U21 Premier League- Game 2
Arsenal 1 (MAITLAND-NILES) Derby County 1
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
Arsenal’s youngsters learnt tonight that they will not have things all their own way in the second tier of the U21 Premier League.
Steve Gatting’s side were subjected to a rigorous work-out by a well-organised Derby County side, who levelled from the penalty spot after Ainsley Maitland-Niles had earlier given Arsenal the lead.
The penalty award, given after a challenge by Alex Iwobi, seemed a little harsh, but the scoreline didn’t, with Derby closing down Arsenal at every possible opportunity and eventually reaping the rewards.
It was anticipated that Arsenal would sail through their second division fixtures and instantly be reinstated into the top tier, but tonight showed that they will still face some considerable tests.
Dan Crowley, despite evidently being frustrated at being stationed on the left flank, provided moments of genius, but overall this was a somewhat scrappy affair that was enlightened by Kristoffer Olsson’s inch-perfect pass to find Maitland-Niles, who finished well for his third goal at this level.
Arsenal, for large spells, found cohesion difficult to come by, which wasn’t surprising considering both full-backs were playing out of position, whilst Crowley, in a similar manner to Santi Cazorla in the first-team, was constantly drifting inside rather than remaining stationed on the wing.
Ignasi Miquel and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill were absent, meaning Glen Kamara and Stefan O’Connor came into the side. There was a familiar face in the Derby line-up too in Alban Bunjaku, the playmaker who left Arsenal in controversial circumstances two years ago. He showed glimpses of his superb technical ability, but the threat that he provided was often snuffed out by Arsenal captain Isaac Hayden.
SUBS: IWOBI (FOR ZELALEM). NOT USED: ILIEV, JEBB, WRIGHT, SMITH.
Arsenal had started the season with a victory over Reading and the early signs suggested that they were on their way to another success here, with Tafari Moore winning a corner following a rampaging run down the left flank, before Crowley and Olsson exchanged neat passes only for Semi Ajayi to be caught offside.
Derby responded quickly, however. Kamara did well to cut out a cross from the opposing right-back Kieron Freeman, with Tom Naylor then directing an effort well off target.
Crowley came close to scoring with a free-kick at the other end, but Derby still threatened intermittently, with goalkeeper Matt Macey called into action on several occasions.
Crowley was the instigator of much that was good about Arsenal’s play, with the diminutive midfielder finding Maitland-Niles, who in turn slipped the ball through to Akpom, but the striker lashed over from a difficult angle.
There was a sense of early-season rustiness about Arsenal, with several passes going astray, and matters could have got even worse had Kwame Thomas not directed his header over when well placed.
It was a rather uneventful opening period, but Arsenal did come perilously close to scoring when Maitland-Niles, involved yet again, played in Akpom, who embarked upon a trademark double stepover before striking the far post with a fierce effort.
Derby, when they attacked, possessed a commendable amount of confidence, with one sweeping move culminating in Kamara committing a clumsy foul on the edge of his own penalty area. The free-kick was deflected out for a corner and eventually, after the ball was played back in following the initial set-piece, Macey, as he did on several occasions last season, made an excellent stop from point-blank range, with Thomas kept out this time.
Arsenal squandered an excellent opportunity to take the lead before the break, though, with Crowley blazing horrendously over when well placed having been found by Gedion Zelalem.
Early in the second-half Macey almost undone his good work after he lost concentration, allowing Thomas to close him down. Thankfully for the goalkeeper the striker somehow failed to find the net, but it was major left off for Gatting’s side.
They certainly made the most of the reprieve, and, just moments later, they were ahead. Olsson, as he has a habit of doing, unlocked the opposition defence with an exquisite long-range pass that landed precisely at the feet of Maitland-Niles, who finished adroitly to open the scoring.
Bunjaku then threatened at the other end, but he couldn’t manoeuvre his way past Arsenal’s defence. The game was a little more open now, but Arsenal had to be wary of Derby’s threat on the counter-attack and Ajayi was perhaps fortunate to stay on the field when he committed a rash challenge. The centre-back was booked but may well have been dismissed if this was a senior fixture.
Macey did well to push the resultant free-kick around the post. Arsenal then sought to put the game beyond all doubt, but they fluffed their lines on two occasions. Firstly Akpom couldn’t quite connect with Crowley’s clipped pass, then O’Connor’s header was deflected wide from Olsson’s corner.
It was Iwobi who would be involved in the game’s controversial moment, with the second-year scholar adjudged to have committed a foul in the area. There was some bemusement at the decision, but Derby took full advantage of it, with Alefe Santos confidently converting past Macey.
There were chances for Arsenal to regain their lead in the closing stages. Akpom played in Maitland-Niles, whose effort was kept out by goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell. Crowley then produced a superb piece of skill, which resulted in him being hacked down. He took the free-kick himself, with Mitchell doing well to tip his effort over the crossbar. Iwobi then threaded the ball through to Akpom as the clock ticked down, but again Mitchell was alert and Arsenal, for all their endeavour, had to settle for a point.