U21 Premier League- Game 18
Arsenal 4 (Toral 34, 90, Bellerin 37, O’Connor 73) Manchester City 3 (Drury 46, Cole 89, Leigh 90)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
Arsenal U21s returned to winning ways this evening with a hard-earned victory over Patrick Vieira’s Manchester City. The young Gunners, for all their attacking prowess and the dazzling artistry of Jon Toral, did, however, come perilously close to surrendering their lead during a dramatic finale in the lashing rain. As it transpired, a late strike from Toral, his second of the game, ultimately proved to be decisive and injected some much needed positivity after three defeats last week.
This was a highly-watchable game, albeit one that was tarnished somewhat by unnecessary mistakes from both sides. Arsenal took the lead through Toral with 11 minutes remaining in the first-half and then doubled it just three minutes later courtesy of his compatriot Hector Bellerin, who was especially effective in the opening period.
Arsenal made the worst possible start to the second-half, however, allowing Adam Drury to score just a minute after the re-start. In a tumultuous game centre-back Stefan O’Connor then made it 3-1 with a rare goal, but City struck twice in the closing stages to increase the pressure on Arsenal. In between those two strikes, however, Toral again proved his quality with an excellent finish, and Arsenal just about managed to hold on for the win.
Several players were rested with Thursday’s FA Youth Cup tie against Chelsea in mind. Chuba Akpom, Gedion Zelalem, Dan Crowley and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill were amongst those left out, meaning that there were rare starts at this level for Jack Jebb and Alfred Mugabo, the latter having spent time on trial at Sheffield Wednesday last week.
subs: Kamara (for Hayden, 52), Maitland-Niles (for Ansah, 76). Not used: Vickers, Siemann, Lipman.
Much of Arsenal’s good attacking work in recent weeks has come down the right flank, with Bellerin and Toral combining to good effect. Their understanding was in evidence in the early stages here, with the two players exchanging passes before Bellerin’s cross was eventually cut out.
Toral then saw his shot parried in Arsenal’s next attacking move, with Thomas Eisfeld shooting wide from the re-bound. Mugabo, deployed as an unorthodox left-back, then conceded possession, but the lively Marcos Lopes couldn’t capitalise.
Soon after, however, the 18 year old provided Arsenal’s defence with a warning sign when he sent a dipping shot over, before midfielder Seko Fofana forced Matt Macey to push away his well-struck effort. That would prove to be the first of many crucial interventions from the Arsenal goalkeeper throughout the course of the evening.
His next task was to deal with Sinan Bytyqi’s free-kick, which he managed to divert for a corner. The pressure then relented a little, with Arsenal beginning to rediscover their attacking momentum. Zak Ansah sent a shot straight at Ian Lawlor, then Toral miscued his pass when Bellerin was well-placed in front of goal.
Arsenal would make the most of their chances before the interval. First Eisfeld seized upon a weak kick-out by Lawlor and, after the German was closed down, Toral was on hand to finish from close range to open the scoring. Bellerin then made it 2-0 when he won possession, exchanged passes with Kristoffer Olsson, and then finished well as Arsenal ended the half in perfect fashion.
Their start to the second period was anything but perfect, with Macey struggling to deal with Bytyqi’s cross and Drury capitalising by reducing the deficit.
The game, by now, had descended into a rather scrappy affair that was in stark contrast to the free-flowing football of the first-half. Mugabo misplaced a header but then made instant amends with an excellent recovery challenge, but Arsenal were dealt a blow when Isaac Hayden hobbled off injured to be replaced by Glen Kamara.
Arsenal then nearly made it 3-1, with Jebb taking a quick-throw and Ansah playing the ball across the face of goal and into the path of Eisfeld, who should have scored but instead dragged his effort wide from close range.
What followed was drama and then yet more drama. Macey made an outstanding stop from close range to deny Devante Cole. It would not be exaggerating the point to say that it was the best save an Arsenal goalkeeper has made at this level since James Shea’s heroics at Old Trafford three years ago.
Cole, introduced as a substitute at the start of the second-half, caused much trouble for the Arsenal defence, but the young Gunners were still an attacking threat themselves, with Toral and Olsson coming close.
The game looked to be over when Arsenal made it 3-1, O’Connor showing tremendous composure to score a collector’s item of a goal after City failed to clear from a corner.
City were undeterred, however, and still felt they could salvage something from this game. They peppered the Arsenal goal with shots, with Kamara and Eisfeld having to make crucial interventions. Vieira’s side eventually made it 3-2, with Bytyqi getting the better of Mugabo and sending in a dangerous cross which Cole was on hand to turn home.
City’s flickering hopes of mounting a comeback were effectively laid to rest soon afterwards when Toral finished well following good work from Eisfeld and substitute Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the latter operating as a makeshift striker.
That was not all, though. Macey was required to make yet another stop to deny Cole, but he could do little about the header from Leigh that stemmed from yet more slack Arsenal defending.
This is a game that will require much analysis, and there were plenty of negatives to take as well as positives, but Arsenal will certainly be pleased to have returned to winning ways. Toral, in particular, was impressive, whilst Macey made numerous good stops, even though he was a little indecisive at corners.
It was far from perfect, but Gatting’s side at times played some delightful football and will now approach their final three games of the campaign with confidence.