After a lengthy period without any members of the U23 squad being called up to the first-team, Miguel Azeez and Joel Lopez have both found themselves on the periphery of the senior set-up of late.
Both players were on the bench against Slavia Prague in the Europa League, while Azeez was also named amongst the substitutes for the Premier League clash away to Sheffield United, with Lopez travelling to that game as the extra man.
It is possible that Azeez and Lopez could make the bench again for the trip to Prague this week, but they found themselves back in the U23 side against Derby County last night.
It can often be difficult for youngsters to readjust to being back in the U23s after sampling life in the first-team, and neither player was at their best as Arsenal secured a rather fortuitous 3-2 victory.
Lopez, for instance, was fortunate not to get sent off, gave away a penalty and was frequently caught out of position.
The left-back does have some admirable qualities, such as his dangerous crosses and his ability to make precisely-timed interceptions, but there is a concern that has hasn’t developed as quickly as hoped.
It has been evident for some time that the 19-year-old is in need of a loan spell, and, despite Arsenal’s left-back issues, he doesn’t seem ready to be considered as an option for the first-team at present.
Azeez’s situation is rather different. One of the standout prospects in the academy, there is little doubt about his superb passing range and his impressive technique.
Yet there is one flaw in Azeez’s game which still hasn’t gone away – his tendency to lose possession at crucial moments.
That was in evidence yesterday as an error from the midfielder resulted in Derby scoring. If he can be punished so ruthlessly at U23 level, it is safe to say that this would also be an issue on the first-team stage.
Unlike Lopez, Azeez is ready for first-team minutes as he looks to build upon his impressive showing as a substitute against Dundalk earlier in the campaign. It is hoped, though, that he will become more defensively aware.
Both Azeez and Lopez have a chance of succeeding at Arsenal in the long term (the former looking more likely to make an impact) but last night was a reminder that they still have some way to go in terms of their overall development.
Derby County 2 (Cresswell 40 (pen.), Shonibare 43 Arsenal 3 (Taylor-Hart 50, Balogun 70, Bateman 83 (o.g.))
There have been two rather significant clouds hanging over Arsenal U23s this season. Firstly, Folarin Balogun’s future at the club, and also the threat of relegation.
It is now looking likely that both of those issues could soon be resolved with a positive outcome. Balogun is reportedly set to sign a new contract with the club this week, and tonight he was part of an U23 side that came from behind to win 3-2 away to Derby County and move seven points clear of the relegation zone.
In truth, there was a considerable amount of fortune involved as Derby dominated the first half and Joel Lopez was lucky not to get sent off, but at this stage of the season Arsenal will take a victory however it comes, especially as it brought an end to a woeful run of eight games without a win.
Miguel Azeez was named in the starting lineup despite being on the bench for the first-team yesterday, while Zane Monlouis filled in at right-back in the absence of Ryan Alebiosu.
Catalin Cirjan wasn’t in the squad, with George Lewis the only attacking option on the bench.
Subs: Bola (for Lopez, 90). Not used: T. Smith, Awe, Foran, Lewis
It was evident from the outset that Derby would put Arsenal under much pressure at every possible opportunity, and Karl Hein was forced into a save early on to deny Josh Shonibare.
Derby then felt they should have been awarded a penalty following a challenge from Tim Akinola on Cameron Cresswell, but nothing was given.
The hosts had another penalty claim turned down shortly afterwards, with Cresswell involved again as he collided with both Hein and Jonathan Dinzeyi.
Arsenal were struggling to create any opportunities and were thankful for Dinzeyi, who made an important header to clear the danger while under pressure.
Eventually, however, Derby were rewarded for their perseverance as they were given a penalty following a late challenge from Lopez.
The Spanish defender may have been involved with the first-team recently, but this was a reminder that he still has much to work on if he is to be a success at the highest level.
Cresswell dispatched the penalty as Derby took a deserved lead.
