U21 Premier League
Arsenal 1 (Eisfeld 58) Manchester United 1 (Cole 10)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Having not played for 18 days Arsenal U21s were raring to go ahead of tonight’s encounter with Manchester United and, although they fell behind to a Larnell Cole penalty with just ten minutes on the clock, Steve Gatting’s side showed signs of improvement in the second-half, with Thomas Eisfeld scoring an equaliser before being denied another goal by the post in the dying stages.
This result completed a more than satisfactory first half of the season for the second-string, with the heavy defeat to Sunderland last time out the only stain on an otherwise unbeaten record. United were the more dangerous side in a first-half of few chances, with James Wilson and Saidy Janko particularly threatening, but Arsenal deserved a point in the end, with young right-back Tafari Moore especially effective.
Ryo Miyaichi was handed a start on the right flank, whilst Chuba Akpom was preferred to Jon Toral on the left wing with Benik Afobe returning up front.
subs: Toral (for Afobe, 72). Not used: Maitland-Niles, Kamara, O’Connor, Iliev.
The opening stages were tense with both sides attempting and struggling to maintain possession. Arsenal were nearly the architects of their own downfall when Semi Ajayi needlessly played a casual ball across the face of the Arsenal penalty area. Wilson seized upon it but, fortunately for Ajayi, his shot was straight at Matthew Macey.
Arsenal were really struggling to produce the cohesive, free-flowing football that is expected of them, although Kristoffer Olsson did provide a threat from set-pieces early on. United would take the lead from the penalty spot, however, with the spot-kick awarded after the Arsenal defence struggled to cope with a surging run from Janko.
First Akpom, tracking back on the left flank, hacked at the Switzerland U19 international, but it was Gedion Zelalem who conceded the penalty for a barge on the same player in the area. Cole stepped up to take the penalty and dispatched it comfortably past Macey to open the scoring.
The goal seemed to spark Arsenal into life somewhat, with Eisfeld seeing a powerful effort deflected over before Afobe sent an overhead kick just wide of the target. Ryo, back at the ground where he made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt, then delivered a dangerous cross from the right. Afobe was unable to meet it and Eisfeld, who did connect, sent the ball flying over the crossbar, but it mattered little as the offside flag had already been raised.
Wilson, who was a threat to the Arsenal goal throughout the evening, did well to create space for himself before shooting just wide, then Janko sent a wayward effort over the target.
The second half started in much the same manner as the first, with both sides struggling to play possession football on a difficult pitch. Arsenal’s persistence was eventually rewarded, however, when Moore, having received the ball from Ryo, swung in a cross from the right flank, which was met by Eisfeld who finished emphatically to make it 1-1.
United were still a threat thereafter, though, with Arsenal becoming rather casual in their play. Ajayi squandered possession for the umpteenth time before Hayden conceded a free-kick for a typically rash challenge, with Janko sending the resultant set-piece over.
Arsenal then introduced Jon Toral for the tiring Afobe, and, although Wilson continued to threaten intermittently at the other end, the Gunners were beginning to create several openings of their own, with Ajayi heading over and then, agonisingly, Eisfeld striking a post just seconds after Toral had seen a shot saved following a slick multi-pass move.
That would prove to be the final notable act of an encounter that only really came to life in the closing stages. Arsenal, despite the fact that they came so close to snatching victory, will be aware that they rather rode their luck at times in the first-half, with a draw perhaps a fair result overall.
Moore was certainly Arsenal’s standout performer, with the 16 year old resolute in his defensive work whilst also providing a regular threat going forwards. Ajayi enjoyed a superb start to his Arsenal career, but has delivered a couple of disappointing performances of late, whilst, on a more positive note, Zelalem was more influential in the second-half.
Operating in a deep-lying midfield role, the Germany U17 international was calm under pressure and retained the ball efficiently. He received a yellow card for a late challenge, but, in a way, that can be taken as a positive as there have been some concerns about his reluctance to make crunching challenges.
Afobe seemed some way away from full sharpness, whilst Akpom, having started on the left flank, was more effective when he moved into the middle once Toral came on.
Arsenal’s next game at this level is away to Everton on January 6th, whilst the U18s take on Norwich City tomorrow in their final fixture of 2013.