U21 Premier League
Middlesbrough 3 (Ledesma 16 (pen), Maloney 36, Wildschut 41) Arsenal 2 (Iwobi 31, Crowley 72)
An Arsenal U21 side that played the majority of the game with ten men suffered a 3-2 defeat away to their Middlesbrough counterparts this evening, further reducing their chances of returning to the top flight of second-string football next season.
The young Gunners had goalkeeper Deyan Iliev dismissed for conceding a penalty that was converted by Emmanuel Ledesma and, although they drew level through Alex Iwobi, Arsenal found themselves 3-1 down at half-time.
Dan Crowley’s second-half goal provided Arsenal with a glimmer of hope in their quest to snatch a point, but they failed to get the better of the league leaders and suffered their second defeat in succession.
Iliev, who recently signed a new three-year deal with the club, replaced Macey in goal, whilst Renny Smith, who previously spent time on trial at Charlton Athletic, was drafted in at right-back. George Dobson started in the absence of the injured Krystian Bielik, with Julio Pleguezuelo also missing out.
Further forwards Stephy Mavididi started, whilst Gedion Zelalem returned to the fold. The latter was the only first-team squad member on show, with neither Abou Diaby or Serge Gnabry involved.
Subs: Macey (for Mavididi, 15). Not used: M. Bola, Robinson, Mourgos, C. Willock
Arsenal prevailed with a 2-1 victory when these sides met in the reverse fixture in October, but it was Middlesbrough who created the first chance of the game at the Riverside Stadium, with England youth international Harry Chapman getting the better of Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and sending a cross into the box, but Iliev did well to gather with the dangerous Ledesma lurking.
Ormonde-Ottewill then redeemed himself somewhat, with the left-back receiving the ball from Crowley before crossing towards Mavididi, but the striker’s effort was saved.
Arsenal looked to be building up some momentum, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles shooting just over after good work from Crowley, but their hopes of taking something from this game were hampered by the next major incident in the game.
Iliev, not for the first time in his Arsenal career, was sent off, with the Macedonian failing to control George Dobson’s back-pass before panicking and bringing down Chapman in the area.
The dismissal forced Arsenal into a reshuffle, with substitute goalkeeper Matt Macey replacing Mavididi. Macey couldn’t keep out Ledesma’s penalty and Middlesbrough took the lead.
Arsenal, to their credit, responded well to the setback, with Zelalem, who has often been accused of going missing in matches, at the very forefront of proceedings. The midfielder, who was an unused substitute in the previous two U21 games, saw a shot deflected off target before then playing a neat pass through to Alex Iwobi, who finished well for his seventh goal at this level this campaign.
Arsenal then sought to go ahead, with Zelalem finding Crowley, but the latter couldn’t direct his effort beyond the reach of goalkeeper Connor Ripley.
For all Arsenal’s dominance in that period of the game, however, it was Middlesbrough who would score the next goal, with Lewis Maloney finding the net from 25 yards out with an impressive strike that left Macey stranded.
Middlesbrough found the net again in a similar vein not long afterwards, with Yann Wildschut the scorer on this occasion from 20 yards out.
Macey made a good save to prevent Maloney from inflicting further damage shortly after the interval. The goalkeeper, perhaps providing further evidence as to why he should have started ahead of Iliev in the first place, then did well to deny Chapman.
Arsenal, now a little disheartened, struggled to test Middlesbrough for a prolonged spell and the hosts squandered an inviting opportunity to add further gloss to the scoreline when Maloney shot over.
That missed opportunity seemed to spark Arsenal back into life and they quickly reduced the deficit, with Zelalem initiating a move that culminated in Glen Kamara finding Crowley, who scored his third goal against Middlesbrough this season.
The game started to open up a little thereafter, with Ledesma’s deflected effort forcing Macey to tip the ball over the crossbar.
There were further chances in the dying moments, with Macey making a good save to deny Wildschut and Ripley then doing likewise at the other end to prevent Iwobi from scoring a dramatic late equaliser.
Arsenal were a little fortunate not to have a second goalkeeper sent off in the same game when Macey received just a yellow card for bringing down Ledesma just outside the area. The 26-year-old sent his free-kick just wide and there was no time for Arsenal to respond.
Middlesbrough held on for the victory and seem set to be promoted to the top division of U21 football. Whether Arsenal will be joining them there next season isn’t currently clear, but the young Gunners will have to win the majority of their remaining five fixtures to stand a chance of doing so, starting with the game against Aston Villa at London Colney on Friday.