Premier League 2- Division 1
Arsenal U23s 0 Reading U23s 2
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
This was supposed to be a night of significance for Arsenal’s youngsters as they participated in the first ever fixture of revamped second-string football.
However, it ultimately turned out to be a rather frustrating occasion as familiar failings resurfaced and Arsenal were beaten 2-0 by a well organised and hard working Reading side.
There were some notable inclusions in the Arsenal side, with Gedion Zelalem and Chris Willock, who featured for the first-team in pre-season, both called upon tonight. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, meanwhile, made his first appearance for Arsenal in over a year after returning from his mixed loan spell with Ipswich Town.
The most notable aspect of the Arsenal team, though, was the deployment of Ben Sheaf at centre-back. At a time when defensive options are running thin in the first-team, the same fate has befallen the U23s, with Krystian Bielik’s absence (and the departures of Julio Pleguezuelo and Stefan O’Connor on loan) meaning that Sheaf, normally a midfielder, was forced to operate at the heart of the defence.
Whilst he clearly wasn’t comfortable in that position, the 18-year-old did at least make some good interventions and appeared more assured than his central-defensive partner Kristopher Da Graca, although, in truth, that isn’t saying much.
Arsenal were all too vulnerable defensively, with full-backs Chiori Johnson and Kostas Pileas frequently getting exposed, and it seemed as if it was only a matter of time before Reading took the lead.
They did just that through Andy Rinomhota in the 70th minute before a spectacular strike from substitute Harry Caldwell ten minutes later effectively ended the game as a contest.
Bielik and Calum Chambers were watching on at Meadow Park, and how Arsenal could have done with those two players this evening. The young Gunners showed some encouraging signs in terms of their build-up play, with Zelalem, Willock and Reiss Nelson playing some slick passes, but they lacked ruthlessness in front of goal and Stephy Mavididi wasn’t able to make the most of the admittedly few chances that came his way.
There were some notable omissions from the squad, with Marc Bola, Kaylen Hinds, Aaron Eyoma, Tyrell Robinson and Savvas Mourgos all not involved. Glen Kamara, meanwhile, made the bench after his proposed loan move to Dordrecht broke down.
Nelson-Maitland Niles-C. Willock
Subs: McGuane (for Zelalem, 61), Kamara (for C. Willock, 61), Dragomir (for Bennacer, 88). Not used: Keto, T. Bola.
The opening stages were rather tight, with neither side able to make the most of the possession they had. Maitland-Niles and Zelalem, the two most experienced outfield players in the Arsenal side, saw a lot of the ball early on as Steve Gatting’s team sought to impress.
Macey, who featured for the first-team in pre-season against Lens, had to be alert to gather a couple of crosses before Arsenal made a venture down the other end with Ismael Bennacer, who was again impressive, doing well to win the ball back, although the move didn’t amount to anything of significance.
Arsenal’s side contained an abundance of creative talent yet a dearth of defensive resilience, and the latter fault was in evidence when Da Graca, who has never been especially convincing since joining the club, made a terrible error that Reading almost capitalised upon. It was Sheaf who stepped across to cut out the danger, with the former West Ham United player performing well in challenging circumstances.
Reading then had the ball in the net only to see the effort ruled out for offside. It seemed patently clear, though, that they would eventually be the side to open the scoring.
Before that eventually transpired, however, Arsenal tried their utmost to break the deadlock, with Nelson and Willock both being thwarted.
Reading came close to scoring on a couple of occasions early in the second-half, and Arsenal’s cause thereafter wasn’t helped by the withdrawal of Willock and Zelalem, who were presumably tired as a consequence of their involvement with the first-team this summer.
Marcus McGuane and Kamara entered the fray in their place, but it was Reading who wold then seize control, with Rinomhota finishing well after Macey failed to hold a previous effort.
At the other end Mavididi did tremendously well to shake off the attentions of the Reading defence, but he wasn’t able to provide the finishing touch and, with that, Arsenal’s hopes of getting something from this game vanished.
Moments later it was 2-0 and game over, with Cardwell scoring a spectacular goal to put the game beyond doubt.
There was a positive moment when the talented Vlad Dragomir entered the fray late on to make his first competitive appearance at this level, but this was a frustrating night and this result provides an indication of how challenging matters will be for Arsenal in the top tier. Next up is a trip to face Manchester City at the Etihad.