Tuesday night was important for the club in more ways than one: the headline grabber was West Ham signing off at Upton Park with a win over Manchester United that guaranteed Champions League football for Arsenal next year.
Rather more under the radar was a fixture that may have equally significant long-term ramifications.
For the last two seasons, Arsenal have been operating in the second tier at u21 level, with certain players only being able to put their wits against the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and the Manchester clubs if they are still young enough to participate in the FA Youth Cup.
This may appear a damning indictment of the youth and u21 set up at the club, but in all honesty is more of a reflection of maintaining smaller squad sizes of each age group and relying on younger prospects to step up when loans or injuries affect availability. The net result of this is that Arsenal’s youth groups invariably field younger, less experienced and less physically developed line-ups than their rivals.
Despite this, the u21s, having beaten Blackburn in the semi-final, found themselves in a play-off final against Aston Villa for the one promotion place back to the top level. With the game taking place at the Emirates, the game seemed tipped in Arsenal’s favour, but for all the struggles of their first team, Villa’s youngsters had beaten their Arsenal equivalent home and away this year, and led by the previously Arsenal-linked Andre Green, fielded a frontline full of pace, strength and technique.
An indication of the strategic importance of getting the u21s back to the highest level was reflected by Arsenal’s team selection, with Steve Gatting (former Arsenal youth product and Mike’s svelte brother) using his full ‘over-age’ players allowance. With the u21s struggles to control central areas at times this season, the anticipated run-out for Santi Cazorla was augmented by a perhaps surprising chance to rebuild his partnership with Francis Coquelin.
Elsewhere, Callum Chambers joined the back four (slightly disrupting the previously impressive Bielik/Pleguezuelo partnership), and Joel Campbell got some much-needed game time at the expense of the semi-final hero, Chris Willock.
Except it wasn’t. Serge Gnabry dropped out late pre-match and Willock took his floating role on the left, determined to grab his opportunity with both hands.
The pattern of the game as a whole matched that of many a Villa visitation to the Emirates, with the hosts dominating the ball and looking to create from midfield combination play, and with the away side pressing high and breaking at pace. That’s not to say that Villa played without ambition or intent or that Arsenal spent a lot of time in tippy-tally cul-de-sacs. The relative equality of skill level, the comparative defensive inexperience and the lack of financial pressures associated with failure made for a very entertaining game, which was played at a remarkably high pace in the first half.
That said, the opening goal gave us another illustration of Arsenal’s ability to aim the rifle squarely at their own foot, regardless of age level.
An over-hit backpass from Chambers, was chased down by the lively Russian Hepburn-Murphy, sending keeper Matt Macey into a panic as he struggled to sort his feet out. His squirted clearance fell to Green out wide, who dropped a perfect cross onto the head of Hepburn-Murphy, who made no mistake from six yards out.
No-one will be surprised to read that this was against the run of play.
As with the first team, the opposition leaving two up front left us a little unsure of our defensive coverage, and Villa looked dangerous during every attack in the first half.
Despite this, Arsenal rallied well and quickly, with Coq-zorla bossing central midfield and instantly showing the understanding that defined the first team’s excellent 2015.
After good efforts from the aforementioned midfield pairing, an excellent Coquelin ball into the right channel exploited the visitor’s high defensive line and set Stephy Mavadidi (whose movement was excellent all game) relatively free. He eschewed the chance to shoot from a tight angle, instead picking out the determined far post run of the aforementioned Willock, who, sliding, clipped the ball home.
From that point on, Arsenal looked likely winners, despite Villa’s counter-attacking threat. With the platform provided by Coquelin and Cazorla, and with Bielik and Chambers growing in confidence and efficiency, the away team were collectively kept at arm’s length, particularly once the hitherto impressive Green was withdrawn.
In the end, the result was quite comfortable, with Mavadidi heading in a peach of a cross from Willock’s weaker foot, and then the same player converting expertly with a left footed shot from a through ball from the same source.
Despite a few unconvincing dives and half-hearted penalty appeals, Villa struggled to create anything significant as they tired in the second half. For many youngsters, pacing themselves to avoid expending excess energy is a skill yet to be fully developed. Accordingly, players on either side looked dead on their feet late on, while the impressive Coquelin, remained full of running.
So, a 3-1 victory saw the u21s return to the toughest level of competition, which can only be a positive in preparing them for a first team berth. The presence of first team players made all the difference, allowing the youngsters to flourish, with several re-asserting claims for pre-season showings in the summer.
Check out this piece for a more detailed look at each player, their performances, and what they need to work on ahead of a possible jump up to the first team.