U21 Premier League
Arsenal 0 Reading 1 (Keown 8)
By Jeorge Bird @Emirates Stadium
Under-21 games are supposed to showcase the future of Arsenal, but tonight it was a name from the club’s illustrious past that proved to be the undoing of the young Gunners.
Playing against a spirited Reading side, Arsenal fell behind to an eighth minute goal from Niall Keown- son of Arsenal legend Martin- and failed to stage a comeback despite creating numerous opportunities in the second-half.
Jack Wilshere, who played the majority of the game, was impressive and at the heart of many of Arsenal’s attacking moves, but fellow first-team players Abou Diaby and Serge Gnabry weren’t at their sharpest, whilst the Gunners’ defending left a lot to be desired at times, with full-backs Julio Pleguezuelo and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill often caught out of position (the former, admittedly, is much more at home at the heart of the defence).
This result, against a Reading side that was already above them in the table going into the match, puts a dent in Arsenal’s hopes of earning promotion to the top tier of U21 football, but from a first-team perspective, Wilshere’s display was encouraging.
Mikel Arteta wasn’t involved on this occasion, with Wilshere operating in a deeper midfield position alongside Diaby. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was deployed further forwards but soon interchanged with Gnabry, who moved into the middle. Elsewhere, Matt Macey replaced Deyan Iliev in goal.
Subs: Dobson (for Bielik, 54), Mavididi (for Diaby, 56), Kamara (for Wilshere, 88). Not used: Iliev, Zelalem.
Arsenal were impressive in their dispatch of Stoke City last week and they started confidently here, with Diaby playing a neat pass into the path of Ormonde-Ottewill, who in turn found Dan Crowley, but the diminutive youngster shot over.
Reading scored with their first attack, with Keown rising highest above the Arsenal defenders to direct his header beyond the reach of Macey. Crowley complained that the corner shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place, but the youngsters failed to deal with the set-piece and were made to pay in emphatic fashion.
Arsenal nearly mounted an instant response, with Crowley’s pass just eluding Gnabry, but, as the game started to open up, Reading also came close after Pleguezuelo lost his footing, but Macey was on hand to avert the danger.
Alex Iwobi, who was so impressive against Stoke, then tried to work an angle for himself but his effort lacked conviction, with Crowley’s pass subsequently teeing up Maitland-Niles, who could only find the side-netting.
Reading provided the occasional threat, but Arsenal were seeing more of the ball. The problem was that the Gunners weren’t effective enough when presented with shooting opportunities. Krystian Bielik dribbled forwards and found Gnabry with a superb pass, but the German blazed his effort over the crossbar, with Maitland-Niles, whose form has dipped a little of late, then squandering a presentable opportunity.
Gnabry then shot over again before coming a little closer with a more measured strike and Arsenal were unfortunate not to equalise before the break when Wilshere embarked on a mazy dribble through the Reading defence but saw his effort parried for a corner.
Arsenal created a greater number of chances in the second period, but their finishing still lacked conviction. Iwobi had a shot saved following an intelligent flick from Wilshere, but Arsenal were forced to re-group after Bielik suffered an injury and had to be replaced by George Dobson.
Stephy Mavididi, who scored against Stoke, then replaced Diaby, but the striker failed to make a good connection from a Crowley free-kick.
Wilshere sought to take the game by the scruff of the neck, with the 23-year-old exchanging passes with Crowley before being denied by a well-timed sliding challenge.
Crowley then caused consternation in the Reading defence with a run of his own which led to him finding Mavididi, but the latter’s effort again lacked conviction.
Crowley sent a fierce effort over as Arsenal upped the ante considerably, but still a goal continued to elude the young Gunners.
Reading, organised by the excellent Aaron Kuhl, continued to hold firm despite the incessant Arsenal pressure. Maitland-Niles and Wilshere both came close to scoring in the closing stages, but it was Reading, despite the strength of Arsenal’s side, who emerged victorious.
This was something of a coming back down to earth moment for Arsenal’s U21s after the euphoria of last week’s win over Stoke. Although they enjoyed much possession, there was a severe lack of movement on many occasions, with the requisite runs into space often not being made.
Wilshere’s display, as he linked play effectively, was encouraging, but not too many of the youngsters stood out. Crowley tried his utmost, but at times Reading found it far too simple to exploit Arsenal’s defence.
Quite how many first-team players will remain with the U21 squad for next week’s trip to face Middlesbrough remains to be seen, but Arsenal’s youngsters can’t afford too many more results like this if they want to test themselves against the elite academy sides next season.