I know it’s one of the oldest cliches on football, but this morning’s Academy match at Treforest against Arsenal was a classic game of two halves. For forty five minutes, City played excellently and completely dominated their opponents, but, after the break, Arsenal were just as on top as we had been (more so probably) and although 2-2 was probably right over the ninety minutes, i think by the end City were definitely the side who were grateful for the draw.
So, draws at Liverpool and at home to Arsenal in your first four league matches sounds pretty impressive, but what has happened in the three weeks between those games tells the story on what has been a disappointing start to the season for the Under 18’s in terms of results and, to a lesser extent, performances. First, there was an unlucky loss, but so-so display in losing 3-2 to Sheffield Wednesday and then last week’s 6-1 hammering by a strong Fulham side must have hit confidence hard – things weren’t helped either by a 3-2 home loss in a midweek friendly with Bristol Rovers either.
Against that backdrop, the way City started off against Arsenal came as a very pleasant surprise. Malky Mackay has emphasised that he wants a pressing game from his team when the opposition is in possession and the Academy kids gave as complete an exhibition of this as I have seen from a City team this season. Arsenal were given no time to settle into any sort of rhythm by a fired up and physical City side with Mamadou Diallo impressing in particular with his tackling. Playing a fluid 4-5-1 which soon changed into 4-3-3 with Theo Wharton and Jannis Drais supporting lone striker Jesse Darko when they were attacking (which was most of the time), City made their opponents look pretty bedraggled and ordinary with their urgency and, at time, neat football. If there was a criticism during the first half, it was that City didn’t really create the chances their superiority merited – Joe Ralls’ corner went straight into the net, but the goal was correctly disallowed for a foul and Darko fired not far over, while Wharton was crowded out when Arsenal, not for the first time, lost the ball in a dangerous area.
City had just the one goal lead at the break to show for their complete dominance. This arrived after around twenty five minutes when a superb long ball by Ralls was seized upon by Darko who first showed good pace to reach the ball and then fine finishing to hit his shot over the Arsenal keeper from about twenty yards out. The turning point of the game though probably came in the last minute of the half when Drais, playing as well as I have seen him, chased another long ball and was brought down for an obvious penalty – unfortunately though Ralls low effort was not struck too well and, once he chose the right way to go, the Arsenal keeper was able to make a pretty routine save.
If City could have got two goals clear, maybe the second half would have worked out differently, but the delay in taking the penalty while Drais received treatment was a double blow for them in that it may well have effected Ralls and the injury he picked up also left the French striker, who had been so effective beforehand, something of a passenger when his team least needed one. Perhaps the wind, which did not seem that strong, that was blowing down the pitch effected things more than I thought it did, but I reckon a more likely explanation as to why things changed around so much after the break was that City had put so much into the first half that they simply began to tire. Where all the play had been towards the Arsenal goal previously, it was now City who were under pressure – for a while, they coped quite well, but something had to give eventually and, in some ways, the equaliser when it came after about an hour was similar to City’s goal as a long ball was chased down and then expertly finished by the scorer.
For the next twenty minutes, it looked like there could only be one winner – City rode their luck and had to rely on some good saves by their keeper, but, to their immense credit, they managed to lift the siege with ten minutes left as Kevin Saint-Luce first saw his shot saved and then put his side in front from close in after all three subs combined well. Arsenal’s response was impressive and only a great save stopped them equalising (I wish I knew the keeper’s name to give him the credit he deserved but, in these early season matches in particular, it’s hard to identify players who you are only seeing for the second or third time), but they were not going to be denied for long and they equalised for a second time when City couldn’t deal with a cross from their left. After this, both sides went all out for the winner – Arsenal twice came so close as efforts flew just wide and just over, but City also finished strongly with another effort by Saint-Luce being blocked by the keeper and then claims for a penalty being denied by a ref who I thought did a good job overall.
A game which offered more entertainment than the one I was to watch at Cardiff City Stadium a few hours later ended with honours even – I’m not going to nominate a City man of the match because, although their performances weren’t complete in that they faded after the break, I thought all of the team gave everything they could and were a credit to the club. Just a quick word about the Under 16’s to finish, they lost 1-0 in a match which, from the limited amount I saw seemed to get a bit feisty at times!