U21 matches these days are so infrequent that it can be difficult to provide a coherent analysis of events at that level.
The overriding emotion for Arsenal’s youngsters on Tuesday night, however, as they boarded the coach back to London following a 1-0 defeat to Derby County, would have been one of immense disappointment, not just at the result, which was inflicted upon them by a strike from Ivan Calero, but primarily because of a hugely frustrating performance, during which they struggled to create many clear-cut chances.
Coach Steve Gatting tweaked his starting line-up slightly, moving Gedion Zelalem out to the right flank and switching Alex Iwobi out to the left, enabling Dan Crowley, who has often been used out wide this season, to operate in his preferred attacking midfield position.
The changes didn’t have anything like the desired effect, though, with Zelalem and Iwobi hardly involved in proceedings and Arsenal struggling to provide sufficient service to striker Chuba Akpom. Crowley did have a couple of attempts on goal, but they were both weak efforts, with the midfielder, who has developed apace this season, not enjoying one of his better evenings.
In fact, when Arsenal did finally cause Derby some concern, it was as a consequence of efforts from their two deep-lying midfielders, Krystian Bielik and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Bielik had a header cleared off the line in the dying moments before Maitland-Niles’ powerful attempt was repelled.
Arsenal’s plan for Bielik’s progression seems clear enough, with the tall midfielder being allowed to develop in the youth teams for the remainder of the season before being slowly introduced into the first-team squad next campaign.
Gatting acknowledged after the game that Bielik, who only arrived at the club in January, is still adapting to English football, but the 17-year-old’s passing ability is the aspect of his game that has stood out most in his first three appearances for Arsenal. Bielik is also efficient at breaking up play, although he has been guilty of losing concentration on a couple of occasions, allowing the opposition to regain possession.
He is, though, a very promising prospect for the future. The problem for Arsenal at U21 level is that the same can’t be said of many of their young defenders.
Arsenal have sorely missed Tafari Moore and Julio Pleguezuelo, both of whom have spent the majority of the season on the sidelines. Against Derby Glen Kamara was deployed as a makeshift right-back, a position he is far from comfortable in, whilst the central-defensive partnership of Stefan O’Connor and George Dobson evidently requires some fine-tuning.
There was a welcome sight, however, as left-back Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill returned from a long-term injury of his own to play the majority of the game.
Ormonde-Ottewill made a vital clearance to prevent Arsenal from falling behind and looked comfortable on the ball. A player who has trained with the first-team squad on several occasions in the past, he is likely to go out on loan next season.
Deyan Iliev started in goal, with the Macedonian youth international having seemingly been installed as the club’s first-choice shot-stopper at this level having signed a new three year deal last week.
Iliev’s promotion can be seen as being a little harsh on Matt Macey, who recently returned from a disappointing loan spell at Accrington Stanley. Macey hardly covered himself in glory during his short stint with the League Two side, but he had shown some encouraging form for the U21s prior to that.
Iliev, meanwhile, isn’t exactly a goalkeeper who inspires much confidence. He has excellent reflexes, but, much like Wojciech Szczesny in the first-team, he struggles with regards to distribution and very nearly gave away a goal against Derby because of a mis-placed pass.
This is the stage of the season when first-years tend to become more regularly involved in the U21 set-up, and that was certainly the case on Tuesday, with Dobson starting, Marc Bola and Stephy Mavididi being introduced from the bench and Chris Willock also making the matchday squad.
Others, including Tyrell Robinson, Aaron Eyoma and Ben Sheaf, have also earned call-ups at this level this season but will have to be patient for further opportunities.
Meanwhile, Semi Ajayi, Austin Lipman, Renny Smith and Elliot Wright were left out of the squad against Derby, with the quartet all out of contract at the end of the season and unlikely to be offered new deals.