Cohen Bramall made his debut in Arsenal colours and Edward Nketiah came off the substitutes’ bench to score a goal and assist another as Arsenal u23s overturned a one-goal deficit to beat Southampton 3-1 away.
There was plenty of hype around Bramall following his surprising move from non-league side Hednesford Town earlier in the transfer window and despite a slow start, he and the rest of his teammates grew in confidence as the match wore on.
Steve Gatting started Chuba Akpom once more as the 21-year-old continues his bid to improve match sharpness ahead of a possible loan move before the end of the current window, with Chris Willock and Reiss Nelson flanking him on either side.
Despite a few promising spells in-and-around the final third courtesy of the driving runs forward by Reiss Nelson, it was Southampton who looked the more dangerous as they kept possession for sustained periods and were equally threatening. Having had a deflected effort disallowed for offside, the Saints were firmly in the ascendancy as the final minutes of the first-half ticked by.
Hugo Keto was forced into a good acrobatic save to deny Jake Vokins’ powerful effort from nestling into the top corner, but the talented goalkeeper could do nothing to stop Jonathan Afolabi’s effort from the resulting corner.
After an initial clearance, Arsenal’s backline were too slow to push further afield and consequently found themselves pinned inside the box. A headed flick-on fell into the path of Afolabi and his volley deflected off Chiori Johnson into the net with aplomb.
All things considered, it was what the hosts deserved and Arsenal were punished for a sloppy start to proceedings for their high standards.
So it was no surprise that they reacted as the second-half began with a fast start, one which caught Southampton by surprise and they struggled to counteract Arsenal’s early pressure after the interval.
Maitland-Niles’ lofted through ball into the path of Willock saw the winger hit the post from close-range, before Nelson and Stephy Mavididi combined well on the edge of the area before the latter equalised in style. He swivelled past his marker as if he wasn’t there and despite being at a tight angle, managed to generate enough power and direction on his effort to evade the diving grasp of goalkeeper Adam Parkes into the bottom corner.
It was Mavididi’s sixth league goal of the campaign and a deserved one for his efforts in a role that he is getting increasingly used to, just playing off Akpom as the central striker as a dynamic number ten.
Keto was forced into another good save to deny Callum Slattery’s dipping free-kick from range before Nketiah made his mark in another impressive cameo appearance.
On with 13 minutes plus stoppages to play, the 17-year-old forward replaced a lethargic Akpom and immediately went to work. Racing goalwards with Southampton’s defenders themselves looking weary, he latched onto Mavididi’s flick-on and calmly weaved past the onrushing Parkes before slotting home to give Arsenal the lead.
He wasn’t done there though. Southampton looked dangerous after conceding once more and came close as Florin Gardos’ header trickled narrowly wide but Nketiah turned provider on this particular occasion as he shrugged off his marker before unselfishly playing a probing pass through the gap for Willock to curl goalwards. He did just that, and wrapped up all three points on a pleasing evening for the u23s.
Arsenal’s team against Southampton: Keto; Bramall (daSilva 84′), Bielik, Sheaf, Johnson; Maitland-Niles, Reine-Adelaide; Nelson, Willock, Mavididi; Akpom (Nketiah, 77′). Unused: Virginia, Zelalem and Dragomir.
The result means Arsenal are in fifth place – level on points with Chelsea (higher based on goal difference), a point behind Liverpool in third. Everton are a whopping ten points ahead of the Young Guns, but one negative result can shift the balance dramatically, as shown before in this division.
It was a decent display all-round from the 20-year-old, all things considered. He looks to have been welcomed into the u23 set-up with open arms and based on the attacking combinations he was creating at times, there is plenty of potential for consistent performances in future.
He kept the majority of his passes short and accurate, was keen not to overcomplicate matters and despite a few sloppy moments where he was caught ball-watching, wasn’t afraid to make a few important ball recoveries and tackles on occasions where Southampton looked threatening – although they tended to attack down Chiori Johnson’s side, and his counterpart was also solid defensively throughout.
Booked for a late sliding tackle in the 50th minute, he showed adequate discipline to avoid getting in the referee’s bad books afterwards and was replaced shortly after Willock’s goal by Josh daSilva as the visitors looked to consolidate a hard-fought victory.