U21 Premier League- Game 6
Arsenal 4 (Gnabry 16, Toral 25, 36, Frimpong 45) Aston Villa 2 (Drennan 53, Burke 75)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Considering that they had not played competitively for over a month, it can only be presumed that Arsenal U21s were saving their energy for this fixture. That certainly seemed the case in the first-half as a strong Arsenal second-string raced into a four-goal lead at the break against an Aston Villa side who, despite their disappointing defending, gave a positive impression of themselves at the other end of the pitch.
Arsenal’s play became somewhat lackadaisical after the interval, with Villa allowed to reduce the deficit to 4-2, but there were still a plethora of positives to take from this encounter for Steve Gatting and his coaching staff, not least the performance of Jon Toral, who scored twice and completed 77 minutes as he continued his rehabilitation from injury.
There was further welcoming news as striker Benik Afobe completed 90 minutes for the first time since February, with the striker impressing with his link-up play, whilst first-team squad members Emmanuel Frimpong and Serge Gnabry also got on the scoresheet, the latter continuing his impressive recent run of form.
Gatting, whose side remain unbeaten this season, named an extremely strong line-up, with Nico Yennaris, Isaac Hayden and Thomas Eisfeld also featuring, whilst regulars such as Kristoffer Olsson and Chuba Akpom only made the bench.
subs: O’Connor (for Pleguezuelo 46), Maitland-Niles (for Toral, 77), Olsson (for Frimpong, 87). Not used: Akpom, Huddart.
Villa, in contrast, named a rather inexperienced side that included Lewis Kinsella, who came through the club’s Hale End academy. The opening exchanges contained few goalscoring opportunities of note, but Arsenal were heavily reliant on the aerial prowess of Semi Ajayi, with the centre-back making several important clearances.
Arsenal gradually began to assert themselves on proceedings, with Gnabry a persistent menace down the right flank. The 18 year old cut inside and tested Benjamin Siegrist with a fierce strike before sending a dangerous delivery across the face of the Villa goal.
Villa responded by carving out a chance of their own. Daniel Johnson played a perceptive pass into the path of Graham Burke, with the midfielder forcing a resolute save from Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Macey.
It soon became apparent that Villa were dangerous on the counter-attack, with skilful winger Jordan Graham a useful outlet on the left flank, but Arsenal, despite being forced into some desperate defending at times, were ruthless at the other end and took the lead when Toral sent a precise cross into the area and Gnabry finished adroitly before Siegrist had time to react.
It could have been 2-0 shortly afterwards with Yennaris, operating at right-back on this occasion, delivering a cross which Afobe headed just over, but Macey then had to make two commendable saves in quick succession at the other end.
Arsenal’s attacking momentum was too much for Villa to handle, however, and Gatting’s side doubled their advantage following a move that was orchestrated by Eisfeld. The German midfielder worked space for himself following a bursting run and delivered a teasing cross that was touched on by Afobe into the path of Toral and the latter made no mistake in beating Siegrist from close range.
The third goal followed shortly afterwards, with Afobe latching onto a long ball and sending a lofted effort over the stranded Siegrist. The ball was destined for the back of the net, but Toral denied Afobe a comeback goal by applying the finishing touch before it crossed the line.
Graham was still an intermittent threat for Villa, but Arsenal continued to create chances aplenty, with Eisfeld shooting just over and Afobe coming close to lobbing Siegrist again after being played through by Frimpong.
Arsenal would make it 4-0 before half-time, however, with Frimpong heading in from a corner to score a rare goal.
The scoreline was rather harsh on Villa, who had posed a threat themselves going forward, but Arsenal had been ruthless in attack and calm in possession.
They were forced into a change prior to the second-half with Stefan O’Connor replacing the injured Pleguezuelo. Arsenal continued from where they had left off, however, with Frimpong and Afobe combining well again, but the latter couldn’t go round Siegrist.
Michael Drennan then shot wide as Villa sought to at least reduce the deficit, and they did just that when Drennan latched onto a horribly misplaced pass from Macey to make it 4-1.
It was notable that Arsenal, perhaps with an element of complacency creeping in, had begun to squander possession rather needlessly after the break. Macey, seeking to atone for his error, made a good save from close range, whilst Villa also squandered a free-kick from an inviting angle following a clumsy challenge from Frimpong.
Villa received a further reward for their second-half dominance when Burke scored with a shot that Macey perhaps should have been equal to, and the visitors almost found the net again late on, but Arsenal’s first-half performance had been more than sufficient to earn them the three points.
Gatting will no doubt be delighted with several of the individual performances this evening, with Ajayi continuing to grow in stature and Eisfeld also far more involved in the general play than perhaps he has been in the past.
The U21s are next in action away to Norwich City in the new U21 Premier League Cup next week, for which Gedion Zelalem should be available following international duty.