U21 Premier League- Arsenal 1 (Malen (pen)) Aston Villa 2
By Jeorge Bird @Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Perhaps it was to be expected that an Arsenal U21 side deprived of many of their key assets would be unable to prevail against an Aston Villa team containing the likes of Jack Grealish and Adama Traore, but it was the manner of this defeat that will have been especially frustrating for the young Gunners.
Both of Villa’s goals were gifted to them, with Jerell Sellars putting the visitors ahead after Glen Kamara failed to provide adequate protection to the back four, before Rushain Hepburn-Murphy scored what proved to be the winner late on following a weak kick out by Arsenal goalkeeper Ryan Huddart.
Arsenal had briefly been on level terms after substitute Donyell Malen found the net from the penalty spot, but this ultimately turned out to be a disappointing day for Steve Gatting’s side, who had much possession without managing to create many clear-cut opportunities.
The team news was intriguing, with Alex Iwobi, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chris Willock all left out of the squad, suggesting that at least one of them will be with the first-team this evening.
Reiss Nelson and Marcus Agyei-Tabi were drafted in for their first call-ups at this level, with Nelson starting the game despite having only turned 16 recently.
Meanwhile, Tafari Moore returned from injury, whilst Huddart was given a rare start in goal.
Subs: Malen (for Nelson, 46), Sheaf (for Moore, 60), Robinson (for Crowley, 82). Not used: Macey, Agyei-Tabi.
Arsenal started brightly and had an inviting opportunity to open the scoring early on when Stephy Mavididi surged towards goal and crossed for Kaylen Hinds, but the latter couldn’t find the target.
Marc Bola, charging forwards from left back, then had a shot saved after the tenacious Ismael Bennacer did well to dispossess Grealish in midfield.
Soon Villa would come into the game, however, with Huddart having to make an impressive save to thwart the on-rushing Hepburn-Murphy.
Arsenal were enjoying the majority of possession, though, with Crowley, playing against his former club, appearing significantly sharper than he has done in recent weeks.
The England youth international did well to find Mavididi, who in turn located Nelson. The winger’s shot was fierce but Villa goalkeeper Bradley Watkins was able to parry.
Nelson, who certainly didn’t seem fazed by the step up in quality at this level, was denied again shortly afterwards, and it seemed as if it would only be a matter of time before Arsenal took the lead.
Instead, quite the opposite occurred, with Kamara neglecting his defensive duties and allowing Villa to maraud through midfield. The ball was eventually worked to Sellars, who sent his effort beyond the reach of Huddart.
Arsenal sought to respond instantly through Mavididi, whose effort was saved, but Villa nearly doubled their advantage when, with gaping holes appearing in the Arsenal midfield again, Hepburn-Murphy was presented with a chance to score, although the striker’s effort lacked conviction.
Hinds then squandered another presentable opportunity at the other end, with the 17-year-old failing to convert after Mavididi found him again.
Villa ended the half in the ascendancy, with Traore, Hepburn-Murphy and Grealish all having chances to find the net. Arsenal, in the end, were grateful for the half-time whistle despite having dominated for much of the opening period.
Nelson had been impressive on his U21 debut, but the youngster suffered an injury late in the first-half and was replaced by Malen at the start of the second period.
The Dutch forward has made quite an impact since breaking into the U21 squad and he was heavily involved in Arsenal’s build-up play on this occasion.
The second-half was significantly less free-flowing than the first, with neither side managing to create many clear cut opportunities.
Villa did have a chance to score, however, when Traore worked his way into the penalty area only to fire well over when well placed.
Bennacer then shot over, but for so long it seemed as if Arsenal would have nothing to show for their intricate possession-based game.
That changed when Mavididi, who had moved out to the right flank, drove towards goal and was brought down in the area.
A penalty was awarded, with the coaching staff deliberating over whether Crowley or Malen should be the player to take the spot-kick. The responsibility fell to Malen, who finished emphatically to make it 1-1.
Crowley, who was becoming a little fatigued, was then withdrawn, but another twist was still to come.
Firstly Lewis Kinsella, who was on Arsenal’s books as a schoolboy, fired well over.
Then, with the clock ticking down towards full time, Huddart’s goal kick was under-hit and Villa took full advantage, with Hepburn-Murphy scoring what proved to be a late winner.
After starting the season in such emphatic fashion, victories have been rather more difficult to come by for Arsenal U21s in recent weeks. The absence of the likes of Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide was keenly felt, and promotion back to the top tier of second-string football is far from secure.