U21 Premier League- Game 19
Arsenal 0 Leicester City 4 (Hopper 6, Watson 41, 50, Cain 80)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
Arsenal U21s suffered a deeply disappointing defeat to Leicester City in their penultimate home game of the season. Steve Gatting’s side, who were without several key players due to first-team and FA Youth Cup commitments, struggled to garner any sort of attacking momentum and didn’t register a shot on target until the second-half.
They struggled to break down a Leicester defence that was marshalled manfully by the experienced Republic of Ireland international Sean St Ledger, whilst their own defensive frailties were pounced upon all too easily by a determined visiting side. Arsenal’s league form at U21 level this season, particularly post-Christmas, has been rather alarming, with Gatting’s team winning just two games out of eleven.
The most concerning element is that Gatting, along with current U18s coach Carl Laraman, will still be in charge of Arsenal at this level next season, but it is hoped that the appointment of Andries Jonker as the club’s new Head of Youth Development will reduce the chances of results such as this occurring in the future.
Leicester were fully deserved of their win, but Arsenal’s play was painful to watch at times as some players struggled to make the requisite runs and others gave the ball away in dangerous areas. Their play in an attacking sense did improve a little following the introduction of Austin Lipman as a second-half substitute, but Leicester goalkeeper Adam Smith was barely tested throughout.
Arsenal were without several regulars at this level. Hector Bellerin is likely to be on the first-team bench against West Ham United tomorrow, whilst Chuba Akpom, Gedion Zelalem, Dan Crowley, Julio Pleguezuelo and Jack Jebb were all left out with the second-leg of the FA Youth Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea in mind. Isaac Hayden, meanwhile, was missing through suspension.
subs: Lipman (for Maitland-Niles, 70), Kamara (for Iwobi, 70). Not used: Huddart, Siemann, Ormonde-Ottewill.
Arsenal’s start was sluggish and set the tone for the rest of the game. Alex Iwobi gave away a free-kick which was taken by Callum Elder. Matt Macey was on hand to gather, but it wasn’t long before the Arsenal goalkeeper was picking the ball out of the back of his net, with Tafari Moore struggling to deal with the considerable threat of Tom Hopper, who beat the full-back for pace and then beat Macey with a confident finish.
That was just the beginning. Leicester were putting Arsenal under pressure at every opportunity and Gatting’s side simply couldn’t cope. The visitors came close from a corner before Macey had to deal with two free-kicks in quick succession. The pressure was relentless, with Ryan Watson then seeing a shot deflected narrowly wide.
Watson came close again shortly afterwards, with Stefan O’Connor then having to make a well-timed intervention to prevent further damage. Arsenal couldn’t stem the overwhelming tide of Leicester attacks, however, and they were soon 2-0 down, with Watson being rewarded for his persistence.
The midfielder finished well after being found by Harry Panayiotou from a corner, with Arsenal leaving the field at half-time without having even come close to threatening the Leicester goal.
Arsenal appeared a little more determined after the interval, with Zak Ansah’s attempted pass being gathered by Smith, but mistakes continued to plague their game. Alfred Mugabo, who is set to be released in June, inadvertently directed the ball into the path of Hopper, who shot wide.
In an all too rare attacking move from Arsenal Jon Toral found Kristoffer Olsson, whose shot was just off target, but normal service resumed when Leicester made it 3-0. O’Connor committed a late challenge high up the pitch, but the referee waved play on and Leicester took full advantage, with Watson embarking on a mazy run through the Arsenal defence before beating Macey once more.
Watson then came close to claiming a hat-trick, but shot wide. Arsenal sought to change things a little, with Lipman and Glen Kamara being introduced. Kamara at least provided protection to the defence, something that had been glaringly absent beforehand, whilst Lipman worked hard and attempted to make things happen on the right flank.
Arsenal’s best move came when Olsson closed down St Ledger’s clearance and played in Thomas Eisfeld, who was on the bench at Wembley on Saturday. The German directed the ball into the path of Ansah, whose effort struck the crossbar. Leicester were always on top, though, and inflicted further damage when substitute Michael Cain capitalised on some woeful defending to make it 4-0. This had long been a bridge too far for the young Gunners.
It was a deeply disappointing way to end their first campaign at Boreham Wood, but the Youth Cup has certainly taken priority this week. That said, some of the players who aren’t eligible for that competition, such as Eisfeld, Olsson and Toral, were far from at their best here, and a similar team managed to dispatch of Manchester City last week.
Mugabo is strong but deploying him at left-back is to nobody’s benefit, whilst Ajayi will have to be far more consistent if he is to become a first-team squad member next season. Hayden, meanwhile, was sorely missed. If Arsenal manage to prevail over Chelsea in the Youth Cup on Thursday then this game will probably be largely forgotten, but losing by such a scoreline should not be acceptable for a club that places so much emphasis on youth development.