Lopez was penalised for another challenge before the end of the first half and was fortunate not to be sent off for reacting petulantly by kicking the ball away.
Arsenal went into the break 1-0 down, but that didn’t tell the story of just how dominant Derby had been, with Bould’s side failing to carve out a single goalscoring opportunity in the first 45 minutes.
Immediately in the early stages of the second period there appeared to be a greater sense of determination from Arsenal, and they finally managed to create a chance of sorts as Akinola’s effort took a deflection before being tipped over by Derby goalkeeper George Sykes-Kenworthy.
From the resultant corner Arsenal managed to pull level, with Moller nodding the ball down before Taylor-Hart did well to turn prior to finishing exquisitely.
However, the lead didn’t last for very long at all, with Derby capitalising upon some over-exuberance in possession from Azeez.
There is no question that Azeez is a fantastic passer but he does demonstrate a lack of defensive awareness at times, and he was caught out on this occasion, with Shonibare racing forwards before finishing.
The blame for the goal didn’t lie entirely with Azeez as Dinzeyi should have been more forthright in attempting to deal with the Derby player.
Derby threatened to inflict further misery upon Arsenal, with Cresswell shooting wide.
Arsenal, though, were starting to provide more of an attacking threat themselves, and Balogun produced an excellent cross but Moller was unable to connect with it.
Cresswell sent a free-kick over but then Arsenal were level and it was Balogun, Arsenal’s main source of inspiration, who scored with a composed finish after a good cross from Trae Coyle. It was Balogun’s ninth goal of the season at this level and was another reminder of why he will soon be going on to bigger and better things at Arsenal.
Derby felt they had done enough to win the game, but they ended up losing it, with Coyle the architect again as he swung in a free-kick and Joe Bateman inadvertently turned the ball into his own net.
There was still time for further drama, with Lopez committing another foul and, rather fortuitously, escaping getting another yellow card.
Bould reacted by bringing on Tolaji Bola for Lopez for the closing moments.
Luke Plange, who recently left Arsenal for Derby, was thrown on by the hosts late on but couldn’t prevent the young Gunners from getting a much-needed win.
There is evidently much for this set of players to work on, but, despite the fortunate nature of the victory, there were some positives to take from proceedings.
Balogun was lively throughout, while Alex Kirk performed well at centre-back in the second half and Coyle showed some encouraging signs as the game wore on.
Azeez and Lopez were rather brought back down to Earth following their involvement with the first-team, and the latter seems some way off being ready to be considered as a genuine option for Mikel Arteta’s side.
This win, though, will give Arsenal a confidence boost going into their final three games of the season which see them face Leicester City away before successive games against West Ham United, with both teams also looking to avoid the drop.
Miguel Azeez and Joel Lopez continued to train with the Arsenal first-team squad today ahead of tomorrow’s Premier League game away to Sheffield United.
Azeez and Lopez were on the bench against Slavia Prague and are aiming to be named in a Premier League matchday squad for the first time, although Arsenal do have enough players to name a full bench without them.
Calum Chambers is available after injury but Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe will be assessed before it is determined whether they will be involved.
U23s left-back Joel Lopez has been named amongst the substitutes for tonight’s Europa League quarter-final, first leg clash at home to Slavia Prague.
Goalkeeper Karl Hein and midfielder Miguel Azeez have also been included on the bench, but for Lopez it is his first involvement at senior level.
The defender, now 19, joined Arsenal as a scholar in 2018.
After making 26 appearances for the U18s, which included him featuring in the southern section title success in his first season at the club, Lopez has gone on to establish himself as a regular starter for the U23s.
Lopez has played 14 times for the U23s and has also featured in the EFL Trophy. His inclusion in the squad tonight indicates that fellow left-back Bola could be released at the end of the season.
An attack-minded left-back, Lopez is an impressive crosser of the ball, although he can get caught out at times defensively as his positioning is questionable.