Goals from Reiss Nelson and a second-half brace courtesy of Edward Nketiah helped the Young Guns to their first win of the UEFA Youth League group stages this term.
After a goalless draw against PSG, followed by a cruel 2-1 loss at the hands of Basel last time out, it was simply a must-win fixture for Andries Jonker’s side.
You could tell straight from the first whistle that they were in search of an all-important early opener, which would allow them to take control of the affair and make Ludogorets chase them, essentially rendering the visitors’ tactical plan useless in the process.
Reiss Nelson broke the deadlock with a side-footed effort inside 3 minutes, and Ludogorets’ backline were stunned by Arsenal’s counter-attacking power. After excellent work to accelerate and weave past his marker on the flank, Edward Nketiah fed through a pass and the chance was taken with no hesitation by the talented 16-year-old forward.
If not for two good saves in quick succession from Daniel Naumov to deny Donyell Malen, Arsenal would’ve found themselves with a three-goal cushion before the ten-minute mark. It often made for frustrating viewing from an Arsenal perspective, watching smooth passing combinations and overall dangerous play in the final third, all of which didn’t translate into more goals to assert Arsenal’s dominance.
To their credit, individual players did their best to create opportunities. Vlad Dragomir did well in midfield throughout and was composed in possession, whilst goalscorer Nelson was a constant pest for Ludogorets’ defenders both on and off-the-ball.
As the half-time whistle blew, there were clear signs of frustration from the Arsenal players. Despite having a one-goal advantage, they knew it wasn’t a comfortable cushion to rely upon and after their dominance, the scoreline flattered Ludogorets with the greatest of respect.
After the interval, Marcus McGuane replaced Josh DaSilva in a like-for-like change in midfield. Josh, who turns 18 on Sunday, would’ve been disappointed with the substitution but the decision was justified, given his ineffectual display.
Nelson forced another good save from Naumov, the goalkeeper making an acrobatic stop to tip a drilled effort over the crossbar from range. Kaylen Hinds, gradually building his fitness back up after an extended injury lay-off, was introduced in place of Dragomir just before the hour mark. Trae Coyle replaced Donyell Malen in the third and final change of the afternoon, with the Dutchman gradually beginning to run out of steam towards the end.
As the Young Guns continued to pass and probe their way towards the final third, Nketiah found his reward for a tireless display in attack. After being threaded through into the box by Coyle, Nketiah looked to twist his way past Preslav Petrov, who caught him late with a risky challenge and gave away a spot-kick.
Nketiah made no mistake from the spot, slotting home with a low right-footed finish into the bottom corner. He wasn’t finished there either, completing his brace with a headed effort over Naumov after Marc Bola’s strike from range was parried into the striker’s path.
The referee eventually blew his whistle for full-time, meaning Arsenal now have four points from three games and close the gap between themselves at the top two. PSG, who beat Basel 4-1 earlier, lead at the top of Group A with seven points.
It was a game where Arsenal were not expected to defend for sustained periods of the match itself, but Krystian Bielik was far more assured defensively in comparison to his centre-back partner Kristopher Da Graca, who has been recently linked with a move to PSG.
Goalkeeper João Virginia was rewarded for his displays at u18 level with a maiden UEFA Youth League appearance here, and was solid when called upon – namely with his distribution and catches, as he claimed a clean sheet.
Reiss Nelson and Edward Nketiah in particular, can make the UEFA Youth League their platform to further success in future, as Chris Willock for instance has done recently.