U21 Premier League
Arsenal 4 (Iwobi 24, 42, 90, Mavididi 73) Stoke City 1 (Shenton 8)
By Jeorge Bird @Emirates Stadium
For a night that started so negatively for Arsenal U21s, with a mistake by goalkeeper Deyan Iliev allowing Ollie Shenton to open the scoring for Stoke City, by the end of the night’s events there were a multitude of positives to take away for the club as a whole.
Alex Iwobi enhanced his rapidly-growing reputation with a well-taken hat-trick that emphasised his key attributes of pace and skill, substitute Stephy Mavdidi struck his first goal at this level, Jack Wilshere and Serge Gnabry both completed 90 minutes, with the former more heavily involved in proceedings, club captain Mikel Arteta played an hour, Krystian Bielik was composed on his first appearance at Emirates Stadium and Julio Pleguezuelo returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines to play the last 18 minutes.
Above all that, though, perhaps the most significant aspect of the game was the performance of Abou Diaby, who was Arsenal’s best player for the 72 minutes that he was on the field. It isn’t currently clear whether Diaby, the club’s longest-serving player, will be offered a new deal, with his current contract expiring at the end of June.
The Frenchman’s performance this evening demonstrated just why so many Arsenal supporters yearn for him to be granted an extended stay. Diaby set up Iwobi’s second goal with a precise pass, but his all-round game was hugely impressive.
Whether he can replicate that at first-team level, and, crucially, whether he can stay fit for a lengthy period of time, is still questionable, but tonight Diaby showed that, for all the setbacks he has endured over the past few years, he can’t be discounted just yet.
As soon as it was announced that Diaby, Wilshere and Arteta would be starting the game, an Arsenal win was expected. Gnabry and Bielik were also involved from the offset, with the latter being deployed at centre-back. Ainsley Maitland-Niles started at right-back in the absence of Glen Kamara.
Maitland Niles-O’Connor-Bielik-Ormonde Ottewill
subs: Mavididi (for Arteta, 59). Pleguezuelo (for Diaby, 72). Not used: Zelalem, Dobson, Huddart.
Arsenal had the first opportunity of the game, with Diaby shooting over, but it was a moment of carelessness from Iliev that led to the young Gunners falling behind in the eight minute.
The Macedonian goalkeeper made a save but pushed the ball straight into the path of Shenton, who found the net from close range.
Arsenal immediately set about mounting a response, with Crowley seeing his audacious effort diverted for a corner. Wilshere was gradually beginning to assert himself on proceedings, with the England international coming close with a free-kick before producing a sublime piece of skill to work his way towards goal only for Daniel Gyollai to be equal to his effort.
An enterprising run from Diaby culminated in the midfielder being brought down in the area, but there were no claims for a penalty and, in truth, the award of a spot-kick would have been rather harsh on Stoke.
During last week’s friendly victory over Brentford Wilshere and Crowley exchanged some neat passes and the pair repeated the feat here, with their intricate move preceding an effort by Gnabry, who couldn’t get the better of Gyollai.
Arsenal were soon level, though, and, just as Stoke’s goal stemmed from an opposition mistake, so too did the Gunners’ first strike of the evening, with Iwobi capitalising on a slack pass before finishing well.
Wilshere and Gnabry continued to threaten thereafter, with Diaby then playing an intelligent pass into the path of Iwobi, whose powerful effort went just wide of the target.
The same two players combined as Arsenal went ahead just before the break, with Diaby’s precise ball being latched onto by Iwobi, who continued his excellent form with a fine finish.
Stoke had battled well, but never looked likely to recover once they were behind. Diaby’s showcase of his ability continued into the second-half, with a powerful surge down the right flank almost resulting in another goalscoring opportunity.
Iliev did well to keep out Charlie Ward’s free-kick at the other end, before Mavididi was introduced in place of Arteta. It was a good run-out for the Spaniard, but, despite the fact that he played some clever passes, he was beaten for pace a little too easily on some occasions.
Mavididi wasted little time in making it 3-0, with the striker, who was preferred to Austin Lipman for a place on the bench, lashing home after Crowley and Wilshere’s efforts were repelled.
Iwobi missed a chance to add further gloss to the scoreline when he shot wide following Gnabry’s astute dragback, but he made amends not long afterwards when he raced past the stranded Stoke defence and finished with aplomb.
There was still time for Mavididi to come close to adding another, but the damage had long since been done and, despite a shaky start, it turned out to be a very good night indeed for Arsenal.