Arsenal U23 2-0 Sunderland U23
- Credit: Archant
Arsenal U23 delivered an efficient, if unspectacular performance, on Monday night to see off Sunderland U23 2-0 at Emirates Stadium.
Second-half strikes from Vlad Dragomir and Chuba Akpom were enough to secure the three points as the Gunners set their sights on the two Merseyside clubs above them in the Premier League 2 Division One table.
Steve Gatting deployed a strong lineup and made eight changes from the 4-2 defeat at Everton last time out, with notable Premier League representation in Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Debuchy – whose last first-team appearance came against Bournemouth in November 2016.
Jeff Reine- Adelaide and Akpom were also recalled from the start as the Gunners boasted an eleven incomparable to their opponents, who were without their only player to have scored more than once in this season in Ethan Robson,
The hosts dominated the opening exchanges with captain Marcus McGuane given license to roam across midfield and utilise his intelligence to move into dangerous areas as the creative heartbeat of the team- he scored both goals in that 4-2 reverse against the Toffees.
Another player with great offensive potential was Reine-Adelaide, operating in an unorthodox left-wing-back role, who received a switched pass over to that side and crossed towards Akpom, who succeeded in heading the ball back in the direction of his French teammate as he failed to make a firm contact with it.
At the other end, Joel Asoro latched onto a cut-back and saw his measured shot deflected away for a corner as the visitors broke quickly on their opponents. The resulting delivery was met by Tommy Beadling, who powered his header straight into the grateful arms of the returning Dejan Iliev in the Arsenal goal.
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But the home side’s control did not relent and Francis Coquelin sprung forward into the opposition’s area - territory he is not so accustomed to playing in the first-team- and unsettled the Sunderland rearguard with a ball across the six-yard box that was eventually scrambled clear as Akpom tried to pounce.
Minutes later the ball was in the back of net as Debuchy hurled himself at a corner to divert his header beyond goalkeeper James Talbot from eight-yards out, only for referee Neil Hair to spot an infringement by the former Newcastle United man on Beadling and disallow the goal.
Jack Diamond was emerging as the Black Cats’ danger man with his trickery and confidence down the left and he was impeded by Debuchy just outside the area on that side. The injured Reine-Adelaide was replaced by Ben Sheaf as the low free-kick from Elliot Embleton amounted to nothing.
The away side had gained a foothold in the contest and almost benefitted from Iliev’s loose handling as he attempted to claim a lofted free-kick from the right- the Macedonian was able to grab the ball before it eluded his grasp long enough to be punished.
By the half-hour mark, the match had settled into a fairly tepid affair with reasonably neat build-up through the lines before reaching the final third and there being a certain guile missing to both sides’ play- Jordi Osei Tutu’s overhit cross and Akpom’s tame effort into Talbot’s gloves evidence of that final bit of quality that was lacking.
Coquelin, however, was relishing the opportunity to affect the game going forward and he combined well with Osei Tutu down the right to put the Ghanaian through on goal- albeit from an unfavourable angle- and his attempt was bereft of conviction as he effectively passed the ball into the keeper.
Arsenal’s senior team have often been accused of over-complicating certain passages of play at times with a reluctance to simply find a yard of space around the box and then unleash a shot on goal.
And had Josh Da Silva elected to test Talbot rather than tee up Dragomir- whose blocked shot deflected into the path of the offside Eddie Nketiah- the Gunners could broken the deadlock with halftime on the horizon.
But had centre-back Brandon Taylor secured more purchase on his swiped effort as the ball broke kindly for him in the area the away side could have stole the march before the interval.
McNair came off for Adam Bale whilst Debuchy and Coquelin and were replaced by Zech Medley and Tolaji Bola respectively, as both managers made changes at the break to try and influence proceedings.
And the Gunners were aggressive from the outset of the second period, seeking to get the ball forward quicker and Akpom blazed over before setting up Dragomir to guide his shot beautifully into the far corner from the right to vindicate Gatting’s halftime adjustments and give Arsenal the lead.
Islington-born Josh Maja departed the scene for Sunderland with Lee Molyneux arriving as they sought to add something different to their attack.
Emirates Stadium’s last offering of Premier League 2 action was the 4-3 triumph over Manchester City a couple months back and whilst the 1,813 spectators who turned out on Monday were unlikely to be treated to that level of entertainment, Arsenal were gradually turning the screw- Da Silva’s driven shot from outside the area fizzed away for a corner.
The second goal perhaps should have come through Akpom, who turned his header over the top from six-yards after Medley had succeeded in getting a deep corner back into the danger area.
Sunderland were even closer to levelling soon after as Molyneux argued his case for a future starting berth with neat touch away from the defender and fierce shot from outside the box dipped narrowly over- he was incensed a corner was not given.
Some intricate footwork by Dragomir took him through on goal and his effort across goal beat the keeper but not the covering defender as the score remained 1-0.
Talbot’s shot-stopping talents were called upon swiftly though, when he had to be alert to deny Bola’s strike from close range.
The best chance of the match followed as Asoro capitalised on an Arsenal mistake on the halfway line and he fed Molyneux but Iliev won the ‘striker-versus-keeper’ battle of wits to maintain the Gunners’ advantage with a good save.
And with roughly ten minutes remaining, the three points were secured by one of academy football’s most prolific goalscorers in Akpom. The 22-year-old received a pass in the area, sent the defender the wrong way and slotted the ball expertly into the bottom corner.
Continuing to threaten down Sunderland’s right, Arsenal pursued another goal to round off an eventually comfortable win- one which did not look so certain at halftime.
The crowning strike did not come but a welcome victory did as the Gunners recovered from their chastening defeat to Everton to move a point behind the Toffees into third on relatively unchallenging night in North-London.