The return from injury of Theo Walcott will be widely reported in the national newspapers and on the television stations, but it was the performance of Dan Crowley that will prove to be the most endearing memory from tonight’s U21 stalemate against Blackburn Rovers.
An Arsenal side that started with Walcott, Serge Gnabry and Abou Diaby struggled to break down a resolute visiting outfit, but Steve Gatting’s side improved following the second-half introductions of Alex Iwobi and Gedion Zelalem. Iwobi had a goal disallowed, but it was Crowley, with his mesmerising skill and driving runs, who made the biggest impression.
Walcott completed 45 minutes on his first appearance since January and had something of an impact in the opening stages before becoming less involved as the half wore on. Gnabry, deployed in a central attacking midfield position, stayed on for longer but wasn’t at his sharpest.
Hector Bellerin and Isaac Hayden were absent, with the young defenders set to be in the first-team squad for the game against Hull City tomorrow. Ryan Huddart was given a rare start in goal, with Deyan Iliev rested as he is likely to travel to Anderlecht with the first-team next week. Gatting was forced into a late alteration before kick-off with Semi Ajayi withdrawing, meaning Glen Kamara was deployed at centre-back.
subs: Iwobi (for Walcott, 46), Zelalem (for Gnabry, 59), Johnson (for Diaby, 67). Not used: Macey.
Walcott, despite showing some rustiness, demonstrated that his searing pace is still very much intact when he glided past four players in the opening stages. The England international subsequently found Gnabry, but the 19 year old’s shot was blocked.
Gnabry squandered another opportunity when he sent a free-kick over the crossbar. Arsenal were gradually beginning to up the tempo, with Crowley becoming increasingly involved. The midfielder’s cross eventually found its way to Walcott, whose effort was wayward.
Blackburn threatened intermittently, with captain Bradley Bauress shooting over, but most of their good work was done in their defensive third, with Chuba Akpom in particular struggling to get into the game.
Huddart had to be alert to gather a long-range effort, before Arsenal launched a swift counter-attack. Crowley drove forward with ease and slipped the ball through to Akpom, but the striker’s touch was heavy and the chance fizzled out.
Blackburn could have taken the lead before the interval after Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill allowed Blackburn too much space down his flank, but the visitors’ effort didn’t trouble Huddart.
In a pre-planned substitution Alex Iwobi replaced Walcott at the start of the second-half. The winger, who hasn’t been regularly involved at this level this season, was determined to make an impression and he added pace and vibrancy to Arsenal’s attacking movements.
Before he could have too much on an impact, though, Arsenal were reliant on impressive defending from Tafari Moore at the other end, with Huddart also making a good save.
Crowley was attempting to weave his magic and saw a shot deflected for a corner, with Iwobi doing likewise shortly afterwards.
Crowley was nominally stationed on the left flank, but he kept drifting infield to devastating effect. One eye of the needle pass unlocked the Blackburn defence, but Ainsley Maitland-Niles saw his effort repelled.
Arsenal then had the ball in the net after Iwobi’s effort hit the post and then rebounded in, but the goal was disallowed.
Gatting’s side were in the ascendancy now but one moment of recklessness very nearly cost them. Ormonde-Ottewill squandered possession, leaving Maitland-Niles stranded in central-midfield with a Blackburn player racing past him. Maitland-Niles committed a foul to bring down his opponent and was yellow carded, with Blackburn not making the most of the subsequent free-kick.
Chiori Johnson had entered the fray as a replacement for Diaby, with the first-year scholar making his competitive debut at this level. He almost marked it with a goal, but Ormonde-Ottewill’s cross just evaded him.
The final few minutes consisted of Crowley, almost single-handedly at times, attempting to breach the seemingly impenetrable Blackburn defence. He very nearly succeeded in doing so, with his pass finding Iwobi, whose shot was saved.
Crowley then seized the initiative himself, embarking on a dazzling run that left U18s coach Carl Laraman, watching on the sidelines, gobsmacked. The diminutive youngster shot just wide after that mazy dribble and then came even closer to scoring when his free-kick was tipped onto the crossbar by the Blackburn goalkeeper.
It ended 0-0 but Crowley had done his utmost to attempt to gain all three points. It takes something special to render the long-awaited return of Walcott as something of a sub-plot, but, then again, as we all know, Crowley is something special.