U21 Premier League
Arsenal 1 (Zelalem 86) Fulham 0
By Jeorge Bird @ Emirates Stadium
Arsenal U21s started their new league campaign against Fulham this evening with a new-look side on show, but it was the club’s most experienced player at this level, Gedion Zelalem, who proved to be the difference between the two sides, with the talented midfielder scoring a late winner to cap off a fine individual performance.
For much of the game this had threatened to be a missed opportunity for the Arsenal youngsters as they dominated proceedings but, mirroring an accusation that has often been levelled at the first-team, they often failed to convert their possession into goals.
There was much to admire about Arsenal’s attacking play, with Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Alex Iwobi both impressing in patches. Neither player quite lived up to their performances in the Emirates Cup, but they still figured prominently against a Fulham side who, whilst resolute defensively, also posed a threat on the counter-attack.
Arsenal’s defence managed to stand firm, however, with the central-defensive partnership of Krystian Bielik and Julio Pleguezuelo remaining sturdy.
Coach Steve Gatting surprisingly elected to deploy Bielik at centre-back rather than in defensive-midfield, with Stefan O’Connor named amongst the substitutes. Meanwhile, there was a first call-up at this level for striker Yassin Fortune, who made his debut in the second-half.
Subs: Fortune (for Mavididi), Eyoma (for Reine-Adelaide). Not used: Iliev, O’Connor, Mourgos.
Whilst Arsenal were playing their first league fixture of the campaign, Fulham had already started their season with a victory, so Gatting’s side were aware that getting three points wouldn’t be straightforward this evening.
The young Gunners made much of the early running in front of a small Emirates crowd, with Stephy Mavididi heading wide from Tafari Moore’s cross before Zelalem did well to work space for himself only to direct his effort straight at Fulham goalkeeper Jesse Joronen.
A full Finnish international who has played for Fulham’s first-team, Joronen put his relative experience to good use as he made several impressive saves to thwart Arsenal throughout the course of the evening.
Arsenal managed to keep the ball well but were often over intricate in their build-up play. On one occasion Sheaf found Iwobi with a clever pass, with the winger in turn finding the on-rushing Bola. The Hale End product delivered a fine cross but unfortunately there was no recipient waiting in the penalty area.
Fulham responded, with their captain Dean O’Halloran shooting wide, but Arsenal continued to create the vast majority of the chances, with Sheaf and Mavididi both coming close to finding the net.
At times Arsenal’s play was sublime, with Zelalem, Reine-Adelaide and Iwobi all combining to excellent effect on one occasion, although the latter could only force a corner with his subsequent shot.
Reine-Adelaide was initially deployed as an attacking-midfielder but squandered possession on a couple of occasions in the early stages and appeared to be more suited to playing on the left flank when he switched there in the second-half.
Somehow, despite Arsenal’s dominance, the game remained goalless at the interval. Fulham made an audacious attempt to score direct from the second-half kick-off, but, having survived that scare, Arsenal soon began to click into gear and they appeared to play with more purpose and cohesion in the second period.
A slick multi-pass move culminated in Iwobi having a shot saved, then, after he received the ball from Moore, Reine-Adelaide spun quickly and forced Joronen to tip his effort over the crossbar.
Fulham posed an occasional threat to Matt Macey’s goal, but Joronen was by far the busier goalkeeper, as he was called into action again to deny Sheaf and Reine-Adelaide.
Arsenal introduced Fortune, who was so impressive in the U19s’ recent success in South Africa, and the forward dragged a shot wide of the far post shortly after being brought on.
Iwobi then forced another save from Joronen and, by that point, some of the supporters had headed for the exits with time running out for an Arsenal goal.
The goal would eventually come, however, and it was fitting that Zelalem was the scorer. The midfielder was hugely impressive in the first-half and, although he was slightly less influential in the second period, the United States U20 international was still the initiator of many of Arsenal’s attacking moves.
On this occasion he was involved in another sublime move as he made a darting run into the penalty area and finished expertly.
It was anticipated that this season will be the one in which Zelalem manages to demonstrate his undoubted talent on a consistent basis. He has made an excellent start on that front, with his performance tonight showing why it would be churlish to write off his chances of making the grade at Arsenal even when the considerable competition for places in Arsenal’s midfield is taken into account.
As far as the team as a whole is concerned, this will go down as a largely positive performance, supported by the fact that the young Gunners remained relatively untroubled defensively throughout. Arsenal made good use of full-backs Moore and Bola, who were both dangerous going forwards, although the service to Mavididi, who was later withdrawn, could have been of a higher standard.
This may be U21 football, but Arsenal’s oldest outfield player tonight was 19 years old, which is representative of the club’s policy of pushing youngsters into second-string football at an early age.
After excelling at Emirates, another home game awaits next week against Derby County, this time at Boreham Wood, as Gatting’s team continue their quest to earn promotion back to the top tier of U21 football.