FA Youth Cup third round
Arsenal 2 (Balogun, Swanson) Northampton Town 0
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park
Despite being deprived of the services of three of their standout players, Arsenal U18s still managed to make it through to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Northampton Town tonight.
Folarin Balogun and Zak Swanson were on the scoresheet for Ken Gillard’s side, but Arsenal will know that they will face even tougher tests as the competition goes on, especially in the next round, when, intriguingly, they will take on either Millwall or Tottenham Hotspur.
There were some impressive performances for Arsenal, with Matt Smith and Ben Cottrell amongst those to make a major impact.
Gillard was without Tyreece John-Jules and Bukayo Saka, who are likely to be involved with the first-team against Qarabag tomorrow, while winger Xavier Amaechi remains injured.
The Arsenal coach made some notable selection decisions, with Karl Hein starting ahead of Arthur Okonkwo in goal and Zak Swanson being preferred to Joel Lopez at left-back.
Both of those choices were vindicated, with Hein and Swanson both performing admirably, suggesting that they are likely to retain their places for the next round.
Three schoolboys – Yunus Musah, Mazeed Ogungbo and Miguel Azeez – were named on the bench, with the first two proceeding to enter the fray in the second half.
Daley Campbell-McGuinness-Spencer Adams-Swanson
Subs: Ogungbo (for Spencer-Adams), Musah (for Greenwood), Lopez (for Swanson) Not used: Okonkwo, Azeez.
Arsenal started brightly with Trae Coyle’s cross finding defender Mark McGuinness, who was up from the back, but his header was off target.
It quickly became apparent that this game wouldn’t be a walkover, with Northampton demonstrating excellent determination to cause numerous problems for Arsenal.
Arsenal still managed to create the majority of the chances in the first half, with the lively Sam Greenwood having a shot saved by Bradley Lashley.
The young Gunners twice had to be alert to cut out the danger at the back, with Vontae Daley-Campbell and Bayli Spencer-Adams making important interventions, but eventually Gillard’s team managed to take the lead.
It came as little surprise that Balogun was the scorer, with the striker having been in prolific form for the U18s this season.
Following a well-worked move, Balogun was on hand to slot home comfortably past Lashley.
Northampton sought to get back into the game immediately and put Arsenal under intense pressure in the closing stages of the first-half, but they were unable to pull level, with Hein making an impressive save in the process.
In the second half Cottrell, who has been impressive in the league this season, was starting to become increasingly influential, and the winger did well to find Balogun, who shot over on this occasion.
Northampton had a couple of efforts as they looked to equalise, and Arsenal were then dealt a further blow as Spencer-Adams suffered an injury that caused him to be replaced by Ogungbo.
Greenwood had a free-kick saved but that proved to be the former Sunderland attacker’s final meaningful involvement before he was replaced by the highly-rated Musah.
Eventually, Arsenal effectively made sure of the victory as Swanson found the net and, although there was an element of fortune about the goal, the versatile youngster deserved to cap off an impressive display by scoring.
Swanson seemingly attempted to cross the ball but it ended up looping over Lashley before going into the net.
Summer signing Joel Lopez was then sent on in place of Swanson and Arsenal managed to see the game out with their two-goal lead intact despite Northampton missing an inviting opportunity to score.
Overall, it wasn’t a vintage performance from Arsenal but there were plenty of encouraging signs as they look to go one better than last season, when they were thrashed in the final by Chelsea.
Full-backs Daley-Campbell and Swanson were largely impressive, while the excellent Smith dictated the pattern of play with some superb passes.
Greenwood, meanwhile, caught the eye in the first half before fading, and Balogun was a constant nuisance to the Northampton defence.
Musah made one barnstorming run that demonstrated just why he is so highly regarded, Lopez also looked assured when he came on and Hein will be pleased to have kept a clean sheet in his first involvement in this prestigious competition.
On the negative side, Trae Coyle failed to make much of an impact and there is some concern about the lack of progress made by a player who was so impressive as a schoolboy.
Midfielder James Olayinka was also not at his best and is often guilty of taking too many risks in midfield.
When it is considered, though, that Amaechi, Saka and John-Jules could feature later in the competition, Arsenal may well be able to enjoy a lengthy run.