Swansea City under-23s lost narrowly at Arsenal on Friday to end their hopes of winning the Premier League 2 title.
The Gunners went top of the table, three points ahead of Leicester – albeit with an extra game played after a 47th-minute strike from Charlie Gilmour was enough to claim all three points at the Emirates.
Arsenal U23s: Deyan Iliev (Hugo Keto, 22), Jordi Osei-Tutu, Tolaji Bola, Charlie Gilmour, Joe Olowu, Zech Medley, Xavier Amaechi, Emile Smith Rowe (Robbie Burton, 60), Vlad Dragomir, Josh Da Silva (capt), Folarin Balogun (Yassin Fortune, 82).
Subs: Vontae Daley-Campbell, Trae Coyle.
Swans U23s: Erwin Mulder, Aaron Lewis, Matthew Blake, Jack Evans, Cian Harries (capt), Ben Cabango, Daniel James, George Byers, Botti Biabi (Liam Cullen, 72), Adnan Marić, Kenji Gorrè (Courtney Baker-Richardson, 72).
Subs: Steven Benda, Marco Dulca, Matic Paljk.
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Cameron Toshack’s side knew going into the game that they needed a win to keep their title hopes alive, but they were up against a physically strong Arsenal outfit. Their physicality, particularly in midfield made life difficult for the Swans early on, and they were fortunate to not go behind in the opening few minutes.
A couple of shots on target, another which hit the woodwork and a few corners inside the first 5-10 minutes had the Swans on the back foot and they looked less than convincing when it came to defending set pieces. They weren’t clearing the first ball but Arsenal were never able to make the most of that set piece vulnerability.
Swansea’s first real chance came when Aaron Lewis was sent down the right channel, but he decided to take a shot on goal rather than cut a low cross back to Biabi who cut a frustrated figure whilst unmarked in the 6-yard area.
Such was Arsenal’s physical strength in the middle third, the visiting Swans found it a struggle to regain possession in their own half, and that allowed the hosts to maintain the pressure.
After another corner that wasn’t cleared at the first attempt, the Swans create an opportunity themselves at the other end. This time it came from the left side, with 18-year-old left back Blake sending in an inviting low cross, but Biabi – running in towards the six-yard area – couldn’t direct a shot on target.
This was my first full match watching the under-23s in action and it made for a refreshing change compared to witnessing the seniors. It wasn’t a conservative, defend-first mindset. There was quick, short passes made in triangles and there were glimpses of passing play that took you back a good few years when the senior team played the same way. There were some quick, one-touch passing moves in the middle of the pitch and it was great to see a cohesive team looking to play on the front foot.
The only thing that was familiar though was the lack of quality in the final third. We got into some great positions – promising ones to possibly score from but the final ball or decision-making was always lacking. There were moments when space opened up for us but we either delayed a pass, allowing Arsenal to get back to defend, or we took the wrong option.
Arsenal were guilty of this too. One example was when they had plenty of space down the right as Blake, unfortunately, slipped to open up some space, but under no pressure, a cross fell straight to a Swansea player who could clear the danger.
As the half went on, it was becoming more end to end with no lack of chances for both sides. Gorre managed to weave his way through a crowd of Arsenal players down the left flank, but again his final pass was disappointing. The hosts then saw a cross-cum-shot curl just wide of the far post as the half-time whistle approached.
HALF TIME: Arsenal 0-0 Swansea City
Arsenal needed just two minutes to find the breakthrough after the restart. A well-worked, low corner came in and Gilmour did brilliantly to fire the ball into the top corner. It wasn’t surprising to see the goal come via a corner, as we never looked convincing at set pieces earlier in the game, although this was a low-driven delivery, unlike the in-swinging head-height crosses that were causing all the problems in the first half.
Arsenal then enjoyed a decent spell after going in front, clearly the goal gave the Gunners a boost in confidence.
The young Swans deserved credit for not giving up and stepping up their efforts to end what was a rather brief dominant spell from the hosts that almost saw them double their lead.
Dan James, one of the main under-23s players tipped for the first-team, was having a quiet evening before getting more involved in the final 20 minutes or so. He sent in a cross from the right but Biabi headed over at the far post.
It was getting to the stage where a substitute or two was needed to give us something different up top. Biabi was struggling on his own and lacked support. Gorre was also not having much luck on the left flank and it was no surprise to see the duo replaced with about 20 minutes left to play.
Back at the other end, Swansea goalkeeper Mulder didn’t do himself many favours in trying to get ahead of Nordfeldt as our new number two. He rarely held on to crosses and shots, one cross saw him spill and he was fortunate to claim at the second attempt. On another occasion, he spilt another cross, resulting in the ball dropping over the bar and on to the roof of the net.
Growing into the game further, Dan James sent in a low cross but the shot in front of goal lacked any power and was a simple pick-up for the goalkeeper.
We later had a quick-counter and the ball was again sent out to James on the right, but we were hesitant with our decision making. The space was quickly limited and closed down as Arsenal made their way back and it was another opportunity lost.
I’d expect that Cameron Toshack and the players will be disappointed to lose the game, and concede from a corner. We did lack that extra bit of quality that we would have had if some of our loaned players were still here (I’m mainly thinking about Oli McBurnie and his finishing quality), but it was a performance that never lacked endeavour.
It was only our second defeat in 12 games and the players can be proud of their achievement in Premier League 2, having only gained promotion last season. Jack Evans also deserves a mention for a sound performance. Blake did well considering he’s only 18 at left back but again – Mulder in goal was disappointing. He was our over-age player in the starting line-up and he never looked dominant at crosses and set pieces.
FULL TIME: Arsenal 1-0 Swansea City