U21 Premier League- Game 2
Blackburn Rovers 0 Arsenal 3 (Ajayi 18, Boateng 36, Akpom 49)
For all the problems they faced in pre-season, and, despite the considerable lack of options available to him at present, Steve Gatting’s Arsenal U21 side have started the new campaign in impressive fashion. Tonight they recorded their first win of the campaign and it was an emphatic one, with a young Blackburn Rovers side being trounced 3-0 at Leigh Sports Village.
Arsenal took the lead through defender Semi Ajayi, a 19 year old who came through the ranks at Charlton Athletic and is currently on trial at the club, before adding to it via goals from Daniel Boateng and Chuba Akpom, with the latter finding the net for the first time this season.
As ever, Gatting’s resources were considerably stretched in terms of personnel. Gedion Zelalem, Hector Bellerin and Serge Gnabry were all left out as they are on standby for the first-team, whilst Tafari Moore is on international duty with England U17s. Anthony Jeffrey, meanwhile, joined an injury list that already contained Benik Afobe, Zak Ansah, Jon Toral and Nico Yennaris.
As it happened, Gatting made just two changes from the side that drew with Stoke City on the opening day, with Ajayi replacing Moore and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, making his first start at this level, coming in for Jeffrey. Goalkeeper Josh Vickers was required on the bench despite currently being on loan at Canvey Island.
subs: Vickers, O’Connor, Fagan, Jebb, Lipman.
Arsenal had to contend with some early Blackburn pressure, but it wasn’t long until they created their first chance of note, with Maitland-Niles doing well to seize possession and find Thomas Eisfeld, but the German, who scored both goals against Stoke, fired well over on this occasion.
Akpom, meanwhile, found himself on the receiving end of some robust challenges by Blackburn’s defenders, with Anthony O’Connor being cautioned for catching the striker with a high boot.
Arsenal were not deterred by the hosts physical approach, however, and Maitland-Niles did well to work space for himself before shooting from distance. His shot was deflected for a corner, and, from the resultant set-piece, Kristoffer Olsson crossed expertly for Ajayi, who found the net with a well-timed finish.
It was certainly the right way for the centre-back to make a positive impression on his potential future employers. It is no secret that Arsenal are short of defenders at this level, although, on this early evidence, Ajayi appears a far more promising prospect than fellow trialist Ramy Bensebaini.
Blackburn, though, were taken aback by Arsenal’s opener and were desperate to make instant amends. First Leander Siemann, again operating as an unorthodox left-back, did well to clear the danger, then Deyan Iliev, hitherto untroubled, had to make an impressive save to deny Hugo Molina.
Arsenal cranked up the pressure before the interval and eventually got their reward when Boateng found the net. After fellow defender Isaac Hayden had come close himself, Boateng doubled Arsenal’s advantage in the 36th minute following another pinpoint Olsson delivery. The 20 year old, who is likely to head out on loan again at some point this campaign, headed home emphatically having squandered another inviting opportunity just moments earlier.
Maitland-Niles then could have added another on the stroke of half-time following good work from Akpom, but the first-year scholar instead directed his shot over the crossbar.
Arsenal’s victory was effectively confirmed just four minutes after the break, with Akpom playing a swift one-two with Maitland-Niles before opening his account for the campaign with a calmly-dispatched finish.
Blackburn goalkeeper David Raya had to rush off his line on several occasions to prevent Arsenal from heaping more misery upon the Lancashire side, and, although Molina came close with a free-kick, Arsenal had very little to worry about during a comfortable night’s work.
Tomorrow, what is likely to be a very young U18 side will face Sunderland away, whilst the U21’s next assignment is at Emirates Stadium against West Bromwich Albion next month.