forget, whilst the lack of creativity in an attacking sense was painfully evident until the introductions of Anthony Jeffrey and Dan Crowley.
Coach Steve Gatting, who will come under renewed and increased pressure following this game, made several changes from the 4-4 draw with Orient, with Bellerin, Pleguezuelo, Bensebaini and Alex Iwobi all coming into the starting line-up for the fixture, which was delayed by 15 minutes due to traffic congestion.
subs: Jeffrey (for Wellington, 61), Dallison (for Pleguezuelo, 61) Crowley (for Yennaris, 76). Not used: Vickers, Kamara, Siemann, Boateng.
It said something about Arsenal’s plight that Macedonian goalkeeper Deyan Iliev was one of the Gunners’ best players in the first half as he made several impressive saves despite the plethora of goals that he conceded.
Arsenal had actually begun on the front foot, with Isaac Hayden, operating as an attacking midfielder, shooting wide after good work down the right flank from Eisfeld, who himself had directed an effort off target just moments earlier.
The warning signs were evident for Gatting’s side moments later, however, when Iliev was almost caught out by a quickly-taken free-kick after he failed to organise his defensive wall properly. The first goal came with nineteen minutes gone after Mark Cullen tapped home despite Iliev making a good stop from the initial effort.
Arsenal sought to equalise immediately, with Bellerin, back from representing Spain at the U19 European Championships, forcing a corner with a powerful effort, whilst a precisely-delivered cross from Hayden just eluded the sliding Wellington at the far post.
Luton doubled their advantage shortly afterwards, however, and the goal stemmed from Kristoffer Olsson dwelling on the ball in midfield, with the hosts subsequently working their way into the box, where the clinical Cullen was on hand again to find the net.
Arsenal had called for offside in the build-up to the goal, but to no avail, whilst Olsson, desperate to make amends for his error, shot wide at the other end following good work from Wellington. Any feint hopes that Arsenal had of turning the game around appeared to dissipate soon after, however, after Pleguezuelo clumsily brought down an opponent in the area after failing to control a bouncing ball.
The referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot and Shaun Whalley, the player who had been fouled by Pleguezuelo, stepped up and converted emphatically past Iliev to make it 3-0.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was enduring perhaps the most difficult day of his fledgling career to date, and was under constant bombardment from the Luton attack, with the 18 year old having to tip a dangerous free-kick over his crossbar.
He was left stranded again, however, after Jake Howells capitalised on the lack of communication between Pleguezuelo and Bensebaini to head home and make it 4-0.
Arsenal, somewhat surprisingly, emerged for the second half without having made any substitutions, but, despite the fact that they saw a little more of the ball following the re-start, the general trend of the game remained the same, with Luton utterly dominant.
The chances, and then the goals, kept on coming for the Conference side, with Howells catching Iliev out with a lob from distance to make it 5-0. Arsenal were still determined to at least score one goal to reduce the deficit, with Eisfeld seeing a shot blocked, Bellerin shooting over and Wellington wasting a free-kick, but it was all in vain as it was Luton who would continue to motor forward and attack with alarming regularity.
Olsson again squandered possession in a dangerous area which almost resulted in another goal, before Andre Gray inflicted further misery upon the young Gunners when he capitalised on another mistake from the hapless Bensebaini.
Jeffrey, introduced off the bench, did at least provide some attacking vigour down the left flank, as he cut inside and had a shot saved, whilst Crowley, somewhat belatedly, entered the fray with just 14 minutes remaining, but, in that time, played a couple of superb passes which raised questions as to why he didn’t start the game.
There was still time for Gray to beat Iliev again as the goalkeeper was forced to pick the ball out of the net for the seventh time.
This was certainly a dark day for Arsenal’s youngsters, and although the lack of experience and familiarity at the heart of defence can partly explain the shocking scoreline, more worrying, perhaps, was the real lack of ingenuity provided by the side’s more attack-minded players.
It may only have been a friendly, but questions will still be asked following this debacle, with the only positive perhaps being that Gatting has a full two weeks to rectify these mistakes before the U21 season commences away to Stoke City.