By Jeorge Bird at Meadow Park.
Arsenal U21s fell to their first defeat of the season as they were beaten 1-0 by a well-organised Stoke City side at Meadow Park this evening.
The young Gunners, who were in action at this level for the first time in almost two months, continued to probe throughout, with wide players Chris Willock and Dan Crowley providing the most significant threats to the Stoke goal.
In the end, however, it was a Stoke side containing an Arsenal youth graduate of their own in 32-year-old Steve Sidwell who prevailed on a bitterly cold evening. The goal came after Stoke capitalised on a rare error from Arsenal captain Julio Pleguezuelo, with the highly regarded Oliver Shenton providing the finishing touch.
One of the most notable aspects of the game was the teamsheet. Firstly it contained the name of Alex Iwobi, who has been heavily involved with the first-team in recent weeks, whilst fellow winger Jeff Reine-Adelaide wasn’t involved, suggesting he may be on the bench for Arsene Wenger’s side against West Bromwich Albion tomorrow.
Coach Steve Gatting made some rather strange selection decisions. With Tafari Moore out injured, Ben Sheaf was deployed at right-back, whilst Iwobi started in a deep-lying midfield position with Crowley out wide.
It hardly helped the cohesiveness of the side, although there was a positive moment in the second-half when promising striker Donyell Malen was introduced for his U21 debut.
Subs: Bennacer (for Iwobi, 46), Malen (for Hinds, 73). Not used: Huddart, O’Connor, Eyoma.
Stoke winger Mohamed El Ouiraichi was immediately identified as the away side’s biggest threat, with the former Barcelona player regularly attempting to get the better of Sheaf.
Arsenal were reliant on resilient defending from Pleguezuelo and Krystian Bielik in the early stages, whilst Macey had to be alert to gather a free-kick as Stoke started the game in impressive fashion.
Arsenal were rampant in the corresponding fixture last season, with Iwobi striking a hat-trick in a memorable victory at Emirates Stadium.
On this occasion Arsenal looked to Willock and Crowley as their primary sources of inspiration, with the England youth internationals providing a reminder of their undoubted quality.
Crowley, for instance, cut inside and had an effort saved after Glen Kamara did well to win the ball back, with Willock then teeing up a chance for Stephy Mavididi, who shot wide.
Willock and Crowley then both came close to scoring with efforts of their own, with Stoke left-back Joel Taylor then making an immaculately timed challenge to prevent Arsenal from edging closer to goal.
Despite Arsenal’s attacking threat, however, it was Stoke who would score what would prove to be the game’s only goal. Pleguezuelo, who was otherwise excellent, misplaced an attempted pass and Stoke were quick to seize upon the error, with the ball eventually being worked to Shenton, whose effort was beyond the reach of Macey.
Arsenal attempted to stage an immediate response, with Mavididi having an effort saved after he was found by Iwobi and Willock subsequently shooting over, but the young Gunners went into the break a goal down.
Arsenal made an alteration at the start of the second period, with Ismael Bennacer replacing Iwobi.
Arsenal continued to carve out chances with regularity, with Pleguezuelo seeking to make amends with a header only for his effort to go just over the target.
Willock and Crowley were both denied once more as Arsenal struggled to make a breakthrough, with Stoke soon resorting to physical challenges in an attempt to stop Gatting’s side from mustering any sort of momentum.
Malen was brought on in place of Hinds, with the young Dutchman taking up a position on the right flank, enabling Crowley and Willock to alternate in the attacking midfield position. El Ouiraichi, meanwhile, continued to provide a threat for Stoke.
Sheaf, perhaps understandably, struggled at right-back, but he still provided a set from set-pieces, with his free-kick finding Mavididi, whose header went wide.
Macey had to make a good stop at the other end, but Arsenal were running out of time to preserve their immaculate start to the season.
Malen saw a couple of crosses gathered, then Crowley attempted to go for individual glory with a lofted effort, but Stoke goalkeeper Daniel Gyollai claimed the ball.
It was a night of frustration for Arsenal, with several players struggling to perform at their usual level. The situation wasn’t helped, however, by Gatting’s bizarre selection.
Jordi Osei-Tutu, the regular right-back for the U18s, surely could have filled in there tonight, whilst Iwobi would have been more effective out wide and Crowley should have been used centrally.
The performance of Willock, though, was rather encouraging, as he showcased his uncanny ability to find space in difficult situations, whilst Macey, perhaps provided with a confidence boost following his first-team exertions, was impressive in goal. Crowley, meanwhile, was impressive at times but also squandered possession too easily on occasion.
Other than that there weren’t too many positives to take from the game from an Arsenal perspective, and it is hoped that the young Gunners will fare rather better in their next fixture away to Brighton & Hove Albion later this month.