U21 Premier League- Division 2
Arsenal 1 West Bromwich Albion 2
By Jeorge Bird@Meadow Park
Jack Wilshere scored his first goal in almost a year, but it wasn’t sufficient to prevent Arsenal U21s from seeing their title hopes go up in flames as they were beaten 2-1 by a spirited West Bromwich Albion side at Meadow Park this evening.
A victory would have seen Steve Gatting’s side gain automatic promotion to the top tier of second-string football, but now Arsenal must go through the play-offs if they are to get out of this division.
The sight of Wilshere completing 90 minutes was one positive to take from proceedings, with the midfielder catching the eye in the second period after struggling to have much of an influence in the first-half.
Both of West Brom’s goals stemmed from errors from Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Macey, who failed to stop efforts from Joe Ward and Samir Nabi.
Arsenal fielded a strong side but their cause wasn’t helped by Gatting’s rather bizarre decision to deploy Serge Gnabry as a central striker. The German youth international has impressed in that position in the past but on this occasion he struggled to exert much of an influence on proceedings.
Subs: Huddart, O’Connor, Malen, Hinds, Nelson.
Arsenal, knowing that a victory would secure the title, adopted an attack minded approach from the outset, with full-backs Chiori Johnson and Tafari Moore pushing forwards with regularity.
Moore had Arsenal’s first attempt of the game as his effort was deflected for a corner and then Wilshere played a slick pass into the path of Gnabry, whose finish lacked conviction.
Despite Arsenal’s dominance, it was West Brom, rather against the run of play, who would take the lead, with Joe Ward tucking home after Macey struggled to hold an earlier attempt.
That setback caused Arsenal to push forwards even more, with Gnabry, Johnson and Moore all shooting wide.
Jeff Reine-Adelaide was starting to have a major impact on proceedings as he drifted infield to good effect, but Arsenal still lacked conviction in an attacking sense.
Wilshere played a neat backheel into the path of Reine-Adelaide, but the Frenchman couldn’t find the net. Reine-Adelaide was then dragged down in the area but, much to his frustration, the referee waved play on.
West Brom had a chance to extend their advantage just prior to the break when Krystian Bielik needlessly squandered possession, but the prospect quickly atoned for his error by recovering well to win the ball back.
West Brom started the second half very well, with Bielik forced into making a goal-line clearance, but Arsenal soon managed to gain a foothold in the game.
It was Wilshere, the most experienced player on the field, who would prove to be the young Gunners’ source of inspiration as he finished expertly to level the scoreline.
Arsenal then went for the jugular, with Sheaf shooting over and Dan Crowley, who was growing into the game, then seeing his attempt deflect wide.
Sheaf and Gnabry had further efforts, but, try as they might, a second goal continued to elude Arsenal.
Gatting brought on Donyell Malen for Marcus McGuane in an attack-minded change, but, crucially, it was West Brom who would score the decisive goal, with Samir Nabi finishing adroitly and Macey’s actions once again questionable.
Arsenal threw on Reiss Nelson and Kaylen Hinds, but there was a feeling that their chance to secure the title had already passed, and so it proved as West Brom held on for victory.
The play-offs now await and it cannot be stressed enough how crucial those fixtures are for Arsenal as it would be extremely beneficial for these youngsters to test themselves against a higher calibre of opposition.
Wilshere’s return, however, provided a silver lining on a dark night.