By Nik Brumsack at Silverlake Stadium
Arsenal Under-21s surrendered a one-goal lead to lose for the first time in five elite group games at Southampton on Monday night.
An encouraging start by Steve Gatting’s men was rewarded after 16 minutes, when Craig Eastmond picked out the top corner from 14 yards.
But strikes either side of the break by Jake Sinclair and Harrison Reed ensured the hosts' victory.
Arsenal pushed and probed in an attempt to keep their unbeaten run going and almost drew level when Zak Ansah went through on goal only to see his shot saved.
It was not to be, and the young Gunners must dust themselves down quickly before Monday night’s trip to Anfield.
Gatting made six changes from the side that had beaten Manchester United at Underhill last time out. Damian Martinez kept his place in goal, and lined up behind a back four of Jordan Wynter, Daniel Boateng, captain Ignasi Miquel and Samir Bihmoutine.
Conor Henderson, fresh from goals in each of his last two appearances at this level, started in midfield alongside Josh Rees, who is back at the Club after his loan spell at Brentford expired.
They were partnered in midfield by Eastmond, who started for the first time since recovering from the foot injury suffered on loan at Colchester United. Sanchez Watt, who, like Eastmond had also seen his spell at Colchester ended prematurely, started in attack.
Under-21 regulars Isaac Hayden, Sead Hajrovic, Martin Angha, Hector Bellerin and Thomas Eisfeld were not included, perhaps due to their recent NextGen Series exploits in Lake Como.
After a low-key start on a bobbly surface, it was Arsenal who fashioned the game’s first chance. Jernade Meade’s flick found Eastmond before the midfielder’s reverse pass set Ansah away. The forward accelerated away from the defence but saw his shot kept out by the legs of Paulo Gazzaniga.
Watt was next to go close, finding a yard of space 20 yards from goal before fizzing in a shot that was deflected inches over the bar.
Ansah again tested Gazzaniga from range before the visitors took a deserved lead just after the quarter-hour.
Watt was fouled on the left-hand side. Henderson swung in an inviting free-kick that was cleared only as far as Eastmond, whose powerful placed shot rocketed into the stanchion.
It was a lead that Arsenal’s early endeavour had thoroughly merited. Yet falling behind sparked the hosts into action and they equalised just 10 minutes later.
Reed bustled his way through on goal and, although Martinez spread himself well on the edge of his area, the rebound fell for Sinclair to sweep home.
The pendulum had swung. The hosts, and winger Omar Rowe in particular, were beginning to cause more problems.
But Arsenal came back strongly. A fast break culminated with Watt heading Rees’ cross straight at Gazzaniga. Then Reed’s alert defending stopped Meade from bursting through before Bihmoutine’s dangerous cross evaded both Rees and Henderson.
Arsenal had perhaps shaded the first half, though the fact that the teams were level at the break was probably fair.
What they didn’t deserve was to be behind, but just four minutes after the restart they were.
The lively Reed ran at the defence before picking out the bottom corner from outside the area.
Gatting immediately pushed Meade and Rees further forward to offer Watt more support and Arsenal slowly began to take control again.
But for all their industry, chances were at a premium. Watt’s deflected shot that Gazzaniga gathered tidily was the only opportunity of note.
Midway through the second half, Ansah picked out Eastmond 25 yards out, but this time the midfielder’s aim was off and his effort flew well over.
Ten minutes after that though, Arsenal went a great deal closer. Henderson’s defence-splitting pass sent Ansah through but Gazzaniga stayed on his feet long enough to block with his knees.
Southampton doggedly held out though, keeping the ball well and spending much of the final stages in the Arsenal half. It was a frustrating end to a frustrating night.
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