The Arsenal u21s won in dramatic style away to Newport County on Tuesday, to keep their EFL Trophy campaign alive.
Having slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Swindon Town on the opening day of the EFL Trophy group stage, the Arsenal u21s couldn’t afford another loss to Newport County.
If Swindon (facing Plymouth Argyle in the other group game) and Newport both won on Tuesday, Arsenal would be eliminated after just two fixtures.
Kevin Betsy named a stronger side than the previous week against Bournemouth, but he still had key absentees like Charlie Patino, Folarin Balogun, Mika Biereth, Omar Rekik, and Arthur Okonkwo – mostly due to international duty. So the team had to adapt.
With the above context in mind, the matches started in disastrous fashion. After the Newport goalkeeper made a fantastic save from Kido Taylor-Hart, Newport and Swindon both took the lead within minutes of each other.
The situation did improve as the half went on, with Plymouth and Arsenal scoring equalisers. Omari Hutchinson scored the goal for Kevin Betsy’s side with a superb individual effort, nutmegging one player, cutting inside another, and curling in a far-post finish.
Hutchinson had a chance to head in his second just before the break, but the Newport goalkeeper made another good save to keep it at 1-1.
Along with Hutchinson, Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand had been Arsenal’s outstanding performer in the first half, and the midfielder got his reward with a goal early in the second.
Oulad M’hand made a clever turn to draw a foul from a Newport defender, before curling the free-kick into the top corner in the 53rd minute.
Unfortunately, everything then started to go wrong.
Newport equalised with a heavy helping of luck, the ball bouncing off Zak Swanson once to fall to the feet of an attacker and then twice to deflect off him into the goal. Within minutes, Newport had the lead through Alex Fisher after a long throw.
With Swindon racing into a 3-1 lead over Plymouth, there was no safety net for Arsenal as they went into the final five minutes of the game. They had to at least equalise and win the subsequent penalty shootout (for a bonus point), or they’d be out.
Relief then turned to ecstasy in injury time, as substitutes Charles Sagoe Jr and Khayon Edwards combined for a dramatic winner. Edwards turned his man expertly to get in behind before cutting the ball back for Sagoe Jr to finish.
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Arsenal certainly need to work on their defending if they want to get any further in this competition, though they were hurt by the absences of starting defenders and goalkeepers like Omar Rekik, Karl Hein, or Arthur Okonkwo.
17-year-old Taylor Foran made an encouraging substitute appearance, and perhaps should be more seriously considered as an option when Rekik isn’t available.
Having said that, a lot of the work going forward was excellent.
Omari Hutchinson was fantastic, and he earned praise even from the understandably disappointed Newport County commentators on the night. Kevin Betsy has to find a way to include him in the Premier League 2 side more often.
Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand was just as good behind Hutchinson, with a goal and an assist and an energetic display winning tackles and duels with ease and making forward-thinking passes and carries.
Khayon Edwards’ form for the u18s has been excellent, and the question is obviously whether he can carry that into the u21/u23s when he gets the chance. His late assist suggests he’s ready to do so when called upon.
Kido Taylor-Hart also deserves a mention, as he likely would have had a goal and assist on another night, without the Newport County goalkeeper making by far his two best saves of the match.
As with Edwards and Hutchinson, Taylor-Hart is another one finding u23 minutes hard to come by at the moment, purely because everyone in Betsy’s starting lineup is doing so well.
Tuesday’s match was another game to emphasise that Arsenal need to loan out a few of their attackers in January so they can get all of them playing in the second half of the season.
Arsenal u21 lineup vs Newport County
Ejeheri; Swanson, Monlouis, Ogungbo; Alebiosu, Olayinka, S. Oulad M’hand, Lopez; Ideho, Hutchinson, Taylor-Hart
Akinola, Butler-Oyedeji, Edwards (for Taylor-Hart, 78), Foran (for Monlouis, 74), Mitchell, Sagoe Jr (for Ideho, 87), Walters
In the EFL Trophy, Arsenal have one final game against Plymouth Argyle on November 16th.
A two-goal win would guarantee progression to the next stage regardless of the outcome of the Swindon Town game against Newport County, but there are plenty of permutations and even defeat might be enough – depending on the other game.
To top the group, Arsenal need to win, they need Newport to beat Swindon, and they need to win by more goals than Newport do.
In the meantime, it’s back to the Premier League 2 action, with the u23s sitting just one point off top spot in the league. They travel away to Anfield to face Liverpool u23s on Saturday, 16th October at 16:00 BST.