U21 Premier League- Division 2
Arsenal 1 (Iwobi) Brighton & Hove Albion 0
By Jeorge Bird @Meadow Park
Serge Gnabry played the whole game as Arsenal U21s ended their frustrating recent run of form with a hard-earned victory at home to Brighton & Hove Albion this afternoon. The win was secured courtesy of a goal from Alex Iwobi, his eighth strike at this level this season, with the youngster applying the finishing touch to an intricate team move.
Arsenal’s performance was notable for an improvement in their defensive work, with the back four defending competently as a unit, which hadn’t been the case in previous games. Brighton, whose own defence was marshalled by former Arsenal youngster Tom Dallison, put up a commendable fight in the first half, but Arsenal took the initiative in the second period and eventually ran out deserved winners.
Gnabry’s return saw Iwobi move into the central striking position vacated by Stephy Mavididi, who is away at the U17 European Championships. Meanwhile, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who has been the subject of much media attention in the past week, started after recovering from injury.
Subs: Kamara (for Pleguezuelo), Robinson (for Zelalem). Not used: M. Bola, Lipman, Huddart.
This was a chance to start afresh for the young Gunners, after last week’s defeat away to West Bromwich Albion condemned them to another season of second-tier U21 football.
In that respect, the pressure was reduced somewhat, but this proved to be a much tougher test for Arsenal than the reverse fixture, when they ran out 4-0 winners earlier in the season.
It was Brighton, perhaps with revenge in mind, who started brightest, with Jesse Starkey shooting wide. At the other end Dallison did well to head away Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill’s teasing cross.
The opening stages lacked much in the way of fluency, with both sides struggling to carve out clear cut chances. When the opportunities did arrive, the finishing touch was often lacking. In one instance Iwobi played a precise ball through to Maitland-Niles but the ball was cleared against the midfielder and into the arms of Brighton goalkeeper Harry Doherty.
Arsenal, despite the array of creative talent that they had on show, took some time to get into the game and, mirroring a criticism that has often been levelled at the first-team, they could be accused of being a little over-elaborate in front of goal.
Krystian Bielik did well to control the ball, but Gnabry’s subsequent cross lacked conviction, with the German still some way from full sharpness.
Gnabry fared a little better with his next involvement in the game as he sent a fierce shot over the crossbar after he was located by Julio Pleguezuelo. With the game beginning to open up just a little, Gedion Zelalem then played a defence-splitting pass into the path of the on-rushing Maitland-Niles, whose effort was diverted for a corner by Doherty.
Arsenal began to create chances with greater regularity as the half wore on. First Stefan O’Connor, as he likes to do, drove forward from the back, with the defender finding Crowley, who shot over. Then Bielik had an effort saved from close range when he perhaps should have done a little better.
By now Brighton’s threat was more sporadic, but Daniel Akindayini still brought a comfortable save out of Macey, Just moments later the goalkeeper made a rare misjudgement when attempting to deal with Charlie Harris’ cross, but he was grateful not to be punished as Brighton failed to find the net.
A powerful shot from Crowley forced Doherty to concede a corner, with Iwobi later finding Gnabry, who shot wide. Brighton had the final opportunity of the half, with Dallison seeing his header cleared off the line by the alert Maitland-Niles but Arsenal raced out of the traps in the second half and were duly rewarded.
The goal wasn’t in keeping with much of what had gone before it. Rather than passing the ball around almost bewilderingly slowly, as they had done at times, on this occasion Arsenal were determined to pass very quickly. The neat move saw Gnabry and Zelalem heavily involved, with the ball eventually falling to Iwobi, who finished adroitly to continue his good recent form.
Brighton had a couple of half-chances thereafter, but Macey remained rather untroubled. On one occasion a lapse pass from Bielik led to a Brighton counter-attack, but Arsenal were quick to avert the danger.
Arsenal had a presentable chance to wrap up the game, with Crowley finding Ormonde-Ottewill, who delivered another excellent cross into the penalty area. However, on this occasion there was no recipient and the opportunity was wasted.
Steve Gatting, who made over 300 league appearances for Brighton as a player, then made a double change, with Glen Kamara and Tyrell Robinson entering the fray in place of Pleguezuelo and Zelalem.
Both players were called upon to aid Arsenal’s defensive effort in the closing stages as Brighton cranked up the pressure- with Jimmy Muitt, one of Brighton’s substitutes, shooting wide.
Gnabry squandered a good opportunity following more sterling work from Crowley, with Robinson then nearly reaching another splendid ball in from Ormonde-Ottewill.
Iwobi saw a shot deflected over in the dying stages and that proved to be the final meaningful action in a game that had been rather short of incident.
Arsenal certainly won’t mind, though, and they will merely be delighted to have returned to winning ways. Zelalem showed some encouraging signs, despite being deployed predominantly on the right flank, whilst the defence was impressive, with centre-backs O’Connor and George Dobson redeeming themselves following some indifferent performances recently.
The young Gunners have two games remaining this season, against Bolton Wanderers and Wolverhampton Wanderers.