The Arsenal u23s earned the point they needed to avoid relegation on Friday night, though they made it a bit more dramatic than it needed to be.
Going into their final game of the season away to West Ham United, the Arsenal u23s knew that a draw would be enough to keep them in the Premier League 2’s first division.
A defeat wouldn’t guarantee relegation by any means, but it would keep the possibility open until the result of Leicester City’s match against Liverpool on Monday. Clearly, it was better to get it done while their fate was still in their own hands.
But Arsenal had already let two chances to secure their safety pass them by, drawing with Leicester City and losing to West Ham in the last couple of weeks. Perhaps that was in their heads in a rather tentative first half.
The hosts had the majority of the chances before the break, with 31-year-old Andriy Yarmonlenko proving particularly threatening. Though Kido Taylor-Hart and Folarin Balogun offered something on the break, Arsenal were largely limited to those counter-attacks.
Marcelo Flores was making his u23 debut in Arsenal’s front four, stepping up after positive performances with the u18s, but at the other end, Gunners goalkeeper Tom Smith had to be alert on a few occasions to keep the scores level.
Things opened up a bit in the second half, but it was West Ham that took advantage as Ademipo Odubeko gave them the lead in the 56th minute – heading home a corner.
Arsenal rallied, and Folarin Balogun was central to their fightback. The striker shot narrowly wide after one mazy run, before winning a penalty at the end of another. Nikolaj Moller stepped up to convert for 1-1 with 15 minutes left.
Omar Rekik came on for his Arsenal debut in defence, and Balogun almost managed to calm the nerves with a second goal four minutes later, hitting the woodwork with a deflected effort, but there was more drama to come.
With just three minutes left, Yarmolenko sent a cross into the box for trialist Pierre Ekwah Elimby to score and seemingly condemn Arsenal to another late defeat.
Yet in the second minute of injury time, Alex Kirk headed back a corner for Taylor-Hart to poke in another equaliser from close range. The referee blew the final whistle and Arsenal secured another season of top-flight academy football.
The club will need to take a good look at how they ended up going so close to relegation, even if there were plenty of reasonable extenuating circumstances like the huge number of loans, injuries, and first-team promotions that decimated the team.
But for now, the u23s can head off into their summer knowing they’ve done enough to be back again for the same thing next year.
Lineup: Smith, Norton-Cuffy, Monlouis, Kirk, Bola (c), Azeez, Henry-Francis, Flores, Taylor-Hart, Balogun, Moller
Subs: Butler-Oyedeji (for Flores, 61), Rekik (for Monlouis, 76)
Unused subs: Ejeheri, Dinzeyi, Rekik, Butler-Oyedeji, Lewis