Arsenal U-21s 3 Bolton Wanderers U-21s 1
A new season, a new competition and new rules for the Reserves. The revamp of second string football this summer has been very refreshing. It`s an incredibly rare example of the authorities noticing a flaw, listening to the clubs and implementing the necessary changes to improve upon it. What spirit of revolution is this? Don`t football authorities realise that the only changes that are acceptable are the ones that fill the pockets of Platini and Blatter with lots of filthy lucre? Bloody hippies!
The reserve league- or the U-21 Premier League as it`s now billed, promise more regular competition in an attempt to bridge the gap between reserve football and the first team. A few promising youngsters have fallen beneath the cracks in recent years because they began to found reserve level asinine, yet struggled with league competition. Jay Emmanuel Thomas and Arturo Lupoli at Arsenal spring to mind, whilst Dani Pacheco of Liverpool has been billed as the next big thing due to his performances for Liverpool Reserves, yet has struggled on loan in the Football League.
One of the conditions of the U-21 Premier League is that at least two fixtures must be played at the home ground of the first team. So it was that only 48 hours after the opening day draw with Sunderland, we were back at Ashburton Grove to take advantage of a £3 ticket and a chance for a different view. The club opened blocks 16-20 in the East Stand Lower Tier. Sat almost directly below my upper tier season ticket seat, we arrived in the stadium shortly before kick off with the sun dipping pleasantly down below the West Stand roof to find that finding 7 seats together was an impossibility. A total of 4,347 showed up, justifying the league`s stance. The Reserves will typically play in front of a tenth of that figure at Underhill.
Terry Burton opted for a blend of youth and experience, with reserve regulars such as Nico Yennaris, Ignasi Miquel and Conor Henderson starting alongside more junior players such as Chuba Akpom, Hector Bellerin and Kristoffer Olsson. Thomas Eisfeld and Serge Gnabry started on either wing. Gnabry cut a very threatening figure and linked well with Akpom, playing as a lone striker. For a 16 year old it`s a daunting role at an unforgiving level such as this, but one he performed with maturity and strength. He linked up with Gnabry in the opening minutes. Gnabry looked to drift in from the left and constantly make a nuisance of himself. Akpom slid Gnabry through on goal but the young German sliced his shot wide.
Despite a positive start, the game was turned on its head after 26 minutes. Tom Eaves` searching ball put Chris Lester in on goal. From my vantage point he looked a bus ride offside. But the jumbotron screens did not deign to show any replays, which was disappointing. They didn`t even have the team line ups on them, which was quite a trick to miss when so many players are unfamiliar. In any case, Lester was adjudged to be onside and skipped past Damian Martinez who hauled him down. A penalty and a red card were the only recourse the referee could take. James Shea came on to replace Kristoffer Olsson and his first task was to pick the ball out of the net as Blakeman slid his penalty down the middle of the goal.
Arsenal looked slightly ruffled for the rest of the half and had James Shea to thank for keeping them in the game. Shea is 21 years old and, realistically, will be looking for a move this summer. Any scouts in the crowd could not fail to have been impressed. Firstly he showed great athleticism to tip Kelly`s swerving shot over the bar when it appeared destined for the top corner. Then he executed a terrific double save. Wolstenhome put Eaves through in the area, Shea beat out Eaves` first effort, but the rebound ran neatly to his feet, only for Shea to scrabble himself up from the ground and launch himself at Eaves` rebound. The crowd got to their feet to applaud wildly. It would prove to be a match winning interception. Boos rang around the concourses at half time as the screens showed Everton about to kick off against Manchester United. Not sure who they were booing in particular………
In the second half, Arsenal looked much more cohesive. Thomas Eisfeld drifted in field to greater effect, allowing Hector Bellerin to push up from right back and effectively play as a winger. With Bolton playing one upfront, it was a calculated risk to leave three back to mind him. It was one that worked. Arsenal equalised early in the second half, though it was via the conduit of the left hand side. Gnabry and Akpom again linked to good effect. Akpom`s low shot smacked the base of the post and came out. Thomas Eisfield, having drifted in field to support Akpom, was on hand when it did to slide the rebound into an empty net. The goal gave Arsenal belief.
It should have been 2-1 straight away as Gnabry caused havoc in field and found the run of Hector Bellerin in the area, but the young Spaniard panicked and blasted the ball miles over the bar with the goal on its knees before him. But the Gunners did take the lead on 69 minutes. Akpom earned himself a free kick after good footwork around 25 yards from goal. Conor Henderson wrapped his left foot around the free kick, curving it around the wall and into the bottom corner. By now it was a deserved lead with the twin threats of Eisfield and Gnabry causing Bolton all sorts of problems, with seemingly nobody detailed to pick either of them up and Akpom making himself a good sounding wall for their scheming.
Arsenal gift wrapped the result when Henderson`s pass found the diminutive Jernade Meade tearing into the area, he had his leg clipped by Wolstenhome. Conor Henderson stepped up and drilled the penalty into the roof of the net. Arsenal tired thereafter and Burton took off Eisfeld and Bellerin, who had motored up and down the right flank. The Trotters tried a few speculative efforts from range, but to no avail. It`s a fabulous start to the season for Burton`s boys, who showed they could adapt mentally and tactically to what became a challenging tie. They play Blackburn Rovers on Saturday afternoon at the Emirates, it`s a 2pm kickoff and tickets are only £4 if you haven`t got one already. Worth every penny. LD.
1.MARTINEZ, 2.BELLERIN (16.Angha `80), 5.MONTEIRO, 6.MIQUEL, 3.MEADE, 4.YENNARIS, 8.HENDERSON, 7.EISFELD (14.Ebecilio `73), 10.OLSSON (13.Shea `26), 11.GNABRY, 9.AKPOM. Unused: 12.Toral, 15.Jeffrey, 17.Hajrovic.