By Rob Kelly at Underhill
Arsenal Under-21s delivered a slick display full of poise and promise to return to winning ways against Reading at Underhill on Monday night.
Terry Burton’s side may have been stocked with first-team players including the impressive Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong, but it was one of the Club’s rising stars who really caught the eye.
Serge Gnabry has been hailed as a “star of the future” by Arsene Wenger and, in front of his manager, the German youth international turned in another thrilling display.
The 17-year-old opened the scoring with a well-taken strike in the 42nd minute after a flowing move involving Frimpong, Wilshere and Thomas Eisfeld - and tormented the Royals throughout.
Arsenal doubled their lead in the 59th minute when Wilshere’s corner was flicked on by Ignasi Miquel and Chuba Akpom headed home from close range.
On a hugely-positive night for the Club, Bacary Sagna completed an hour unscathed on his return from a broken leg, while there were bright performances all over the pitch from the effervescent hosts.
Burton named his most-experienced side of the season for the visit of the Royals, with Wilshere and Frimpong continuing their rehabilitation at Underhill. Having played 63 and 70 minutes respectively at West Brom last week, this would be another important stepping stone towards the first team for the midfield pair.
Elsewhere, Sagna and Andre Santos took the full-back positions, while Francis Coquelin bolstered the midfield. Having come off the bench at The Hawthorns, last week, Gnabry was also handed a starting spot, while England Under-19 international Akpom was named up front.
Reading, meanwhile, included former Arsenal goalkeeper Stuart Taylor in their starting XI, along with Niall Keown - the son of Club legend Martin. There were also places for the experienced trio of Danny Guthrie, Adam Le Fondre and Jason Roberts.
The match started brightly, with both sides moving the ball about nicely in midfield. The focus may have been on Arsenal’s more senior stars, but Gnabry looked determined to make his mark in front of the watching Wenger and came close with a curling effort in the seventh minute.
Moments later Reading came close themselves, as Roberts fed Guthrie on the edge of the area. He moved into space and curled the ball past James Shea but beyond the far post.
It was end-to-end stuff and soon afterwards the influential Frimpong fed Akpom to the left of the area. The striker did well to escape his marker by cutting back inside, but bent his shot over the bar. Soon afterwards, Wilshere found Eisfeld on the overlap on the right flank but the German midfielder’s drilled effort flew harmlessly past the far post.
With Wilshere and Frimpong much improved on their showing at The Hawthorns, Arsenal were dominant in midfield, although it was Gnabry who caught the eye most throughout the first half. Wilshere was clearly enjoying himself, and one delightful backheel to send Eisfeld clear demonstrated his increasing confidence.
For all their possession, Burton’s side struggled to fashion clear-cut chances as the half wore on, but just before the interval they made the breakthrough.
It was a goal that owed much to the tenacity and drive of Frimpong, who chased down a seemingly lost cause on the right flank. The midfielder duly claimed possession, before feeding Wilshere. The 20-year-old then found Eisfeld with a good ball, and the German moved it on to Gnabry.
There was still much work to be done, but the 17-year-old kept his composure to cut in from the right of the box and curl the ball into the far corner. It was a strike that said everything about his rich potential.
The second half almost started with a bang as Sead Hajrovic’s error allowed Le Fondre to run through on goal. He eased his way past Miquel and tried to chip the onrushing Shea but only found the goalkeeper’s hands.
Arsenal started to warm up, and had a golden chance to extend their advantage in the 55th minute as Matthew Partridge’s clearance went straight to Coquelin. The France Under-21 international fed Frimpong in the area, but with the goal gaping he could only scuff his shot wide.
It mattered not. Just four minutes later Wilshere whipped in a corner from the right, Miquel flicked it on at the near post and Akpom powered a header home from close range. It was no more than they deserved.
The goal provoked an almost instant response by Reading, and they had two big chances to halve their deficit through Roberts and Jack Taylor - but missed them both. The second opportunity in particular was as gilt-edged as they come as Taylor somehow scooped the ball over from five yards.
Roberts had another big chance in the 68th minute when he pushed aside Hajrovic to run through into the area, but curled his effort high and wide.
Sagna lasted an hour, while Wilshere eventually made way after 74 minutes, but both will have every reason to be delighted with their performances.
Slowly but surely, Arsenal’s injured stars and biggest hopes for the future are marching towards the first team. And on this evidence, we will not have long to wait until we see them there.
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