By John Stammers at Underhill
There were some moments that Arsenal fans will have winced at; maybe when Jack Wilshere was caught with an elbow or Emmanuel Frimpong flew into another tackle, but on Monday evening every recovering first-team player involved in the Under-21 game with Reading came through unscathed.
With Arsene Wenger watching from the stands, and also probably looking away at the aforementioned moments, it was actually a very promising night for the Gunners coach.
Four of his players on their way back from the sidelines contributed to a comfortable 2-0 win, with Wilshere in particular looking sharp, as well as an obligatory 17-year-old gem nearing the first-team.
Wilshere was playing just his second match in 14 months after a serious ankle injury over a year ago, after featuring against West Brom. Yet, having been hindered by several setbacks along the way, you would have probably excused another quiet, cautious and perhaps sloppy performance like the one against the Baggies. It wasn't.
The England international was at the centre of most of the positive things the Gunners did, pulling the strings from a deep-lying midfield position for the majority of the game. Numerous neat balls created avenues for team-mates, with the Englishman's own free kick testing the Royals' defence and then a tricky back-heel providing Thomas Eisfeld with a chance.
When the clash quietened as the first half advanced, Wilshere kept possession well for the Gunners and continued to wait for the opportune moment - one he found when he started the move for Serge Gnabry's opener, as well as providing the corner for Chuba Akpom's header. But his performance wasn't just about the classy touches, he also displayed bite in the tackle as well as determination and passion. The rapturous applause and chants of his name before, during and after his 74 minute appearance was telling: they can't wait for Jack to be back.
Though Carl Jenkinson has been much improved this season, when compared with his horror show against Manchester United last term, Gunners fans will be very happy indeed to see the French right-back make his first appearance since breaking his leg in May.
Again, there were no signs of caution from the 29-year-old, suggesting he is feeling fit and strong, demonstrated best by a hefty challenge on Reading's Jack Taylor early in the first half. The full-back wasn't often tested in defence, with the Gunners on top for the majority of the game, but galloped forward at every chance during his hour long showing.
The former Auxerre man produced several crosses and was only denied an assist when Royals defender Sean Morrison slid in to beat Akpom to his low ball delivered across the six-yard area. It goes without saying that Wenger will not rush him back, but for a return from injury it was a very encouraging display.
Frimpong was another making his return from a serious injury, suffered when on loan at Wolves last season, and like Wilshere was playing his second rehabilitation match after featuring against West Brom. The Ghanaian was sloppy with his passing at times, as he started in a slightly advanced role, but grew into the game and did what he does best; put himself about with some firm challenges.
His pure determination kept the ball in play before a simple pass to Wilshere allowed the midfielder to kick-start the move for the opening goal, with Frimpong again indirectly involved in the second - winning the corner. His passing game also improved, setting up a good chance for Akpom and generally controlling the middle of the park, along with his mate Wilshere.
Frimpong, linked with a return loan move to Wolves in January, lasted the full 90 minutes at Underhill and generally looked to be enjoying a physical evening, whether he was dishing out a solid tackle or receiving one. However one moment of disappointment was when he made an absolute mess of a golden chance for an Arsenal third, slicing horribly wide with his left foot after Francis Coquelin's pass.
Santos was a more surprising inclusion in the Under 21 side, as one of the overage players, after the left-back was a substitute for the first-team in the 3-1 win over West Ham on Saturday. The defender's time at Arsenal has been disrupted by injury, however, and he has seen his place in the side taken by Kieran Gibbs this season - though an injury to the Englishman may give him a chance to shine.
The clash with Reading was all about giving the 29-year-old some game time, a full 90 minutes in fact, with him featuring in just one match this term. The Brazilian's performance was, well, Brazilian. He was rarely seen defending, but in truth he had little to do at the back, though was a bit troubled by Jason Roberts early on.
The man signed from Fenerbahce got forward well, though, and sent over numerous dangerous crosses from the left, also testing former Arsenal keeper Stuart Taylor with a curling free-kick late on, which he palmed away. Lasting the whole 90 minutes is a plus, but he'll need more to make a seamless return to the first team.
Though the performances, and avoidance of injury, from the above players will have pleased Wenger, there is no doubt that Gnabry's contribution will have put just as big a smile on the youth-development mad Frenchman's wise face.
The 17-year-old really caught the eye on a number of occasions, starting with the first chance of the game when he cut in and curled a shot just over the bar with his left. The German then boasted his passing range, threading a needle to set Wilshere free, before turning his man inside out and sweeping the ball home in nonchalant style before the break.
The youngster, described as a "star of the future" by Wenger, was quieter in the second half and was eventually taken off with ten minutes to play. He may not be quite ready for the first team, but with more glittering displays in the Under-21 League and the NextGen tournament we're sure to see a lot more of him soon.