By Nik Brumsack at Underhill
Arsenal Under-21s claimed their first win of the elite group stage on Monday night with a comfortable 2-0 win over Southampton.
A goal in either half from Kyle Ebecilio and Chuba Akpom was the difference on a freezing cold evening at Underhill.
After showing glimpses of their undoubted talent during the first five games since the winter break, this was a professional performance from Arsenal's youngsters that will have pleased Steve Gatting.
The manager made five changes from the side that had battled back to earn a point against West Bromwich Albion last time out.
Jernade Meade and Ebecilio both made their first appearances of 2013 after recovering from long-term injuries, with Sanchez Watt, sidelined since late last year, named on the bench. Elsewhere, Damian Martinez was recalled in goal and there were starts for Kris Olsson and Serge Gnabry, two of the NextGen side that defeated Inter Milan on Wednesday.
Nico Yennaris, the matchwinner in that game, lined up alongside Conor Henderson and Olsson in central midfield, with Martin Angha and Elton Monteiro - both impressive in Milan - the central defensive pairing.
It was the visitors, kicking down the slope, that started the brighter, forcing a series of early corners from kick-off. Jake Sinclair had the first effort of the game, swivelling in the area before sending in a goalbound shot that Monteiro quickly closed down.
But, in freezing conditions, Arsenal, and Gnabry in particular, began to grow into the game.
The Germany youth international fired a warning shot 10 minutes in, twisting and turning away from two challenges before shooting at Paulo Gazzaniga.
Then, three minutes later, he played a big role in the game’s opening goal.
The 17-year-old won the ball just inside the Southampton half before darting at goal and feeding Yennaris 25 yards out. The captain looked up and slipped the ball into the path of the onrushing Ebecilio, who confidently fizzed a shot beyond Gazzaniga into the bottom corner.
It was a rare moment of sharp and incisive play in what was a largely scrappy opening.
The goal gave Gatting’s side confidence, with Angha and Henderson both coming close to freeing Akpom. When the striker did go through on goal, he could only shoot over when well placed inside the area.
Ebecilio then missed a good opportunity to net his second of the game, shooting over from Gnabry’s precise low centre.
With Southampton unable to break through a midfield inspired by the tenacious and committed Yennaris, Arsenal will perhaps have been slightly frustrated not to make more chances themselves.
When the visitors did force a chance at the end of the half, the lively De Ridder shot just wide of Martinez’s near post after cutting in from the left.
Arsenal started the second period positively, with both Olsson and Akpom shooting off target in the opening stages. And after 56 minutes, they doubled their lead.
Jordan Wynter’s long ball was inadvertently cushioned into the path of Akpom by Jack Stephens. Finding himself clean through, the striker demonstrated the composure that had seen him net six times in his previous five appearances, taking his time before opening his body to slide a shot beyond Gazzaniga.
"Southampton were unable to break through a midfield inspired by the tenacious and committed Yennaris"
Aided by the slope and with the wind behind their backs, Arsenal set about grabbing a third. Angha shot over before Akpom was dispossessed in a dangerous area.
The second goal had set about a change in Southampton’s outlook. They forced men forward in a bid to salvage something from the game but, in doing so, left themselves open to counter-attacks. Unfortunately for Arsenal, Gnabry and Akpom, who showed flashes of their ability all evening, were denied by their own hesitancy in possession and last-ditch defending from the opposition.
Meade and Ebecilio were replaced 20 minutes from time, having both performed well on their return to the team.
Substitute Sam McQueen came close to pulling a goal back with 15 minutes to go, but Martinez saved well at the Southampton striker’s feet.
The goalkeeper seemed determined to maintain his clean sheet, and also saved well from De Ridder in the closing stages as Arsenal comfortably held on to secure a welcome victory.
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