Southampton's B team proved more than a match for Division One side Arsenal in their opening Premier League Cup game, drawing 1-1 at Meadow Park.
Caleb Watts marked his return from injury with a sumptuous volley on 16 minutes to give Saints the lead, before Arsenal levelled the scores through Mika Biereth just shy of first-half stoppage time.
Both sides had chances of their own in the second half, but ultimately both had to settle for a point in the opening fixture of the 2021/22 Premier League Cup campaign.
Saints introduced several of the Under-18s side to the starting line-up, who have won three out of three in their division.
Amongst these young inclusions were goalkeeper Ollie Wright and winger Joshua Lett, who started alongside B team regulars such as Olly Lancashire and Dynel Simeu, who skippered Dave Horseman’s side on the night.
Arsenal started the livelier of the two sides, the tricky Salah Oulad M’Hand, known simply as Salah, bursting into the Saints box from the left wing before forcing a corner.
It was Salah again who was involved minutes later, shaping up a free kick on the edge of the box which was well blocked behind by Simeu in the Saints wall.
Then came a flurry from the visitors, Ramello Mitchell and Kazeem Olaigbe linking well on the counter before the latter’s shot was well blocked at the death by Alex Kirk’s sliding challenge.
But the Gunners came back as was to be expected, youngster Lett having the chance to show his defensive exploits after winning a one-on-one with Joel Ideho on the touchline.
Despite the Gunners’ pressure the first goal of the game fell to Saints and came in some style on 16 minutes.
A quick break saw Olaigbe with the ball in a central position, the forward producing a chipped through ball into the path of Watts who volleyed his strike across the face of goal for the lead.
The hosts almost responded immediately to going behind, a ball across the floor looking for an outstretched Ideho, who could only direct his shot wide of the target on 22 minutes.
After a period of end-to-end action it was Saints who would next go closest just shy of the half-hour mark; Mitchell finding space in the Arsenal box but Kirk there again to block his goal-bound shot.
Mitchell’s direct runs then caused the hosts problems again, the forward bursting into the box and skipping past Reuell Walters before Kirk was there again to deny a certain goal.
The next chance for the visitors came via a corner, Olaigbe firing the ball in towards the head of Lancashire, the defender’s header intercepted before it could test keeper Hubert Graczyk.
Arsenal’s threat remained despite openings for Horseman’s side. Salah firing a long-range shot from outside the box over as the first half entered the final five minutes.
This threat then came to fruition on the stroke of half-time; summer signing Biereth finding the bottom corner after a burst into the box.
Despite losing their lead late on, Saints came out of the blocks fast at the start of the second 45.
The visitor’s high press continued to cause Arsenal problems which almost led to an early second half breakthrough. Ryan Finnigan doing well to retrieve possession but failing to get on the end of Lewis Payne’s deep cross after a passage of play.
When Arsenal did come forwards Saints stood strong. Will Tizzard not showing any signs it was his first start of the season with some key interceptions to deny the likes of Nathan Butler-Oyedeji.
The Gunners’ first chance of the second 45 came on the hour mark, Butler-Oyedeji cutting inside a firing a fierce strike towards Wright which was well held.
Another chance fell to the visitors ten minutes later as the lively Biereth sneaked in at the back post, but Wright was equal to his tame effort.
With Saints’ continuous pressure appearing to take its toll with 20 minutes to go Horseman rang the changes, Kami Doyle, Zuriel Otseh-Taiwo and Dom Ballard all introduced.
Arsenal nearly took the lead on 75 minutes through what would have a been a huge slice of fortune. The ball ricocheting off Lett and causing Wright to scramble in order to put it behind.
As the game entered the final ten minutes it was Biereth who would test Wright again, cutting inside from the left and hitting the target with some force, the Saints keeper level to it.
The Gunners kept coming forward as the seconds ticked down, Saints’ young side standing firm and matching their Division One opponents stride for stride.
Next up to have a strike on goal was substitute Khayon Edwards, Wright again there to match it through a strong save with his feet.
The counter remained for Saints to threaten from and they almost took the lead with one minute or normal time remaining.
Olaigbe was played through by Doyle and forced a superb save from Graczyk, before Ballard hit an effort from a tight angle which again made the Arsenal keeper work.
Inside the two minutes of stoppage time it was Arsenal who pegged Saints back, but once more the visitors stood strong and held on for a point.
Next up for Horseman’s side is a trip to Fulham in Premier League 2 on Friday 10th September.