U21 Premier League- Game 8
Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 1
For much of this encounter the fireworks being let off in the Hertfordshire night sky threatened to provide the most noteworthy entertainment of the evening, but this was certainly a game worth persisting with.
Arsenal, leading courtesy of a strike from Dan Crowley, suddenly found their lead rubbed out late on when Scott McCarthy scored a dramatic equaliser. Middlesbrough celebrated their goal gleefully, but, little did they know, Arsenal would soon be back in front, with Crowley scoring the winner with virtually the last kick of the game.
When the dust settles, Arsenal will be able to take stock of the fact that they are now top of U21 Premier League Division 2, having leapfrogged Middlesbrough in the table with this victory.
Crowley will deservedly grab the headlines again, but some of Arsenal’s defenders also deserve credit. Stefan O’Connor still has a lot of developing to do, but he was excellent for the most part tonight, whilst Marc Bola coped well at left-back in the absence of Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill.
Coach Steve Gatting made a solitary change from the team that performed well against Stoke City last week, with Glen Kamara replacing Serge Gnabry. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, were able to call upon Argentinean striker Emmanuel Ledesma.
T. Moore-O’Connor-Ajayi-M. Bola
subs: Mavididi (for Kamara, 67). Not used: Sheaf, Johnson, Huddart.
There were precious few openings created by either side in the early stages, but Alex Iwobi, who scored against Stoke, was a threat down the right flank and the winger came close to creating an opening but dragged his effort just wide.
Middlesbrough responded with Callum Cooke shooting wide, with Iwobi then miscuing a header after good work from Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who was again deployed as a central-midfielder.
Crowley, a player capable of playing such intelligent passes, was always probing, looking for an opening, but for the most part the Middlesbrough defence proved very difficult to breach. Playing in the second division is certainly presenting the young Gunners with different challenges, and this evening they had to be extremely patient in their build-up play.
Middlesbrough weren’t afraid to attack when the opportunity was presented, though, with Robbie Tinkler bursting forward from the back and bringing out the best in Matt Macey, who made an excellent reaction stop to preserve parity. Macey then gathered the ball confidently from the resultant corner.
The game was gradually beginning to open up, with Iwobi cutting inside and crossing for Crowley, who forced Middlesbrough goalkeeper Connor Ripley into action for the first time.
Crowley then found Iwobi, but Ripley was again resilient in the face of pressure, with the 21-year-old also alert to stop a fierce strike from Crowley shortly afterwards.
Crowley, the hub of Arsenal’s creative moments, was becoming increasingly influential and the diminutive midfielder combined well with Chuba Akpom before seeing a shot deflected wide.
There was a fright for Arsenal on Halloween when Middlesbrough came perilously close to scoring, but thankfully Tafari Moore was able to make a late intervention and clear the danger.
Semi Ajayi directed an effort over the crossbar in the final action of the opening period, but the drama was still to come.
Whilst Crowley was Arsenal’s go-to player, Middlesbrough also had a skilful youngster wearing the number 11 shirt, with Jordan Jones causing numerous problems for the Arsenal defence.
Jones managed to get the better of Moore on one occasion, but Macey refused to be beaten.
Middlesbrough were on top for a sustained spell, and Arsenal were thankful that O’Connor was able to get in the way of a powerful strike.
Arsenal provided a reminder of their attacking qualities when Gedion Zelalem did well to engineer space for himself before shooting wide, and not long afterwards Gatting’s team had the lead.
It had been a long time coming, but it was an impressive goal, with Iwobi embarking on a mazy run and finding Crowley, who finished well amidst a sea of Middlesbrough defenders.
Macey ensured that Arsenal’s lead, temporarily at least, was kept intact when he made a couple of good stops.
At the other end Akpom produced a powerful, dipping effort from distance that went just over the crossbar.
Had that attempt gone in the game would effectively have been over, but, as it was, Middlesbrough still had some hope and the visitors pinned Arsenal back in their own half. Middlesbrough continued to threaten and eventually got their reward when a cross from the right flank was converted by McCarthy from close range.
That looked to be that. The Arsenal players were distraught. The Middlesbrough players were evidently delighted. The final twist in the tale was yet to come, however, and it just had to be Crowley who provided it. Akpom and Zelalem were involved in the build-up, but it was Crowley who was there to finish neatly.
The result was perhaps a little harsh on a spirited Middlesbrough team, but Arsenal will be pleased with their recent form at this level having racked up two victories in less than a week. The U21s are not in action again until December, by which time they will probably have been replaced at the top of the table, but the signs so far suggest that their stay in the second tier may not be a prolonged one.