Another fine result, and another fine indicator of the remarkable character of this u18 side. Just like the Chelsea game two weeks back, City went behind early on after looking initially shaky against a confident, skilful and physically strong team. Arsenal were good and they started the better of the two teams as they capitalised on a sloppy pass out of defence to race pass a static City back-line and take the lead. Most teams would have caved in after such an early set-back, but the fourth minute goal only seemed to spark City into life and after a few minutes finding their feet, City put in a display blessed with endeavour, belief and technical ability. City started playing some lovely stuff, pressing high and moving the ball with finesse and intelligence and the equaliser didn’t take long to come.
Kongolo was the architect, harrying and harassing Arsenal’s midfield high up the pitch, and after winning the ball he released Nmecha through on goal. The young England striker brilliantly turned and rocketed the ball into the roof of the net from just inside the area. It was some goal, and just rewards for an excellent response to the early setback. An extended spell of pressure followed immediately after with Nemane and Buckley causing all sorts of problems out wide and Brahim, Kongolo and Davenport controlling the midfield. The second, and it was fully deserved, came just five minutes before the interval. This time Nmecha turned provider, perfectly playing Isaac Buckley through – Buckley’s pace took him clear of the defence and he marvellously dinked over the onrushing keeper to give City a one goal lead at half-time.
The second half was a considerably more cagey affair. There was some lovely football though, and Aaron Nemane perhaps should’ve done better when Nmecha expertly put him through on goal, but City couldn’t quite find the third their performance deserved. Arsenal pressed late on with their physical superiority showing, but they couldn’t find the keys to unlock a perfectly marshalled backline. It was a stunningly good team performance, all things considered. Arsenal were good, and Adelaide was a huge pacy presence all night for the visitors, yet he still lacked the intelligence our players showed. It’s only half time in the tie, but all were excellent. Nemane stood out in particular – running repeatedly at their right back and causing all manner of problems. Time and time again he got the better of his man and on another day he could’ve had 2 or 3 assists to his name. Buckley, too, was a handful over on the right. Nmecha put in a heroic shift, holding the ball up with an admirable tenacity, turning and driving straight at the heart of Arsenal’s defence whenever he got the opportunity.
Kongolo was everywhere, winning the ball time and time again with his typically powerful and leggy style causing Arsenal plenty of problems. Davenport, yet again, was excellent. The tiny number 6 seemingly never has a bad game and here he was again, constantly in the right place, breaking up attack after attack. As ever, he was just as good on the ball, dictating play from deep with a mature confidence that belies his age. Brahim wasn’t quite the mercurial beast he was against Chelsea, but a little tiredness felt understandable considering he’d play twice already this week for Spain u17s. It was a rather more muted performance, but one still blessed with huge amounts of intelligence and technical proficiency. Tosin Adarabioyo was immense – a shaky first few minutes gave way to a powerful performance at the back. Alongside Humphreys he was a brute, blocking anything that came his way.
Oliver put in an admirable shift at left-back, and it was even more impressive considering he’s nominally a centre-half. Like most of our young prospects, his footballing ability far outweighs most in his position and it’s credit to his intelligence as a footballer that he slotted in at fullback with consummate ease. Duhaney at right-back was outstanding. The first year scholar is having a fine season and he was a bundle of relentless energy yet again, up and down the wing all night, causing Arsenal plenty of problems, and he was solid in defence too. Grimshaw behind him in goal was his usual assured self, though despite their efforts, Arsenal offered little in front of goal. It was an confident and composed display of football, yet the most impressive aspect of the performance was the fight City showed. Arsenal were bigger, but the sight of Brahim or Davenport, both around 5’6, frequently winning the ball ferociously off players half a foot taller than them epitomised the game. It’s a huge part of the reason that most of these players, if not all, will carve out a career at a high level.
They’re all admirably dedicated young footballers, and this was undeniably a team effort. There’s a second leg at the Emirates to go, and Arsenal may cause problems back there, but regardless of the second leg outcome there is no questioning this team’s effort and ability. The football is precise, intelligent, considered and the application is without question. It’s a hugely promising generation, and people are finally starting to sit up and take note, and rightly so. This was an excellent game of football and a real advert for the hard work being done at the CFA. Five of this team were called up to England u18s this week too – Duhaney, Davenport, Buckley, Nemcha and Humphreys. That’s just under a third of the whole England u18s squad wearing City blue. Hugely impressive stuff, and all of them deserve it. There’s a very real chance that this team could walk away with an FA Youth Cup and u18s Premier League double this season, and given they’ve beaten Chelsea and Arsenal in the past two weeks, that probability seems highly likely. Fingers crossed.