Arsenal U18s left it late to overcome their Reading counterparts in an enthralling encounter at London Colney on Saturday, but, when the dust finally settled on proceedings, the performances of Reiss Nelson and hat-trick hero Donyell Malen were the standout features to take away from the game.
Arsenal ran out 4-3 victors, with Nelson’s effort added to by a trio of goals from Malen, and the two players, who have fostered an impressive understanding in recent weeks, were rampant as the young Gunners secured their first victory at this level since September.
As the scoreline suggests, there were some negatives to reflect on too, with Arsenal, as is often the case at this level, struggling defensively.
However, the performances of Nelson and Malen offered hope to suggest that there may well be something to look forward to with regards to the club’s youth set-up after a week in which the academy has been strongly criticised.
Coach Frans de Kat made several changes to the side that drew with Aston Villa last week. Nathan Tella, normally a winger, started at right-back in the absence of Jordi Osei-Tutu, whilst Ilias Chatzitheodoridis came back into the side at the expense of Kostas Pileas. Yassin Fortune, meanwhile, started in place of Ismael Bennacer.
Tella-Da Graca-T. Bola-Chatzitheodoridis
Subs: Perrin, Pileas, Nketiah, J. Willock.
Arsenal started brightly, with a neat passing move culminating in Nelson finding Aaron Eyoma, who saw his effort blocked. The ball eventually came back out to Nelson, who scored via the aid of the crossbar.
The schoolboy, who could be involved in the UEFA Youth League fixture away to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, then came close to doubling his tally when he was found by Malen, but the youngster’s effort went just wide on this occasion.
Nelson and Malen then provided further evidence of their blossoming understanding, with the England youth international unlocking the Reading defence with a precise long pass to locate the Dutch striker. Malen controlled the ball well and showed impressive awareness to evade his marker before finishing adroitly.
Reading would then start to come into the game, however, and they reduced the deficit through Ryan East after their initial effort had struck the crossbar. The visitors evidently made the most of the fact that Tella was being played out of position.
Arsenal’s two goal advantage was back intact early in the second-half, however, as Malen chased down a defensive mistake and finished well to make it 3-1.
The drama showed no signs of abating, with Reading striker Sam Smith capitalising on some static defending to score Reading’s second goal.
Matters then went from bad to worse with Kristopher Da Graca committing yet another error, this time conceding a penalty, with Joshua Barratt getting the better of Ryan Huddart to level matters.
There was still time for Arsenal to find the net again, though, and it was fitting that it was Malen, after such an impressive performance, who scored the decisive goal. The striker’s effort was his best of the game as, after being located by Eyoma, he finished extremely well from a difficult angle.
It is true that there is still much work to do with regards to the Arsenal youth set-up, but the displays of Malen and, especially, Nelson suggest that at least some things are being done correctly.