Following on from a 3 – 0 victory over Fulham, Arsenal’s Reserve side picked apart a strong Birmingham team that featured Kevin Phillips and Gary McSheffrey up front. At St. Andrews Neil Banfield made 5 changes to the team that overturned Fulham.
Arsenal lined up as follows:
Kerrea Gilbert Kyle Bartley Gavin Hoyte Armand Traore
Craig Eastmond Francis Coquelin
Mark Randall Fran Mérida Gilles Sunu
Subs: James Shea, Cedric Evina, Ignasi Miquel, Roarie Deacon, Luke Freeman.
Arsenal weathered an early storm as Birmingham failed to capitalise on early opportunities but it didn’t take long for Banfield’s team to settle on the ball. Coquelin hit a diagonal ball that was controlled well by Sunu before he played it back to Mérida, the incisive Spaniard floated a beautiful cross to the far post and Randall will feel that he should have controlled his volley better.
The young gunners were in control of the game as Coquelin turned gracefully before laying the ball off to Fran who played Watt in with a typically inch perfect ball. The striker, who received plenty of support from Sunu throughout maintained his composure and coolly slotted through Colin Doyle’s legs to give Arsenal a deserved lead.
The team showed a hard work rate and pressured the Birmingham players high up the pitch; further evidence that the tactics from the first team trickle down through the reserves and the academy to enable the young players transition to the bigger stage.
Eastmond showed tactical discipline shielding the back four and bursting forward with impressive timing. His industry was rewarded when Traore brought down an awkward ball and played a razor sharp one two with Watt, who released the left back down the flank. Eastmond was quick to recognise the threat that Armand posed and was up in support as the Frenchman cut a cross back for Craig to tap in his first goal for the reserves.
The pressure was maintained as Fran feigned a shot before flicking another improbable pass perfectly into the box for Watt. Sanchez was unfortunate that he had to take the shot first time under pressure, sending it wide. The Gunners lead would be extended soon, following another neat move. Mérida received the ball from Watt in a deep position and found Coquelin who slid a perfect ball through for the advancing Sunu. Gilles steadied himself before passing a left foot shot in off the far post.
Just before half time Birmingham had arguably their best chance of the game when Ashley Sammons should have converted a Phillips lay off but he side footed the ball over the bar.
Shea replaced Mannone at the interval but Arsenal continued much the same, controlling the game with their passing and movement. Similarly to the first team, there is fluidity in the formation as players interchange and support each other all over the park. The left hand side of Arsenal’s team was by far the more dangerous as Sunu, supported by the lightning Traore, gave the Birmingham defence nightmares. A trademark long diagonal ball from captain Kyle Bartley found Sunu who stretched the defence before floating his cross to the far post where Sanchez Watt rose well to head the ball into the top right corner.
Roarie Deacon replaced Mark Randall who was quiet for most of the night in a position that doesn’t really suit him. Watt was denied his hat trick when Luke Freeman replaced him on 70 minutes. The two young forwards had limited opportunities to attack because Traore pulled up with a groin injury. Having used their three substitutes, Arsenal completed the game with 10 men in a 4-4-1 formation. Banfield was vocal throughout and made sure that Deacon and Freeman worked hard defensively up against 11 men.
Despite their advantage, Birmingham made little progress as an amazing run from McSheffrey was brought to an abrupt stop by an equally amazing slide tackle from Coquelin who hooked the ball back from behind. Shea then denied O’Shea late on and there was still time for Coquelin to make a few more glamour slide tackles.
Overall it was another impressive outing by the reserve team who have hit the ground running this season. Impressive performances by Watt, Sunu and notably Mérida and Coquelin gave an indication as to why Wenger was reluctant to make further additions to his squad on deadline day. Mérida is showing maturity and strength in combination with his elegant passing ability that should see him gain more first team experience this season. Francis Coquelin stole the show with a tremendous performance, elegant on the ball and solid as a rock in the tackle, this youngster must be catching Wenger’s eye as much as any player at this level.
With the third round of the Carling Cup and an interesting fixture against West Bromwich Albion fast approaching, all of these players will hope to use the next reserve fixture at home to Stoke to stake a claim for a spot in the squad. Based on the performances so far this season, Arsenal’s young players will once again light the competition up and prove a difficult opponent for any team.
The Brady Bunch