Premier League 2
West Ham 1 (Quina 82) Arsenal 3 (Nelson 20, Nketiah 27, 70)
By Jeorge Bird @London Stadium
After a season of hard graft, Arsenal U23s won the Premier League 2 title at London Stadium tonight and it seemed only fitting that Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah played major parts in proceedings.
The pair have progressed extremely well this season to the extent that they are now on the cusp of the first-team squad, but they dropped back down to the U23s tonight to help Arsenal secure the title at this level for the first time since 1990.
Arsenal knew a win would be enough for them to finish top and they managed to prevail comfortably in the end, with Nelson on the scoresheet and the prolific Nketiah hitting a brace.
The young Gunners could have had more goals but, although West Ham reduced the deficit through a fine Domingos Quina goal late on, Arsenal always looked likely to see out the win and so it proved, with the final whistle sparking jubilant celebrations amongst the players, even though they weren’t presented with the trophy on this occasion.
Arsenal were able to call upon Joe Willock in addition to Nelson and Nketiah, but Konstantinos Mavropanos remained absent due to injury, while goalkeeper Deyan Iliev was still sidelined as a consequence of receiving a kick in the face against Swansea City.
Subs: Gilmour (for Dragomir, 60), John-Jules (for Nelson, 86), Amaechi (for Smith Rowe, 86). Not used: Keto, Ballard.
In front of a small crowd in East London, Arsenal were determined to open the scoring as quickly as possible and Nketiah was typically lively as he demonstrated his excellent close control before his subsequent effort was saved by Nathan Trott.
Jordi Osei-Tutu, who has played a pivotal part in Arsenal’s title success, had to make an important block, but most of the action was occurring at the other end of the pitch, where Nelson was beginning to wreak havoc.
The playmaker, operating in his preferred number ten position, managed to burst past the West Ham defence but his shot surprisingly lacked conviction and went wide.
West Ham briefly responded with a spell of possession but Arsenal remained in control and they soon took the lead with Tolaji Bola bursting down the left flank and crossing for Nelson, who finished well.
Seven minutes later Nketiah made it 2-0 with a neat finish and that appeared to be that as far as both the game and title were concerned.
Nketiah and the impressive Emile Smith Rowe both had efforts saved before Joao Virginia, in for Iliev, made an excellent stop to preserve his clean sheet for Arsenal.
Arsenal should have added a third before the break when Nelson dribbled past Trott but, instead of going for goal himself, the youngster instead cut the ball back for Nketiah, who somehow managed to hit the crossbar from close range.
In the second half Arsenal continued to push forwards, with Willock doing well to create space for himself prior to having an effort saved.
Charlie Gilmour, whose goal against Swansea was vital in Arsenal’s title quest, replaced Vlad Dragomir, while West Ham substitute Anthony Scully lasted just ten minutes before succumbing to injury.
Arsenal then put the game beyond doubt and it was Nketiah who applied the finishing touch again following further good work from Nelson, with Josh Dasilva also involved in the build-up.
West Ham did reduce the deficit when the talented Quina finished emphatically past Virginia following a well-worked move, but it did little to alter the overall outcome of the game.
Arsenal sent on Xavier Amaechi and Tyreece John-Jules in the closing stages and the young Gunners had a goal ruled out for offside but it mattered little as shortly afterwards the final whistle blew and their dominance of the division was confirmed.
Just two years ago Arsenal were promoted from Division 2 and now they are champions of the top tier.
It is a fantastic achievement and, in addition to the players, the coaching staff, including Steve Gatting and Carl Laraman deserve immense credit, especially given that there was some skepticism surrounding their credentials when they took charge.
This is undoubtedly a very talented group of Arsenal players – Nelson, Nketiah and Willock are close to the first-team, while Dasilva, Osei-Tutu, Dragomir and Gilmour have also been involved with the senior squad in some capacity this season.
Then there is the next generation, with the likes of Smith Rowe, John-Jules and Amaechi all very exciting talents.
Many members of this squad have developed very well this campaign and it is now hoped that they will receive opportunities to impress in the first-team in due course.
It is rather inevitable that this group will be broken up next season, with some players hopefully involved with the first-team and others going on loan, but this is a time to be very excited about the Arsenal youth system, especially with there being the possibility of further trophies this season in the form of the Premier League International Cup and the FA Youth Cup.
Academies will ultimately be judged on getting players into the first-team but for now we should simply enjoy what has been a remarkable season at youth level, and one that isn’t quite finished just yet.