Forest Green Rovers 4 (Norwood (7, 38), Sinclair (63, 90) Arsenal 6 (Maitland-Niles (20), Toral (59), Crowley (65), Hayden (83, 85), Ajayi (90))
Arsenal U21s continued their pre-season preparations with a highly-entertaining 6-3 victory over Forest Green Rovers this evening. Steve Gatting’s side were behind on several occasions but showed terrific resilience to come back, even if some of their defending at times left a lot to be desired. Arsenal’s goals came courtesy of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jon Toral, Dan Crowley, who scored an excellent long-range effort, Isaac Hayden, who hit a brace, and Semi Ajayi.
Gatting made five changes from the side that drew with Boreham Wood on Friday. Gedion Zelalem, Chuba Akpom and Hayden, who were all part of the Emirates Cup squad, returned, whilst Matt Macey and Glen Kamara also started. Alex Iwobi was missing through illness.
Damian Martinez, Hector Bellerin and Ignasi Miquel remain with the first-team squad ahead of the Community Shield.
subs: Crowley (for Maitland-Niles, 55), Iliev (for Macey, 59). Not used: Jebb, Lipman, Willock, Moore.
Forest Green are the longest-serving members of the Conference Premier and they certainly weren’t fazed by the visit of the Arsenal youngsters. The hosts took the lead with just seven minutes on the clock when James Norwood latched onto Marcus Kelly’s corner to head the ball past the stranded Macey.
Arsenal responded quickly, though, with Hayden doing well to find Maitland-Niles, whose shot was wayward. Maitland-Niles was far more accurate just minutes later, however, as he found the net after impressive work from Akpom.
Hayden was the architect of the majority of Arsenal’s attacking moves and the midfielder came close to giving the Gunners the lead, but his shot was saved by Sam Russell.
Instead, it was Forest Green who went into the break in the ascendancy after Norwood found the net again, with Kurtis Guthrie the provider on this occasion.
Arsenal were looking to their creative players for inspiration and they eventually managed to draw level when Zelalem received the ball from Toral and quickly played it back into the path the Spaniard, who beat the goalkeeper with a deft chip.
Forest Green were soon back in front, however, with substitute Rob Sinclair capitalising on Macey’s hesitancy from a corner to make it 3-2.
It was, by now, an enthralling encounter, and there was yet more drama to come. Crowley, who signed his first professional contract yesterday, had replaced Maitland-Niles early in the second-half and the midfielder drew Arsenal level again with a superb strike from distance.
It was Crowley’s fifth goal of a hugely impressive pre-season, but the youngster instantly set about trying to put Arsenal ahead. He found Akpom with a clever pass, but the angle was against the striker and he could only divert his effort into the side-netting.
Arsenal came perilously close to scoring again on several occasions. Akpom had a penalty claim turned down and the striker then almost found the net with a header that was just kept out by substitute goalkeeper Paul White. The young Gunners were eventually rewarded for their persistence with seven minutes remaining when Hayden did well to work space for himself before firing past White.
Arsenal were utterly dominant in the closing stages and Hayden capped off a fine individual performance when he raced onto Crowley’s pass and finished well again to make it 5-3.
That looked to be that, but, remarkably, there would be two more goals. First Ajayi further increased Arsenal’s tally when he finished well from Olsson’s cross. Then Sinclair scored his second of the game and Forest Green’s fourth moments before the final whistle.
It was an excellent game, although, when the dust settles, the main positives to take out of it from an Arsenal perspective were the performances of Hayden and Crowley.
The U21s play Colchester United at the training ground next week in their final pre-season friendly before commencing their league campaign away to Reading a week on Friday.