Premier League 2
Arsenal 4 (Saka 22, Nketiah 25, 90, Willock 79) Liverpool 0
By Jeorge Bird @Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Arsenal’s ascent under the guidance of Freddie Ljungberg continued tonight with a 4-0 victory over Liverpool that wasn’t quite as emphatic as the scoreline suggests.
The young Gunners found themselves under sustained pressure for significant periods of the game, with goalkeeper Deyan Iliev making some splendid stops and defender Danny Ballard clearing the ball off the line on one occasion.
However, when the opportunity did present itself for Arsenal to push forwards, they often took it, with Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah especially effective.
Saka scored his first goal at this level on just his second start, while the prolific Nketiah hit a brace and Joe Willock, who is continuing to make great strides under Ljunbgerg’s guidance, also got on the scoresheet.
Arsenal are now top of the Premier League 2 table, albeit having played a game more than the majority of the other sides in the division, and another title tilt seems a very real possibility.
Ljungberg was again unable to call upon Emile Smith Rowe, who made his debut for the first-team last night, while Charlie Gilmour was missing through suspension. Julio Pleguezuelo and Nketiah, however, came back into the starting lineup.
Subs: Olowu (for Pleguezuelo, 48), M. Smith (for Burton, 74), Omole (for Olayinka, 89). Not used: Coyle, Hein.
Liverpool demonstrated their attacking intent early on and won a free-kick which left-back Adam Lewis curled wide.
Iliev then had to react quickly to keep out Rafael Camacho’s effort as the visitors looked to take an early lead.
Rather against the run of play, however, it was Arsenal who opened the scoring, with the ever-lively Saka getting his first goal at this level as he finished adroitly following impressive work from Nketiah in the build-up.
Shortly afterwards it was 2-0 and this time Nketiah got on the scoresheet himself, with the striker finishing calmly from close range as he stakes a claim for involvement against Brentford in the Carabao Cup next week.
Arsenal still found themselves under pressure at the other end, though, with Zech Medley, for instance, having to react quickly to cut out the danger.
When Arsenal did start to take control of the game for a period Saka was at the very forefront of proceedings, with the winger’s teasing crosses causing havoc in the Liverpool defence.
One such delivery found Tyreece John-Jules, whose effort was deflected wide, and another cross from Saka then picked out Willock, but the midfielder’s attempt was saved by Kamil Grabara.
Arsenal went into the break in the ascendancy but they suffered a setback early in the second half when captain Julio Pleguezuelo picked up an injury that led to him being replaced by Joseph Olowu.
The timing of the injury is quite unfortunate for Pleguezuelo, who previously was in pole position to at least make the bench against Brentford. It remains to be seen whether he will be fit enough to feature in that game.
Liverpool looked to take advantage of Arsenal’s reshuffle as they frequently asked questions of the Gunners’ defence.
On one occasion Ballard cleared the ball off the line, with Iliev also making some notable stops, including one from Lazar Markovic, who was largely disappointing.
Arsenal then brought on Matt Smith in place of Robbie Burton and became a more cohesive unit as a consequence, with the midfielder, who made his U23s debut against Blackburn Rovers this week, playing some slick passes and coming close to scoring himself when he headed over following yet another cross from Saka.
It was then 3-0, with Willock making an excellent run, as he has become accustomed to doing this season, prior to scoring. Saka, again emphasising his influence on the game, was the architect.
John-Jules shot over but there was still time for Arsenal to add further gloss to the scoreline. Nketiah got the goal but much praise must go to Olowu, who performed an impressive skill move before finding the striker.
Victory was sealed, and Arsenal have now gone five games unbeaten in the league under Ljungberg, winning three of them.
There are evidently still improvements to be made, and Ljungberg won’t be happy with the lack of protection provided by Arsenal’s midfielders to the defenders.
However, there were also plenty of positive signs. Nketiah is continuing to score, which is no surprise at all, while Willock is progressing extremely well and becoming a much more rounded player than he was previously.
Centre-backs Ballard and Medley also deserve much praise, but it is Saka who generated the most excitement.
Technically a first-year scholar, the 17-year-old has slotted in seamlessly at U23 level, as evidenced by the fact that he has one goal and three assists in his six appearances so far.
There is much more to come from Saka, and the injury to Xavier Amaechi is set to present him with an opportunity to establish himself as a regular in the starting lineup over the next few months.