First-half goals from Reiss Nelson and Edward Nketiah were not enough to give Arsenal u23s a winning finish to their 2016/17 Premier League 2 campaign as United clawed back two goals to salvage a draw.
A much improved second-half showing from the visitors proved pivotal as they rampaged forward at speed and took advantage of Arsenal’s wastefulness, having created many opportunities.
Steve Gatting made a few surprise inclusions within the starting eleven including Savvas Mourgos and Glen Kamara – very much forgotten men at u23 level. Chiori Johnson started at centre-back while Nketiah lead the forward line for the first time in 2017.
Arsenal’s XI (4-2-3-1): Macey; Jenkinson, Johnson, Sheaf, Bramall; Kamara, Maitland-Niles; Willock, Nelson (J. Willock, HT), Mourgos (Dragomir, 84′); Nketiah (Malen, HT).
Both sides started relatively slowly in the opening exchanges but United came close to breaking the deadlock after five minutes. After good work down the flank by Joshua Bohui, Josh Harrop forced Matt Macey into an important low stop to keep the scores level.
Players were keen to zip the ball across the Emirates turf but the final pass was often too heavy or inaccurate as groans reverberated around the stadium with supporters gradually becoming impatient.
18 minutes in, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s loose touch in defence was almost punished as he was dispossessed by Mourgos. Seconds later, Nketiah found himself through in the area after a smart pass from Ainsley Maitland-Niles but the forward failed to get convincing connection on the eventual shot as it trickled wide of the far post.
Minutes later, Mourgos had a golden opportunity to open the scoring after being teed up by Nketiah inside the box. He evaded Borthwick-Jackson but crucially, lacked composure and dragged his effort wide after some promising build-up play.
Matthew Willock curled a well-drilled shot narrowly wide after a blistering run forward by Matthew Olosunde and that was United’s final chance of note in the first 45.
Arsenal meanwhile, buoyed by the regularity of chances being created, were becoming settled. Chris Willock had been complaining and spending far too much time on the turf in the first half-hour but his contribution helped create the opener.
Evading the attentions of both Harrop and Olosunde on the left, he spotted the overlapping run of Cohen Bramall and released an inviting pass for the fullback to latch onto. Bramall’s blistering speed meant he was never going to be caught down the flank and showed good vision to fizz the ball across goal where Nelson was lurking unmarked. In the perfect place at the right time to slide home from close-range, Reiss netted his sixth u23 goal of the campaign and it had been coming.
United were second best for large periods in the first-half and couldn’t cope with Bramall as he marauded forward once more three minutes later. He left Olosunde guessing his next move this time before teeing up Nketiah, who was visibly calling for the ball at his feet.
Having already missed a few chances, you could excuse the 17-year-old for trying to play it safe. Nketiah’s self-belief prevailed here and after neatly skipping his marker in the box, he fired into the bottom corner with aplomb. Two-nil up and Arsenal deserved their lead heading into the interval. United had produced moments of quality infrequently but you could tell they wouldn’t be as lacklustre after the break.
What a difference two substitutions can make.
Both goalscorers, Nelson and Nketiah, didn’t emerge after the interval and fan reactions told the story. Most were genuinely surprised, a few confused and some hoping the stadium announcer had made a mistake as two of the side’s best attacking players had been replaced with an eye focused on Tuesday evening’s crucial u18 fixture against Chelsea: if they win their next two matches, they’ll clinch this season’s league title.
Joe Willock and Donyell Malen came on in their place and despite an encouraging start to the second-half, you could tell the difference soon enough. United grew as the match continued and tiredness became a factor, especially in defence with both Jenkinson and Johnson visibly struggling towards the latter stages after a heavy defensive shift.
Macey was forced into action on a number of occasions to deny the much-improved Reds. Olosunde’s powerful header was tipped over the crossbar, a minute after Willock’s close-range strike forced a good save with Arsenal under pressure.
Harrop halved the deficit with just under 20 minutes to go and this certainly made for a frantic finish to proceedings. Macey was unsighted and deceived by the flight of the ball as it swerved and bounced just before he could get hands to it.
Up the other end, Malen’s excellent touch and swivel helped create a goal-scoring opportunity. He won a contentious penalty after being hauled down by Tyrell Warren, though replays showed contact was on the edge of the box. Justice was thereby served as Kieran O’Hara made an excellent save to thwart the Dutchman’s spot-kick.
The stop was a great one and seemed to drive further belief back into United’s minds that they could snatch a result from this game.
Macey made two further saves to keep Arsenal’s lead intact for the meantime, but an equaliser proved inevitable and came in cruel circumstances. Harrop’s attempted cross deflected past Macey off Johnson and Arsenal’s two-goal cushion had vanished within ten minutes.
Vlad Dragomir was a late sub and showed why he should’ve been introduced much earlier as the hosts looked to reclaim the lead at the death but O’Hara made another good low save and it was ultimately not to be despite Malen and Maitland-Niles both going close afterwards.
Given just how many chances were created, Arsenal should have easily run away with all three points here. Instead, they were only two goals ahead and by slowing the tempo, gave United an opportunity to respond by increasing their own intensity in search of goals.
Arsenal finish in a respectable fourth place in this season’s Premier League 2, but failure to close out matches like these highlight why a sustained title challenge was not plausible from the early weeks this term.
Just last year, the Young Guns were in Division 2 so it’s easy to forget how far they’ve progressed in such a short space of time. Nelson, Nketiah and Sheaf have excelled whilst Maitland-Niles seems more than ready for a proper senior breakthrough next season. Bramall continues to improve with experience whilst Johnson seems destined for a loan in England similar to Marc Bola’s successful experience with Notts County.
With the Willock brothers’ future still uncertain, speculation has run rampant that this could be one of their final appearances for the club. It’d be a shame to lose them and although first-team assurances could be key in contract talks, there’s always someone younger and highly-rated hungry for their chance – evidenced by the likes of Emile Smith-Rowe, Malen and the aforementioned Nelson in various age-groups this season.