Having struggled in the competition since last winning it in 2008/09, it was rather refreshing to see Arsenal U18s deliver an impressive performance in the FA Youth Cup this week as they comfortably dispatched of Newcastle United with a 3-0 victory at Underhill.
Much of Arsenal’s attacking threat came down their right flank, with the pace of winger Anthony Jeffrey and right-back Hector Bellerin proving too much for the abject visitors to cope with. The pair both got on the scoresheet in the first-half, with Bellerin setting up hard-working striker Chuba Akpom to complete the scoring late on.
It was a night of several positives for the Gunners as coach Steve Gatting earned his first victory at this level since replacing Pat Holland last month. Kristoffer Olsson turned in a sublime display in a deep midfield role, which only served to add to the growing body of evidence that the Swedish midfielder is a brighter talent than his midfield colleague Jon Toral.
That is not to discredit Toral in any way. Since joining from Barcelona with Bellerin at the start of last season, the 17 year old has impressed with his wide array of skills and his impressive finishing ability. Olsson, however, possesses those qualities plus the aptitude to take players on and drive forward at the opposition defence. The fact that Olsson was considered above Toral as a candidate for the Capital One Cup squads earlier this season, though, was more owing to the fact that the Spaniard missed much of the end of last season through injury.
It is hoped that they will both push on and compete for a place in the squad for that competition next season. Tuesday’s game also provided the first sustained opportunity to assess Deyan Iliev, a Macedonian youth international goalkeeper who was the club’s sole acquisition on deadline day in the most recent transfer window.
The signing of Iliev was a surprising one, given that Damian Martinez, James Shea and Reice Charles-Cook are all already competing for the gloves at U21 level, with Josh Vickers, Ryan Huddart and Ethan Ross behind them. Iliev certainly seems a promising enough goalkeeper on this early evidence, though, even if he wasn’t tested regularly by the blunt Newcastle attack.
He made one impressive save to rectify an error after he had given the ball away cheaply and, in truth, the young stopper’s kicking was a concern all evening. It is something that Wojciech Szczesny had and, to a certain extent, still has, problems with, but it is hoped that, over time, Iliev will be able to improve this area of his game, especially given that he appears well stocked with regards to his other attributes.
For Arsenal as a whole, though, Tuesday night’s game can be looked back upon with fondness, with thoughts now turning towards the Fourth Round, when Serge Gnabry, who was absent against Newcastle owing to injury, should be back available again.